Tom DeLay may be Dancing with the Stars, but it’s President Barack Obama who’ll need some fancy footwork next week as he tries to dodge the dictators during his first-ever visit to the United Nations.
Stung by GOP criticism of his Hugo Chavez grip-and-grin in April, Obama doesn’t need the political fallout from any more cozy encounters or smiling snapshots with anti-American rivals.
“Every president worries about Castro giving them a bear hug or Yassir Arafat giving them a bear hug—and every president and his staff take steps to avoid it,” said Nancy Soderberg, who served as the No. 2 U.S. official at the U.N. under President Bill Clinton. “There’s always a very delicate orchestration of who he’s going to shake hands with.”
“It’s like the American Ballet Theater,” said one aide who planned U.N. trips for two former presidents.
At this year’s U.N. meeting, Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are two leaders Obama would likely prefer not be on his dance card. Chavez, the fiery Venezuelan president, and Zimbabwe’s leader Robert Mugabe also will be there.
But avoiding an insistent suitor at the bustling U.N. headquarters can be difficult – despite the painstaking efforts aides sometimes take to send a U.S. president down a different hallway, or into a different corner of a meeting hall to avoid unwelcome diplomatic advances.
“It’s inevitable that you’re going to be in the same room with people,” said John Bolton, U.N. Ambassador under President George W. Bush. “It’s not like the Secret Service controls the floor of the Security Council. If Ahmadinejad just comes up to Obama and talks to him, who’s going to stand in the way?”
So what’s a president to do when cornered?
Perhaps employ a technique Clinton perfected in 1993, when his aides tried to head off a bear hug from Arafat, the Palestinian leader, during his appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House.
“Clinton’s staffers, Tony Lake and Martin Indyk, spent a good 20 minutes showing him how to shake [Arafat’s] hand and grab his arms so he couldn’t do a bear hug. It’s a kind of hip jujitsu. If you notice, there is no bear hug picture of Arafat and Clinton,” Soderberg said. “I’m sure they’re dusting that off for Qadhafi.”
The bad news for Obama is that it’ll be hard to avoid Qadhafi next week. The United States is heading up the U.N. Security Council, while Libya currently holds the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly. That means Qadhafi is scheduled to speak immediately after Obama on Wednesday morning, and the two men could meet in a green room of sorts just off the floor.
“It gives Qadhafi a kind of opportunity behind the scenes to see Obama back there,” Bolton said. “He can test it out and see what Obama’s reaction is.”
Later Wednesday, there is a lunch sponsored by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and that’s where U.S. presidents and their aides have had to be most vigilant for unwanted diplomatic advances.
“That certainly can happen,” said Thomas Pickering, a U.N. ambassador under President George H.W. Bush. “It’s usually people looking to remove themselves from isolation who want to achieve a little publicity.”
The Bush administration agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Libya in 2006, but many Americans still view Qadhafi as an outlaw responsible for the Pan Am 103 bombing that killed 270 people in 1988.
Obama shook hands with Qadhafi in June at the G-8 economic summit in Italy. However, since then U.S.-Libyan relations were strained by Qadhafi’s decision to celebrate Scotland’s release of Pan Am 103 bomber Abdel Megrahi. Despite U.S. demands that there be no festivities surrounding Megrahi’s return to Libya, Qadhafi went to the airport to hug the ex-prisoner and join in the hero’s welcome.
And then there’s Ahmadinejad. Obama famously said during the presidential campaign that he’d negotiate with the Iranian leader “without preconditions” – but the White House rejected talk of an Obama-Ahmadinejad tete-a-tete in New York, though a U.S. representative will take part in broader negotiations with the Iranians Oct. 1.
Asked how Obama might respond to a greeting from Ahmadinejad or Qadhafi, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice punted.
“I don’t want to presage or guess what they might say or what would be the appropriate response. That’s in the realm of the hypothetical,” she told reporters Friday at a White House briefing.
