President Obama caused a media frenzy when he not only shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, but he smiled at him. A photo of this spectacle landed on the front page of newspapers worldwide and created angst in those who feel the US must continue animosities toward all and will parish if anyone is remotely nice to anyone America considers to be the bad guy.
Personally, I don't think America is going to fall anytime soon because Obama grinned at the Latin leader. Nor is the United States going to crumble because a book, no matter what the topic, exchanged hands. The author of that book may now become richer, but it's doubtful that the any national security interests were breached.
During the Presidential election, when all the US seemed to be doing was wielding weapons, five Secretaries of States -- Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher, James Baker and Henry Kissinger -- all said they favored talking to countries. "I think the whole point is you try to engage and deal with countries that you have problems with," said Madeleine Albright and the others, even Henry Kissinger, agreed.
Historically mortal enemies have engaged in conversation to end hostilities, increase economic ties, and end the stockpiling of weapons, namely those of nuclear nature. At the height of the cold war the US talked to the Soviets and, because of it, there are no nuclear weapons in Cuba and the American nation is still intact.
The Obama Administration is following this lead. They are practicing, in Secretary Clinton's words, "robust diplomatic engagement," which after eight years of bullying is being welcomed across the globe.
Does this mean that America no longer has enemies? Doubtful, but it does mean that in the words of the great Chinese general & military strategist Sun Tzu, it is better to "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." If you don't talk to people, how on earth are you supposed to do either.
In this regard, Obama is right to engage. Further, he is right to say that America is taking responsibility for its past actions and even mistakes. Quite frankly it is un-American not to stand up against wrongs and make sure in the future things are done right.
People are not weak because they talk, are civil or have compassion. It is much more challenging to sit with yourself think things through and do what is right, instead of what is easy. It is simple to dismiss and hurt those who are opposed to you. It is much harder to have patience and converse.
Dismissal of others and painting them as evil only leads to more war and this nation is embroiled in enough conflict as it is. The world as it stands, which last time I checked includes the US, needs to address massive problems and no one can do it while fighting or alone.
In just under 100 days, Obama dropped the senseless rhetoric and is out there building relationships -- the pinnacle of getting anything done. He is determined, disciplined and diligent. He and his team are also adaptable. All these qualities make the foundation for a strong leader, especially one who must tackle large-scale problems that affect everyone.
In an extremely short time, Obama is addressing problems that have been ignored, things like climate change and energy dependency, cleaning up the messes of the past eight years, like Iraq and torture, and moving forward with robust diplomatic engagement. From re-invigorating the international commitment to Afghanistan to renewing US commitments to NATO, it is clear that the Obama Administration knows it cannot 'fix' everything, but it must or, at the very least, try to manage many pressing issues with and not against others.
It is true that reaching out to Iran, Cuba, and even Venezuela will not bring all desired results. It will also take time and deliberate interventions. However just rejecting their very existence and impact on the world will get us nowhere.
Obama and his team are not doing everything right. There should have been a swifter reaction in response to the missile launch by Korea and they could have been much more aggressive on the release of Roxanna Saberi -- a young journalist who is being used as a small pawn in a much larger political power struggle -- from an Iranian prison.
Further, instead of just using traditional foreign policy insiders, they should reach out to more experts who have vast and practical experience on particular regions. America is full of former Peace Corps volunteers who have learned tremendous amounts about countries where they have served, the States also has experienced practitioners and scholars from countries like Venezuela, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iran that can help with insights, language and culture. These people are easy to find and pleading to provide the US with practical information and support.
The execution of foreign policy is never easy. The world as we know it is enormously complex. Over the next 100 days, Obama and his team certainly will have their work cut out for them. In tenuous circumstances it is difficult to be detailed and clear on the ever-changing elements of an interactive and inclusive strategy.
Continuing the momentum, moving toward implementation of plans like sending more troops and civilians to an already chaotic Afghanistan and changing mindsets in the Pakistani political elite and military will be to say the least challenging.
Talking to others is the least of our problems. At the very least discourse can add clarity and minimize misunderstandings that lead to war -- especially in the case of Iran. The alternative is continuing a US posture of combativeness, which only increases conflict, makes the world less stable and decreases security for everyone.