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Sheryl McCarthy Headshot

Low Bow or Low Blows?

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Okay, so Obama's bow was low. But if you believe the chattering chihuahuas of the right, I'm one of the few Americans who is not upset, humiliated even, that during his recent visit to Japan, Barack Obama bowed more deeply than was absolutely necessary to Emperor Akihito and his wife.

Even the White House press office felt it had to go on record insisting that the bow was merely a visual illusion -- that it only looked deep because the president is so tall and the Akihitos are so tiny. The truth, my fellow Americans, is that Obama did in fact bow deeply to the emperor and empress, but this is not likely to undermine American power around the globe or signal to our enemies in foreign places that this would be a good time to bomb us.

Conservatives have posted pictures of the bow all over the Internet, claiming it's proof that our young president was groveling before the emperor. The feeling seems to be that while it may be traditional for a monarch's subjects to bow before him or her, to have our president genuflecting to a foreign leader undermines our status in the world and fails to reinforce the message that America is still the number-one kid on the playground and is capable of kicking every one else's butt.

Observe how ballistic conservatives went when Obama bowed to Saudi King Abdullah in London last spring during the G20 Summit. Conservatives, who seem to be sticklers for protocol, also felt that the president did not show sufficient respect to the British Queen when he bowed but also clasped both of her hands in his. Queen Elizabeth didn't seem to mind having her mitts fondled by the handsome Obama. But the right's real concern is not whether our presidents show good manners to our friends, but that they show sufficient superiority when greeting those that we do not consider to be our equals.

We are, after all, a country founded on the idea that we'd never again have to bend our knees to a king who wanted to control our lives. So I get it that we don't want our presidents going around the world bowing to other heads of state. But under our last president our leaders were obsessed with showing everybody that, with the Soviet Union gone, we were in charge. An Internet photo of a meeting between Dick Cheney and Emperor Akihito shows Cheney extending a respectful handshake, but with both men standing studiedly upright.

Frankly, I think Obama's bow was meant to be a gesture of respect for a much older ruler (Obama is 48, Akihiti almost 77), in a country where bowing is a traditional gesture of greeting, whether one is a head of state or not. It also represents a symbolic shift away from the former bombast of U.S. administrations, which refused to engage our enemies or rivals unless we were dictating the terms, to a sense that nations are partners in the world, even if some are more senior partners than others.

Nothing proves this better than the rapid rise of the East, whether it's Japan that's recovering nicely from its own economic meltdown in the 1990s and is our fourth biggest trading partner, to China's emergence as our second biggest trading partner. We may still be trying to squeeze a little country like Cuba because it has a repressive Communist government and doesn't believe in free trade, but we are eager to improve trade with China, which also has a repressive Communist government and doesn't believe in totally free trade.

Need I mention that China currently is the largest holder of American debt, having recently overtaken that position from Japan, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was recently heard enjoining the Chinese to buy more U.S. bonds to help us raise the money to pull out of our economic crisis. The Chinese and the Japanese know this. Note how few public concessions (none) Obama was able to wring from the Chinese about

Human rights, sanctions against Iran, and letting the Chinese currency float freely at market rates, and how few he got (none) from the Japanese on Okinawa and such..

The American Century may not be over yet, but we can see the Eastern Century chugging into view. This change may not require our president to grovel, but as I said before, I don't think he did. Even so, making a nice gesture to the Japanese emperor doesn't hurt, any more than all those years of worrying about not offending the Queen.