Rice said she doubted Obama and the Iranian president would come face-to-face, but she acknowledged that avoiding face time with Qadhafi may be impossible, at least this year.
“With respect to the Iranian leader, I don't think there's much likelihood that there will be an interaction. There's no obvious venue in which that would occur, and certainly we have no meetings or anything of the sort planned,” Rice said. “With respect to Qadhafi, Libya holds a seat at present on the United Nations Security Council, and Libya will be present at the Security Council summit.”
The political stakes in avoiding images of such encounters can be high – particularly in an era of ubiquitous cell phone cameras, meaning almost nowhere is truly safe.
“It’s almost surreal that you have to play this business. It can even get childish, though sometimes it really matters,” recalled one former White House staffer who helped arrange U.N. trips for Clinton.
Even if aides insist that the American president gave the foreign leader a tongue-lashing, damage can be done.
“Nobody reads the caption. They look at the picture,” said the former Clinton aide, who asked not to be named. “You can actually have trouble getting the work done you need to get done because you have to be so conscious of that moment. It’s a smart balance to make sure that moment doesn’t drive the whole agenda.”
Though he’s been in office for only eight months, Obama has already caught political flak three times for his close-quarters interactions with foreign leaders.
At a G-20 economic summit in London in April, TV cameras captured Obama appearing to bow as he took the hand of Saudi King Abdullah. The video went viral on the Internet, prompting the White House to deny that Obama kowtowed to the Saudi monarch.
The Chavez moment came at a summit in the Caribbean later that month, when Obama shook hands with the Venezuelan president and pictures captured wide smiles on both men’s faces. Later, Chavez sought out Obama at the same summit and handed him an anti-American book. Obama called the gift a “nice gesture,” but critics pilloried him for being chummy with a leader who once referred to President George W. Bush as “the devil.”
And in July, photographers snapped shots of Obama’s handshake with Qadhafi.
Former advance staffers say they have sometimes stepped between the American president and a foreign leader to head off an undesired interaction. Sometimes it’s not that foreign leaders are unsavory, just that they’re not deemed important enough to warrant the president’s limited time.
An advance aide to Bushes 41 and 43, Spencer Geissinger, said the U.S. president’s delegation often took pains to avoid leaders who were considered unfriendly.
“The UN helps us,…letting us know the schedule of a particular individual. We know when he or she arrives and where—and we choose to arrive through another entrance, hold in a particular room and know when they’re going to be in the hallway,” Geissinger said. “It’s pretty common practice in the advance world.”
Geissinger said he thinks his advance teams were “pretty successful” at heading off such encounters, but that Chavez did manage to approach Bush once, away from cameras, at a U.N. event.
Efforts to make political hay of a U.N. handshake can backfire. A brief greeting there between Castro and President Bill Clinton in 2000 became a political football when First Lady Hillary Clinton’s competitor in the New York Senate race, Rep. Rick Lazio, went after the Clintons for being too cozy with dubious leaders.
“I think we send the wrong message when we embrace—whether it’s Mrs. Arafat, or Fidel Castro,” Lazio said.
The White House replied with a solid counterpunch—blindsiding Lazio by giving the New York Post an official photo of the congressman shaking hands with Yassir Arafat during a Middle East trip in 1998. The picture took the steam out of Lazio’s efforts to tar Clinton for her embrace of Suha Arafat during a similar trip the following year.
According to several diplomats, the most famous refused handshake in modern diplomatic history was U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s rebuff of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai at peace talks on Indochina held in Geneva in 1954. “Dulles ostentatiously refused to shake his hand,” said Winston Lord, a diplomat who joined President Richard Nixon’s historic mission to China in 1972.
“Nixon…was very conscious of this slight,” Lord recalled. “When he got out of the plane, he …walked towards Zhou Enlai with his hand oustretched very obviously….We knew that it still stuck in Zhou’s mind.”
Lord said Nixon later gave everyone on the trip mementos that featured a close up of the two clasped hands and the words, “Order of the New China Hand.”