RED-BLUE AMERICA: About that handshake
Should American leaders avoid handshakes with dictators? Why? Red-Blue America columnists Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk debate the issue.
JOEL MATHIS: The conservative insistence that a U.S. president must not shake the hands of certain dictators is deeply silly — and more than a little inconsistent.
Go through the photo archives of any presidential library, and there you’ll find image after image of presidents (or their emissaries) gripping palms with some of the more detestable men (always men) of recent world history: There’s Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein! John McCain and Muammar Gaddafi! Henry Kissinger and Augusto Pinochet! Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai! Ronald Reagan and Ferdinand Marcos! George W. Bush and any Saudi prince! Every U.S. president and every Chinese leader since the Tiananmen Square massacre!
Of course, some of those detestable dictators were our detestable dictators. In the other cases, handshakes happened because there were deals to be made, sooner or later.
When do snubs happen? When the country is a country small enough and weak enough for the United States to treat with disdain. Thus: Cuba.
Don’t misunderstand: Raul Castro is no secret hero.
He can best be understood as a petty dictator. The island will almost certainly be better off when — if — the regime he heads ever falls.
But the outcry that greeted President Obama’s shaking of his hand comes from the same corners of American life that insists on continuing a half-century embargo against that island nation and the Castros. That snub — in essence, 50 years of refusing to shake hands — has not brought freedom to the Cuban people. Possibly, U.S. intransigence has actually helped keep the regime alive.
Yes, Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Adolf Hitler. But that wasn’t Neville’s sin: It was handing over a chunk of Czechoslovakia to Germany in order to buy peace. The Nazis claimed the Sudetenland as their trophy, not Chamberlain’s grip.
Symbolism does matter. But it usually doesn’t matter that much. Raul Castro may have touched President Obama’s hand, but he’s returning to a nation still under U.S. embargo. He has no illusions where his country stands with the United States.
BEN BOYCHUK: Let’s not kid ourselves about Cuba, Raul Castro, or his brother, Fidel. Cuba remains a strident enemy of the United States. The Castro brothers are thugs who continue to support anti-American causes — including terrorism — around the globe even as their repressive “socialist paradise” slides further into misery.
President Obama’s handshake with Raul in South Africa matters because dictators love nothing more than the publicity and legitimacy such symbols confer. The leader of the world’s greatest democracy warmly shaking hands with one of the last holdout communist regimes on the planet sends an unmistakable message: He’s OK. He’s one of us.
That’s the trouble with this president: He sends all the wrong messages to all the wrong people. From his “reset” with Russia and his “pivot to Asia,” to his shameful “red line” over chemical weapons in Syria, Obama has squandered U.S. power and prestige with a lot of empty talk and confusing, impotent gestures.
Days before Obama’s handshake, the Cuban regime rounded up more than 100 activists for the “crime” of demonstrating on behalf of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. Pro-Castro rent-a-mobs reportedly pelted the protesters with rocks and feces.
At the very moment Obama shook hands with Castro, U.S. State Department employee Alan Gross sat languishing in a Cuban prison, where he’s been held illegally since 2009 for distributing radios to dissidents.
Americans don’t hear much about Gross, or about Havana’s repressive tactics against its people. Instead, we hear more and more about reconciliation and ending the embargo.
In Miami last month, the president said: “We have to update our policies (on Cuba). Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born” — as if the occasion of this president’s birth should be reason to rethink decades of U.S. doctrine. Obama went on to say the United States should be “creative” and “thoughtful” about its posture toward the island dictatorship.
After five years of this administration’s calamitously “thoughtful and creative” foreign policy, a new approach to Cuba is the last thing anyone needs.
Reach Ben Boychuk at firstname.lastname@example.org, Joel Mathis at email@example.com.