AFTER PRESIDENT Obama shook hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro on Tuesday, the predictable hysteria erupted from conservative critics. But the offending handshake, which came during a memorial service for South African president Nelson Mandela, was merely a gesture of civility. Obama was right to shake Castro’s hand; it’s time to drop the odd expectation that presidents must go out of their way to snub leaders of countries with which the United States has fundamental differences.
Shaking hands doesn’t mean Obama thinks Castro is a good leader, or a nice person. The United States can, and should, continue to criticize the Cuban regime for its lack of basic freedoms and frequent human-rights violations. Critics also pounced when Obama shook hands with former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez in 2009, but that handshake hardly prevented the United States from continuing to express opposition to Chavez’s policies. Indeed, what does abstaining from such acts accomplish? All it does is reduce serious differences of opinion to a show of petulance.
Senator John McCain has likened the Obama-Castro handshake to British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s handshake with Adolf Hitler. There are two obvious responses: First, Raul Castro is not Hitler. Second, the fact that no US president ever shook hands with Hitler had zero effect on the German dictator’s behavior. It’s childish to think the president of the United States must reserve any show of decency for favored leaders. In some cases, it may even clear the way for useful cooperation. As Obama recognized, leaders can shake hands today and disagree tomorrow, but it’s harder to reach agreement tomorrow without showing basic politeness today.