Will Obama Stand Up to, or Smile at, Dictators?

05/24/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

The picture of the President of the United States smiling broadly as he met President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela startled me. Our President is a nice guy. Chavez is anything but. The US State Department maintains that Chávez has attacked democratic traditions and has put Venezuelan democracy on life support with unchecked concentration of power, political persecution, and intimidation. Foreign Affairs Magazine says that Chávez is a power-hungry dictator with autocratic and megalomaniacal tendencies whose authoritarian vision and policies are a serious threat to his people. In testimony before the U.S. Senate, the South American Project Director for the Center for Strategic International Studies said that Chavez's government engages in "arresting opposition leaders, torturing some members of the opposition (according to human rights organizations) and encouraging, if not directing, its squads of Bolivarian Circles to beat up members of Congress and intimidate voters -- all with impunity". In spite of a presidential term limit of 6 years, Chávez has suggested that he would like to remain in power for 25 years. Hmmm. An autocratic dictator who abuses human rights and undermines democracy being warmly embraced by the American president? There's something wrong with that picture.

Then there was the incident of President Obama seeming to bow before King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the G-20 Summit in London. The President's people denied it was a bow, but it certainly was a sign of great deference from the American president to the dictator of a country who just six weeks ago sentenced a 75-year-old woman to 40 lashes for having been secluded with her nephew after he delivered bread to her home. This is the same Abdullah whom, when asked why Saudi Arabia prohibits the public practice of religious other than Islam, said, "It is absurd to impose on an individual or a society rights that are alien to its beliefs or principles."

Of course President Obama is pursuing a renewed relationship with Cuba, a country that engages in systemic human rights abuses, including torture, arbitrary imprisonment, unfair trials, and extrajudicial executions. Censorship is so extensive that Cubans face five-year prison sentences for connecting to the Internet illegally. And not only is emigration illegal but even discussing it carries a six-month prison sentence.

Watching all this, I was wondering what the new standards were. How oppressive must a leader be before we determine that he has not merited a hug by the democratic standard-bearer of the free world, the President of the United States?

Yes, I get it. We have to speak to our enemies and America has to push "reset" on its relationship with many of these countries. We should try and change them through charm. But who said the President himself, rather than a lower-level diplomat, must do so? And if President Obama feels that he has to be the one to greet a man like Chavez, must it be with the kind of ear-to-ear grin that one might show girl-scouts selling cookies?

It must surely be disheartening for those who suffer oppression in countries like Venezuela, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia to see the American president back-slapping their oppressors when these victims have always looked up to the United States as their champions.

In Turkey President Obama boldly declared that "the United States is not, and never will be, "at war with Islam." But the person who was at war with Islam, Saddam Hussein, the man who killed nearly one million Muslims, was removed by a country who has already paid with the lives of 4500 of its service men and women. The same is true of the Taliban, another group whom the Obama Administration is considering talking to, who beat Muslim women in the streets of Afghanistan. Yet the President seems reluctant to publicly identify these real enemies of Islam.

Like many Americans, I have watched our President and have been awed by his capacity to draw those who hate us near. He is a man of considerable charm and grace. But I have to admit that I am increasingly troubled by his seeming inability to call out rogue dictators.

While he was campaigning for the presidency Obama promised, "As President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide." But in a press conference in Ankara with President Abdullah Gul he refused to use the word "genocide" when challenged by a reporter on the issue.

Yet it was Obama's early foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power of Harvard, who wrote "A Problem from Hell," a definitive book on the non-American intervention in repeated twentieth century genocides, beginning with the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks which killed 1.5 million between the years of 1915-1923. When I read the book it changed my life. As a Jew who does not want the world to forget the Holocaust, I can only imagine the pain of the Armenian community as they struggle to have modern Turkey acknowledge the crime. And why should modern Turkey not oblige? No one is blaming them for something that happened 90 years ago. It is not today's generation which is at fault. But nations must come to terms with their own history. Could any of us imagine what kind of country the US would be if it denied that it was ever responsible for the abomination of African-American slavery and segregation?

All this leads to one important question. Suppose President Obama succeeds in building friendships with Chavez, Castro, Ahmedenijad and the Taliban. What then? Does Americas still get to feel that it stands for something? Will we still be the beacon of liberty and freedom to the rest of the world, or will we have sold out in the name of political expediency? And do any of us seriously believe that Presidential friendship is going to get a megalomaniac like Hugo Chavez to ease up on the levers of power, or are we just feeding his ego by showing him he can be a tyrant and still have a beer with the President of the United States? Will the Iranians really stop enriching Uranium through diplomacy rather than economic sanctions?

I know that the Bush Administration made many mistakes and I am fan of President Obama precisely because of his sunny optimism. But Bush was not, as Chavez once called him, the devil and it could just be that his emphasis on America being the great champion of democracy and freedom, a mantle that was most eloquently articulated by President Kennedy in his inaugural address, is a legacy that ought to belong to President Obama as much as it did to his predecessor.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He has just published his newest best-seller, The Kosher Sutra. www.shmuley.com.