Saturday, April 25, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.
President Barack Obama recently attended a conference at which he greeted Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez with a handshake and a smile, accepted his gift of a book (a diatribe against the United States), and extended his goodwill, apologizing for past U.S. policies and promising to be a better international partner. At a later news conference, he dismissed critics of his actions, challenging them to give any evidence how his polite conversation with the leader of a country with 1/600th the defense budget of the United States could damage our national interest.
Past presidents of both parties have limited their direct contact with adversarial leaders to extensively planned official meetings with a specific purpose. There are three reasons why unplanned direct contact may not be in our nation’s interest:
First, it confers legitimacy on the other leader. Being seen conversing with the U.S. president elevates even the most murderous dictator. Second, it emboldens other dictators to continue their oppressive and aggressive policies. They interpret the images of cordiality toward a like-minded comrade as a free pass for their corrupt and murderous ways. And third, it disheartens our allies who struggle to establish or maintain freedom in their countries. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was probably saddened, if not weakened, by President Obama’s action.
The United States does not have the luxury of giving encouragement to its adversaries or discouraging its allies. President Obama’s dismissal of his critics is either thoughtless or disingenuous. As leader of the world’s most powerful nation, the president should be ever conscious that his actions are being watched and judged by both allies and enemies, and that everything he does affects our national interest.