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Reagan (and Nixon) Greeted Despots, Too

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Few aspects of American politics are as ridiculous and dangerous as the right-wing urge to substitute macho posturing for foreign policy. That irrepressible habit surfaces constantly now that President Obama is in the Oval Office, most recently when he shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas, a smiling moment that provoked calls for impeachment among the most deranged conservatives.

Such emotional excesses arise from deep insecurities, of course, and almost always involve bouts of amnesia, hypocrisy or both. For if the wingers could be honest for even a moment, they would have to admit that all of their complaints about Obama's diplomatic style could have been lodged just as easily against his Republican predecessors.

To take the most obvious example, commentators on the right experienced a collective seizure when the American president appeared to bow to the Saudi king last month at the G-20 summit in London. Although the White House spokesman denied that Obama had actually bowed before Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, the video indicated a dip lower than necessary to shake the monarch's hand. For any American president -- and indeed, any American -- to bow to a monarch under any circumstances is an affront to the founders.

But if Obama showed too much deference to that despot, so did George W. Bush. Back when Abdullah was still the crown prince and Bush was president, the Texan planted a kiss on the Arab leader's lips, and then held his hand publicly. This incident occurred only seven months after 9/11, when Saudi complicity in terrorism was a matter of the gravest concern. (A few conservatives complained, but nobody was calling for impeachment of the man whom many Republicans were then comparing with Churchill.)

Then came the Chavez handshake, which pitched numerous right-wing pundits and politicians into full-scale political seizures, notably including Patrick Buchanan, who shrieked that Obama "went down there and virtually groveled to these characters. … I mean what is the matter with people!" Echoing Buchanan's ire was Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and would-be presidential aspirant. "Everywhere in Latin America, enemies of America are going to use the picture of Chavez smiling and being with the president as proof that Chavez is now legitimate, that he's acceptable," he complained. "How do you mend relationships with somebody who hates your country, who actively calls for the destruction of your country, and who wants to undermine you. … We didn't rush over, smile and greet Russian dictators."

Now, Gingrich was once an adjunct professor of history somewhere, so he ought to have a firmer grasp of the realities of the past. His hero Ronald Reagan certainly did rush over, smile and warmly greet the Russian dictator Mikhail Gorbachev more than once during his second term as president, much to the irritation of critics on the right (even if many of them pretend to forget those instances now). Eager to achieve landmark arms-control agreements with the Soviet leader, Reagan wisely ignored the carping of conservatives like Howard Phillips, who denounced him passionately as a "useful idiot fronting for Soviet propaganda."

But then Reagan's peace offensive only followed the pattern set by Buchanan's old boss, Richard M. Nixon, whose most lasting achievement as president was to establish official relations with the People's Republic of China. Was Nixon too friendly when he met with the rulers of the most blood-soaked communist dictatorship on earth? Search Google for "Nixon China," and you will immediately find a nice old black-and-white photo of him gripping and grinning with Mao Zedong, an enemy of Western democracy and a remorseless executioner of the innocent. No doubt many conservatives watched that tableau in fury and astonishment, having spent decades in ideological battle against the Chicoms.

So it is permissible to yawn when the likes of Buchanan, Gingrich and the howling bloggers of the right claim that the president's polite behavior toward any leader he encounters is a betrayal of America. He represents a nation sufficiently secure in its values to greet the world with malice toward none. His policy will be tested in practice, not bar-brawl theatrics.

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