April 9, 2009
An unnamed White House aide has tried to stifle criticism of the President for his deep and low bow before Saudi King Abdullah at the recently concluded G-20 summit in London. That anonymous fellow seems to giving us Groucho Marx’s line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” The aide claims that the tall President was merely taking both hands of the diminutive desert monarch in his and had to bend down.
That set off another round of Internet speculation. Queen Elizabeth II is also much shorter than the President, and you can see him giving a short, sharp bow of the head to her. The point of our previous criticism is not that Barack Obama showed greater deference to the king of a despotic regime that persecutes Christians while slighting the Head of State of our leading ally, Britain. The point was simple: Americans do not bow to anyone.
The anonymous source in the Obama administration is only making matters worse by denying what is obvious to anyone with eyes to see. Okay, this cover story is probably better than the notion that the President was looking for a lost contact lens. Or tying his shoe lace. But it still doesn’t wash.
This videotape may soon have more viewings than the famous Zapruder film of President Kennedy’s assassination. It seems to many too silly a topic to merit any attention at all. So what if he did bow to Abdullah, impatient MoveOn types are asking. Let’s move on to more important matters.
But it is an important matter. First, it is an indication of how this President-one of the least familiar figures ever to enter the White House-views America’s place in the world. It is a good thing for the President to be personally humble. Washington said in Congress and at his first Inauguration that he did not consider himself equal to the tasks before him, but with the help of Providence he would go forward. Lincoln said he would gladly hold the haughty General McClelland’s horse if only he would bring the Union victory. They did not talk down America.
Second, it is something entirely different if this President is humbling America before the world’s leaders. Defenders of President Obama seem to be saying, it didn’t happen, and if it did, George W. Bush did it first. Bush has already been criticized here for holding hands with Abdullah. This was worse.
Third, still worse was President Obama’s abasement of our country during his European trip. “Politics stops at the water’s edge” is an old saying, sometimes attributed to the late Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.), who crossed the partisan divide to give Democratic President Harry Truman his powerful support for the Marshall Plan and for NATO.
Throughout this foreign tour, President Obama seemed to be seeking out people to say “Sorry” to. Many of us were very critical of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s sneering dismissal of “Old Europe” when Germany and France declined to join our 2003 invasion of Iraq. Rumsfeld’s unwise statements were fair game for criticism-but that criticism should have been delivered here, not over there. President Obama need have little concern that such a disavowal would not be heard in Europe. That’s what the World Wide Web is for.
While he’s not reading the seven-volume biography of Winston Churchill that Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave him, the President might nonetheless take a lesson from Churchill. When he visited the U.S. after having been defeated and booted out of office by the British voters in 1945, Churchill as Leader of the Loyal Opposition was descended upon by American reporters. They were looking for pithy quotes from Churchill on the general mess his successors were making of things in Britain. Churchill-while he was on foreign soil-would not oblige them. He said his views on the conduct of His Majesty’s Government-the Labour Party majority in Parliament-could be read in Hansard’s, the official record of proceedings of the House of Commons.
Churchill was strictly observing the rule that you don’t criticize your own country or its government while abroad. I had several opportunities to visit Canada, Britain, and Europe during the 1990s. It was by no means easy to put a sock in it whenever Bill Clinton’s name was brought up at conferences. But that’s what we believe. Or it’s what we used to believe. Politics stops at the water’s edge, or even at the border. If a private citizen can observe the old rule, it is even more important for the leader of three hundred million Americans to do so.
Third, the White House should tell us whether the President did or did not bow to King Abdullah. To let stand an anonymous aide’s dubious denial risks this new administration’s credibility. It may be that President Obama thinks that Americans should bow to foreign leaders. Perhaps he believes we could avoid armed conflict with North Korea, Iran, or Cuba if our Head of State would publicly bow to them. If he thinks so, then he should say so and not hide behind an anonymous spokesman. If that’s what he believes, most Americans probably don’t agree with him.
Finally, you’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that says simply “Coexist.” It depicts the symbols of the world’s major religions. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam are shown. It would be wonderful if they could coexist.
In the present world, one of those symbols is clashing loudly with all the others. The President is right to reassure Muslims that we are not at war with them. It’s not yet clear what he will do about those jihadists who tell us daily they are at war with us. From the Beirut Marine barracks in 1983 through 9/11 and right up to this morning’s headlines about “pirates” off Somalia, they have been begging to differ with that bumper sticker mindset. They are the ones unwilling just to coexist. Will bowing before despots convince these jihadists that America is serious about defending herself against terror?
A successful terrorist attack on the American homeland could cripple us. President Obama’s other priorities cannot simply be asserted. National defense is always Priority One. Ask Churchill.