A couple of months ago President Obama was heavily (and in my view rightly) criticized for bowing the the Saudi king until his upper body was almost parallel to the ground. American presidents just don’t do that, and when he did he shamed us all. I would say the same if it were the Emperor of Japan or the Queen of England–to whom he did give a perfunctory (and appropriate) hint of a bow.
A couple of weeks later he famously overdid his handshake with Venezuelan strongman and inveterate America-hater Hugo Chavez, giving a warm version of the ‘brother’ handshake–regular clasp, then high-up clasp, complete with a huge Obama grin and a nice pat on the dictator’s shoulder, as if to say, Well done, Hugo–shaming us all again. The photos were on the Venezuelan government website within minutes, and flashed all over Latin America, legitimizing Chavez beyond his dreams.
Should he not have bowed at all to the Saudi king? No, he should have delivered the same perfunctory bow he gave Queen Elizabeth. Should he not have shaken hands with dictator Chavez? Maybe not at all, but certainly he could have showed some reluctance, leaned back, shaken once briefly and politely, preferably without a smile. These are the bows that say, I respect you and your traditions, but Americans don’t do bows; the handshakes that say, This is required protocol, but it’s no photo-op and it’s all you’ll get from me.
This stuff matters, and astoundingly President Obama doesn’t understand why and how. Did he go through two years of campaigning without learning how to avoid photo-ops sought by bad guys who could hurt him? No. Did he forget that lesson after moving into the White House? Apparently. He also apparently has the idea that you can strengthen America by going around Europe apologizing, and by declassifying documents that were classified for a reason. Not to mention relentlessly attacking and humiliating his predecessor, also an elected (twice) president of the United States, not as a campaigner but as that man’s successor. So much for the gracious bipartisanship that he promised for two years.
This morning he bowed far too low again, figuratively this time, in a 37-minute speech in Cairo designed to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. It was a typical Obama speech–brilliantly crafted, viewing the world from an Olympian moral height, imbued with the highest ideals, demonstrating his legendary intelligence and multicultural knowledge, not from books but from his own life.
There was just one problem, the same as the problem with the bow and the handshake; he went too far.
It’s fine to open a friendly hand to the “other” in this nasty world, trying to start–or in this case to re-start–a relationship. It’s quite another thing to bow. Obama just does not seem to know how to project the strength and dignity of an American president. Think of Washington, Lincoln, either Roosevelt, Eisenhower, or Kennedy, and you’ll see what I mean. Think even of Ronald Reagan–in my opinion, not in their league. Still: friendly? –invariably; weak? –never.
Obama’s defense of America’s role in the world was closer to apology than pride, and he certainly did not say the strong things that would explain fully what America has meant. True, he did talk about the long history of Muslims who have sought freedom and prosperity in America, but he did nothing to counter the notion that America has marched through the world throwing its weight around, an extension of the colonial powers of old.
The speech addressed terrorism, but not strongly enough; it resolutely refused to use the word. It defended women’s rights, but not intently enough; it spoke of “free” elections that bring an end to freedom, but not loudly enough. It’s a question of emphasis. Which brings me to why the speech was bad for the Jews.
Of the seven major themes in his address–he enumerated them–the first was the need to unite against extremism and the second was the need to liberate the Palestinians (while, of course, keeping Israel safe, by measures he didn’t explain)–”the second major source of tension that we need to discuss.” Palestinian liberation got higher priority in this speech than the spread of nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, and women’s rights. He mentioned the Shoah and the need to combat Holocaust denial, but he also compared, albeit indirectly, to the plight of African-Americans during slavery.
True, he did that in the context of telling them to stop their violence. There was a lot of attempt at balance. But as with the bow and handshake, he just went too far. In this case, with words, he bent over too far backwards, and more importantly he set the wrong priorities. He reinforced his foolish linkage between the Palestinian plight–a plight I too care and have written about–and the Iranian nuclear program by listing it second in the order of his major concerns–before nuclear proliferation, democracy, and religious and women’s rights. He also reinforced the idea, so common in the Muslim world and Europe, that the Palestinian problem is more important than any of those.
And you can bet which part of this speech is at this moment reverberating around the anti-Israel world.