Uri Friedman reviews some of the reactions to the Obama-Castro handshake, and concludes that it doesn’t matter very much:
In other words, the exchange of a handshake and pleasantries at a memorial service is unlikely to move the needle on U.S.-Cuban relations. But if the White House doesn’t go through Clinton administration-like contortions to explain the encounter, it might be fair to conclude that shaking hands with the Cuban president just isn’t as big a deal as it used to be.
It is strange to think that it still mattered when Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands thirteen years ago, but it strains credulity that this latest encounter has any importance at all. When Obama and Rouhani didn’t shake hands in New York earlier this year, there were attempts to read something into that non-event, but it proved to be as irrelevant as this supposedly scandalous handshake is. The only really remarkable thing about any of this is that some Americans are horrified by the idea that their president might practice basic courtesy with other attendees while on an official visit to pay tribute to a deceased foreign leader.
Isaac Chotiner bemoans the “unbearably stupid” nature of the complaints:
In the case of sanctions, you are dealing with practical policy issues. In the second case, you are not. However, when you are dealing with a symbolic matter, consistency matters. And since no one seems to be arguing that the president should shun the leader of China or Russia or Saudi Arabia or the vast majority of the rulers from countries just as bad as Cuba, well, the argument makes no sense. Obama already “sends the message” that the president will shake hands with bad people. Shaking Castro’s hand is irrelevant.
It’s worth remembering that there are any number of petty dictators and kings around the world that receive much more from the U.S. than a presidential handshake, and if one wants to direct irate criticism at U.S. coziness with authoritarian rulers it would be a lot more productive to start there. As for the handshake itself, it is an almost completely empty gesture that would have gone unnoticed but for the fact that the U.S. perpetuates an outdated and pointless embargo of Cuba. The only reason that it is remotely newsworthy that two heads of state greeted one another at another leader’s memorial is that our Cuba policy is such a useless Cold War relic. The continued effort to isolate Cuba has proven to be one of our longest-lasting foreign policy failures, and Cuba policy is in great need of a major overhaul, but as we can see from the mindless reaction to something as unimportant as a handshake that is still a very long way away.