At first, I thought this might have just been a bad camera angle. Forced perspective can do amazing things in film and photographs, after all.
Then, I saw the video. And I saw that President Obama really was bowing -- and bowing deeply -- to the King of Saudi Arabia.
Will somebody in the Obama administration please tell this man that American presidents do not bow to foreign royalty. And they especially do not bow to the king of one of the most repressive, theocratic nations on this planet.
It's one thing to go on Arab television and call the King of Saudi Arabia a courageous man while listing America's myriad sins in that region. A person can chalk that up to misguided or even naive diplomacy.
It's quite another to bow -- and bow deeply -- to the King of Saudi Arabia, and to do it on film. Aside from the fact that we fought a full-blown, bloody revolution to free ourselves of royalty, this image is powerful symbolism. And not in the way anyone should want. It doesn't show us as a nation no willing to forge partnerships with the rest of the world. It undercuts our credibility as being on the side of reform in the Middle East. If anyone in the Obama administration ever wanted to signal a shift in U.S. foreign policy back to "realism," back to the notion that Middle East dictatorships are fine and dandy, just so long as they preserve "stability" in the region, those people now have their image.
After all, the President of the United States just bowed to the King of the Despotic Old Guard. Not to mention to the King of the Country Exporting Radical Islam Throughout the World.
Remember the fury when President Bush walked hand in hand with the Saudi Crown Prince? How Democrats and Progressive and Human Rights Activists all howled at the symbolism of that image of the United States cozying up to the brutal Saudi regime? They had a point, back then. So I look forward to those same howls of outrage from those same people, now that President Obama is bowing to the King of Saudi Arabia. (I won't hold my breath, of course. Democrats used to complain about budget deficits, too.)
Symbolism matters, especially in pictures. This is going to be one of those iconic photographs that follows a politician throughout his or her career. Like the photo of a younger Donald Rumsfeld shaking the hand of Saddam Hussein undercut any argument the older Rumsfeld made for the Iraq War, and like the photo of Madeleine Albright sharing a champagne toast with North Korea's Kim Jong-il still undercuts the idea of Democrats being "tough" on national security, this image is going to follow President Obama. And it's going to work against him in the future, somehow, and probably at the absolutely worst time imaginable.
"Smart" diplomacy. How wonderful.