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Gary Horton: Outstretched hands both shake & punch

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: April 21, 2009 10:30 p.m.
Updated: April 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.
At the very moment photos snapped of President Obama shaking hands with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, conservative commentators blood-letted and vented of Obama bespoiling the dignity of the office of U.S. President. FOXies might prefer Obama acting as high school prom bully, but Obama told us during the campaign he intended to employ diplomacy over bravado.

Responding to the red-meat criticism, Obama showed his usual thoughtful perspective:

"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.

"Even with the imaginative (conservative news) crowd, I think that you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario where U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela."

Damn rationality. Darn no-drama Obama. There were a lot more sparks back in the day when Bush pigeonholed all the world's leaders into easy categories of friend or foe, good or evil. In the end, we saw how simpleton thinking worked out. Bush closed his losing hand at the international poker table with far more foes than friends, and America left with empty pockets of good will.

So President Obama shook hands with Hugo Chavez. If you looked closely, it appears he shook hands twice. No, they didn't "terrorist fist bump."

And two weeks back, Obama also shook hands with the Saudi king. It remains undetermined whether he bowed, bent, or simply lowered his very tall frame to eye level with the shorter king. But whatever the gesture, he greeted the king respectfully, and the Arab world applauded his tact and graciousness. Might it help if the Arab world actually learns to like us?

Friendship never goes out of style. Respect goes a long way. But don't confuse Obama candor with accommodation and bootlicking.

During the election, unwitting commentators labeled Barack Obama too nice and too diplomatic to win. Today, with the Clinton dynasty surrendered and the Republicans vanquished and in ashes, political observers no longer underestimate the power of the fist behind Obama's extended hand.

"Charm and disarm." That's the Obama approach. But civility isn't weakness. Obama doesn't like to lose. Indeed, we've not really seen him lose, have we?

By contrast, when cold warrior Bush left office, he lost big, and left us with two hot wars, KAOS-style Axis of Evil bad guys, and nearly all of the G-20 leaders refusing to look him in the eye, let alone shake his hand. Bush's unwillingness to talk beyond his comfort zone did America no favors. Obama has had to pick up the pieces Bush threw to the ground.

"Hold your friends close. Hold your enemies closer." Sound advice for those seeking to navigate tough characters in rough waters. If Raul Castro wants to shake hands and talk, let's talk. If Chavez wants to talk, let's talk. "Talk is cheap." It's war and dysfunction that gets costly.

Things are happening in our world super fast. Fortunes fly up and down. Political currents turn on a dime. Geopolitical necessities and loyalties are shifting with economic winds. The world is in flux and America cannot afford to dogmatically bury its head in the sand.

Barack Obama promised the change required to keep America up with the times. That's one reason he won the presidency by 20x the vote margin that George Bush ever did. We wanted Obama's kind of leadership badly.

Per campaign promise (which is something we're not quite accustomed to) - President Obama is delivering the change of international diplomacy and pragmatism.

Cuban-Americans can suddenly now travel to ... Cuba! After 50 years, they finally have the same travel rights as the rest of the free world! Freedom is on the march!

And so what if the Castro Bros. conclude a Marriott Hotel wouldn't be so bad, or that Americans lined up gawking at their 60-year-old cars might be OK? We travel to China and Vietnam by the millions and the world still turns. Cooperation and trade has bought our country more security and brought Chinese and Vietnamese citizens more freedom than cold and hot wars ever did.

Obama's reaching out is part of being a cost-effective, pragmatic, democratic leader.

Might we not also calm and disarm Chavez by staking out some common operational ground? If we buy oil from repressive Saudi kings and princes whom the entire Bush family kissed, can we not shake hands with Chavez and create some level of operational good will in our own hemisphere?

Don't bet against Obama's resolve. Three pirates were calmly dispatched to their graves after "misunderestimating" America under Obama leadership.

The world is on notice. Change has come. We'll reach out a hand. But be careful, the outstretched hand can also punch when provoked. My bet is world leaders know it. In politics, as in basketball and life, Obama shows us he's determinedly in for the win.

We're fortunate to have him leading our team during such a tough game.

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Full Speed to Port" appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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