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White House Defends Obama-Chavez Meeting

A handshake at last weekend's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago is continuing to stir controversy in Washington. Critics say President Barack Obama made a big mistake in greeting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

President Obama shook hands with all of the leaders attending the hemispheric gathering. But only one greeting got any real attention.

Hugo Chavez - known for his anti-American rhetoric - was shown smiling as he met the new U.S. president.

The image infuriated top Republicans in Washington, including Newt Gingrich - a former Speaker of the House of Representatives and a possible candidate for the party's 2012 presidential nomination.

"Everywhere in Latin America, enemies of America are going to use the picture of Chavez smiling and meeting with the president as proof that Chavez is now legitimate, that he is acceptable," he said.

During an appearance on NBC television's Today show, Gingrich said President Obama has adopted the wrong approach.

"I am not against him talking to Chavez," he said. "But I think he ought to talk to Chavez in a cold and distant way because Chavez openly, constantly attacks the United States."

But President Obama has made clear that he has no regrets. He told reporters at the end of the Summit of the Americas that the handshake was the right thing to do.

"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 interest of the United States," he said.

His press secretary, Robert Gibbs, followed up at a press briefing on Monday at the White House.

Gibbs said that Hugo Chavez has used his rhetoric in the past to incite anti-American sentiment - most notably four years ago at the last Summit of the Americas in Argentina.

"Is it in our national interest to have images going all over the world of thousands of protesters burning in effigy some look alike of the American government? I don't think that furthers our national interest," he said. "The president doesn't think that furthers our national interest."

Gibbs said that engaging on the world stage is in the national interest because it helps create stability in an important region of the world.