President Obama believes that his decision to shake hands with Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez at a summit of Latin leaders in Trinidad was the right thing to do. He dismisses critics who accuse him of sending the wrong signals, of projecting an image of weakness, and of apologizing too much on his trips abroad. "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," Obama said.
President Obama is wrong. Like his bow to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah at the G-20 Summit in London, his cordiality to Chavez does real damage American interests, because it demonstrates that the honor of the United States is not something that matters very much to him. And that is a very bad and dangerous thing.
Charles de Gaulle famously observed that "states are cold-blooded monsters" -- but de Gaulle was only half-correct. What redeems states from total monstrosity is their sense of honor. An "honorable" state is very touchy about its sovereignty, its good name, and the treatment of its citizens abroad, but it also follows through on commitments to friends and allies -- even when doing so is inconvenient -- because not doing so would be "dishonorable." A head of state without a sense of honor is also unlikely to have a sense of dishonor, and is therefore more likely to behave dishonorably -- to betray allies and renege on his promises -- in an hour of crisis.
"Honor," observed Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm, "is often influenced by that element of pride which plays a large part in its inspiration." While Churchill deplored an "exaggerated code of honor leading to utterly vain and unreasonable deeds," he believed that a proper sense of honor was an essential component of enlightened statecraft. Indeed, he denounced the architects of what he called "the tragedy of Munich" (when, in 1938, England, France, and Italy abandoned Czechoslovakia to the not-so-tender mercies of Nazi Germany) because they behaved so dishonorably. A proper sense of honor, Churchill maintained, induces a nation "to keep its word and to act in accordance with its treaty obligations to allies."
An American President imbued with a proper sense of the honor and dignity of his country would not shake hands with a leader like Hugo Chavez, who said, on the day after 9/11, that "the United States brought the attacks upon itself, for their arrogant and imperialist foreign policy." An American President imbued with a proper sense of the honor and dignity of his country would not bow to a feudal despot whose kingdom's vast financial resources and intransigent brand of Islam provide much of the impetus for Islamist terrorism. And a President with a proper sense of the honor and dignity of his country would realize that his every word and every gesture is carefully scrutinized both by America's friends (who want to know whether he can be trusted to honor America's commitments) and America's enemies (who want to know how much they can get away with, before encountering resistance).
At another point in The Gathering Storm, Churchill observes that "it makes one flush to read in [Italian Foreign Minister] Ciano's Diary the comments" that Italian officials made about "our country and its representatives" during Prime Minister's Neville Chamberlain's 1939 visit to Italy -- and he provides the following excerpt:
"How far apart we are from these people [Ciano writes]! It is another world. We were talking about it after dinner to the Duce. 'These men,' said Mussolini, 'are not made of the same stuff as Francis Drake and the other magnificent adventurers who created the Empire. They are after all the tired sons of a long line of rich men.'"
I am very much afraid that Latin and Arab despots -- who are shaped by cultures that take matters of honor very seriously indeed -- will not be more favorably impressed by Obama than Mussolini was by Chamberlain. "This is no President Bush," they will say with a sigh of relief. "Nor is this a Reagan or a Nixon, a Kennedy or a Truman, or any of the other formidable American presidents who helped win the Cold War. This is a Jimmy Carter -- and we know just how to handle folks like Jimmy."
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