Diplomacy is a unique world and a unique language. Every word, gesture or action is closely studied for nuance. The opening to China by Nixon and Kissinger was probably the most over-thought event in diplomatic history, but it went so well that you can’t criticize the absurd degree of war gaming that is evident on the Nixon tapes. Whenever a politician travels overseas, he becomes not only an ambassador to the country, but a living personification of national policy.
I shouldn’t have to explain that an unanticipated handshake with Castro is a foreign policy disaster. First of all, if it was unplanned, then it should never have happened. If it was planned, then the response to it is clumsy. But all around the world, people are now scrutinizing the facial expressions, body language and words not only of Obama and Castro, but of American politicians in the past six months to determine if this heralds a policy change. As was noted on several radio shows this morning, no one around the world believes that the Americans would be so stupid as to allow this to happen without planning, so clearly comments by Senators and Congressmen would have to be reviewed, since clearly they were consulted. But apparently they weren’t, which is why this is so dangerous to American foreign policy. That handshake was a coup for Castro and a whole lot of a bunch of nasty people, and they are going to play it that way. Remember when Mandela hugged Arafat? That was the result of months of plotting.
It wasn’t the only diplomatic disaster that Obama plunged into this week. First, it was really unseemly when he was referred to as “His Excellency.” What the hell was that? If it was a protocol slip by the South Africans, it was the job of the White House to catch it. And then Obama was referred to as the “Head of State” which he emphatically is not. And then there was the other snafu. If you look at who attended this soiree in the stadium, you’ll notice something curious–not who was there, but who wasn’t there. Early on, the South Africans realized they had a diplomatic problem. There is a sharp distinction between “heads of state” and “head of government.” The Queen of England is a head of state and a figurehead. The Prime Minister is the head of government, and he makes policy. A whole lot of governments aren’t happy with South Africa right about now, and there has been a lot of diplomatic dance about this. So this event attracted a whole lot of heads of state, but a noticeable absence of some key heads of government. The White House seems to have been tone deaf to this problem. Obama shouldn’t have gone. The United States could adequately have been represented by the VP, by congressmen and the walking dead known as former presidents. Obama went because this went to his head. And now we are seeing backlash–from Iran and other places–wondering why Obama went. These appearances matter.
What has been evident for the past number of years is that Obama doesn’t understand foreign policy and protocol. You don’t bow to Emirs and you don’t shake the blood soaked hand of totalitarian dictators–unless it means something more. The dismissal by the White House that it was just a handshake makes things a whole lot more worrisome, not a whole lot better.