In one photo, President Obama is grinning as he clasps Hugo Chavez by
the hand. In another, he grasps Chavez warmly by the shoulder. Those
pictures disgusted several members of Congress. Some said so on national
Responding to criticism of this encounter, the president was by turns
cavalier and obtuse. About the left-wing rant of a book Chavez gave him,
Obama said mildly, "It was a nice gesture to give me a book. I'm a
reader." Regarding the smiling greeting to an oil-rich, America hating,
opposition silencing, drug smuggling Castro acolyte, Obama asserted, "We
had this debate throughout the campaign. This whole notion that somehow
if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments previously
hostile that we were soft. Only the American people didn't buy it. And
there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it. Because it
didn't make sense."
Isn't it the case that some leaders, by their dangerous and destructive
actions, forfeit the right to warm greetings? Is there anyone Obama
would decline to exchange friendly greetings with at a diplomatic
encounter? How about Robert Mugabe? Kim Jong Il? Chavez's close friend
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? If Barack Obama had been president in 1977, would
he have shaken Pol Pot's hand? Chavez is not Pol Pot, of course. Nor
even as evil as Ahmadinejad. Yet. But despite his sometimes clownish
behavior, Chavez is more Mussolini than Charlie Chaplin.
Obama further justified his "courtesy" toward Chavez by observing that
Venezuela's "defense budget is probably 1/600th of the U.S. They own
Citgo. It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having
a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the
strategic interests of the United States."
This is proving to be one of Obama's favorite straw men (and he has so
many!). He said something very similar about Iran during the campaign.
But no one is suggesting that shaking hands with Chavez endangers
national security. And no sensible person believes that it is only
through building militaries to rival our own that nations can be
threatening to their neighbors, to us and to the world.
It was Obama himself who noted soon after his election that Chavez is
providing support to the narco-terrorist group FARC in neighboring
Colombia. FARC has conducted a reign of terror in Colombia and also
plays a major role in funneling drugs to the United States. In the past
decade since coming to power, Chavez has obstructed all U.S. efforts to
fight drug traffickers, banned overflights by Drug Enforcement Agency
aircraft and provided safe haven for FARC leaders. According to U.S.
News and World Report, "It is no coincidence that during Chavez's
presidency, Venezuela has turned into a major conduit for the
transshipment of cocaine. Despite FARC's killing of thousands of
civilians and its continued holding of 700 hostages, among them
Venezuelans, the oil-rich Chavez government confessed its direct support
for and solidarity with the region's most notorious terrorist group."
Chavez is mimicking his hero Castro in other ways. In his jails you can
find people whose only crime was to oppose the regime. Humberto Quintero
was arrested in 2005 for capturing a senior FARC leader. Francisco Uson
was sentenced to five and a half years for making public comments about
human rights violations in Venezuela. Opposition television stations
have lost their licenses, and opposition newspapers have been closed.
Chavez is also leading, directing and encouraging state-sponsored
harassment of Venezuela's tiny Jewish community. Venezuela has a
200-year history of benevolent treatment of its Jewish minority. Chavez
has changed all that and aroused real fear. Synagogues have been
attacked, desecrated and vandalized, their buildings spray painted with
epithets like "Death to Israel. Get out Jews." Half the Jewish
population has fled since Chavez came to power.
During the war between Israel and Hamas last year, government media
outlets maintained a steady campaign of vituperation against Israel and
against the Jews of Venezuela. A government newspaper suggested
confiscating the property of Venezuelan Jews who supported Israel and
distributing it to Palestinians, denouncing Venezuelan Jews in public,
and boycotting Jewish-owned businesses. The Cardinal of Venezuela, Jorge
Urosa, has been outspoken on behalf of Venezuela's Jews, as was the
Papal Nuncio, who last year had a hand grenade lobbed onto his property
for his trouble.
All of that should have been in President Obama's mind before he
extended that friendly grin and handshake. It's not that he endangered
national security. Rather, he diminished his own moral standing and, by