U.S. Presidents and Royal Protocol

The Obamas are coming under criticism from around the blogosphere for their dealings with royals.  First, Barack Obama gave Queen Elizabeth II a video iPod filled with some rather add materials (along with an actually thoughtful gift).  Then, Michelle Obama got into trouble for getting too familiar with the the queen.  Now, Barack Obama is getting chastised for bowing to the Saudi king.

Now, frankly, I don’t give a hoot what the president gives the British figurehead.  I’m slightly concerned, as evidenced by his also giving PM Gordon Brown a boxed set of DVDs, that he seems not to understand that the UK is a First World country and that its leaders can probably afford anything available at Amazon for under $200.  But, really, it’s the thoughtlessness that counts.

Second, QE2 has been at the monarch thing for several decades, so one presumes that she gets a reasonable amount of obsequious treatment.  Being touched on the shoulder by the wife of the American president, presumably, is something from which her ego shall rebound.  As for Mrs. O, she is not a subject of the queen and thus not obligated to be anything other than cordial in dealing with her.

The bowing to the king thing annoys me.  It’s a proper enough show of respect for a monarch in his home and it would be rude for an ordinary American citizen not to follow this protocol.  But Obama isn’t a tourist being granted an audience with the king, he’s our de facto head of state.   Then again, a quick bow is less creepy than holding hands with him, as Obama’s predecessor was known to do.

At the end of the day, I just can’t muster the outrage of Michelle Malkin or even Mark Steyn on this one.  (I do find amusement, however, at Steyn’s description: “So let me see if I understand American protocol in the age of Obama: The First Lady hugs Queen Elizabeth as if she’s some granny at a seniors’ center photo-op, but the President of this republic prostrates himself before King Abdullah as if he’s a subject of the Saudi pseudo-Crown.”) Mostly, I share Pat Lang‘s befuddlement that Americans care so much about monarchs and their little rituals.

Photo: Sydney Morning Herald

FILED UNDER: US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:
  2. just me says:

    I the touching of the queen was a minor breech of etiquette, the bowing issue was probably as much nervousness as anything. Still can’t help but wonder whether anyone briefed the Obama’s on appropriate etiquette in these situations.

    But all presidents have their moments of fumbling when in outside the US or hosting dignitaries from other nations. My guess is that the Obama’s get more passes than Bush, because the media already was running with its “Bush is an idiot” story.

  3. Anthony says:

    “befuddlement that Americans care so much about monarchs and their little rituals.”

    Well, I certainly don’t think you’re under any obligation to gush and I can also understand that, given that the US started off in a revolution against we Brits and our monarchical ways, it’s a touchy issue. On the other hand, we are, you know, your mates (to the extent that the concept exists in international affairs…). And it’s perhaps worth recognising that, while the Queen is not elected, she does reign by dint of a very high level of popular approval. So, to a certain extent, by respecting the Queen’s “little rituals”, you’re respecting our more broadly defined social mores. Just as, presumably, you’d like us to respect yours.

    That said, it’s also worth pointing out that a) nobody on this side of the pond cares about the Michelle Obama gaffe [she’s getting very positive press and has delighted the public], b) there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the Queen is particularly miffed and c) just about all the press coverage on the issue seems to be American, it’s off the radar over here. So my suggestion would be that it’s not worth worrying about, not least when one considers that the people flaying the Obamas over protocol issues today are largely the same people who would run a marathon to defend President Bush’s public conduct with world leaders. It’s a hack issue. Let it go.

  4. Franklin says:

    1) I pretty much agree with JJ on every point.
    2) Michelle Malkin would be outraged if Obama’s tie was crooked.

  5. IanY77 says:

    At the end of the day, I just can’t muster the outrage of Michelle Malkin…

    James, I am a longtime reader of this blog, although more of a lurker than an active member. However I can say with no uncertainty whatsoever, that you simply do not have it in you to muster up enough outrage on anything to equal Michelle Malkin’s outrage. Michelle’s outrage is something that you just have, like a great singing voice. Michelle is an outrage-oholic. She can’t live without her outrage-ohol. Until you can be convinced that Rachel Ray is trying to support Hamas by use of a scarf, you just don’t stack up. Sorry, and I hope that I haven’t ruined your day.

    Oh, and PS, the only thing Obama would have done to make Steyn happy would have been for Obama to stand in front of the King, turn around bend over, drop trou, and wiggle his behind. Anything else, no good.

  6. rodney dill says:

    As far as too much familiarity with the queen, if the British citizens aren’t offended, then we shouldn’t be either.

    As far as bowing to the Saudi king, we’ve elected the liberal Dan Quayle, we should expect an Obumble or forty. Doesn’t seem to be anything other than an overload in the various protocols that Barry needs to follow. Guess he didn’t have a teleprompter handy to tell him what to do.

  7. Bithead says:

    Befuddlement? I don’t understand that one, James. Isn’t protocol part of foriegn policy? We were told how much better this stuff was going to be under Obama. Remember?

  8. Steve Plunk says:

    Is there such a thing as a Chicago Hillbilly?

    Obama’s staff is dropping the ball on a lot of little things like this. Makes you wonder if they can handle the big things. That’s not outrage on my part but merely an observation.

    In many cultures the little things are big things and the image projected by leadership is how they are judged. So far this president is projecting an image of inexperience coupled with arrogance. That combination can be a serious problem down the road.

  9. anjin-san says:

    The right has to have something to talk about so that they can avoid discussion of the stock market and a fair amount of other better than expected news on the economy.

  10. Bithead says:

    Yes, but God, Anjin, let’s not talk about how that came about, right? I mean, removing regulation … in this case, Mark to Market’is the proximate cause of that betterment.

    End of discussion.

  11. anjin-san says:

    Yes, but God, Anjin, let’s not talk about how that came about, right? I mean, removing regulation … in this case, Mark to Market’is the proximate cause of that betterment.

    No, lets talk about it. Its big of you to agree that Obama is not an ideologically driven guy who simply wants to regulate for the sake of regulation. Hardly fits in with your nonsense about him being a Marxist…

  12. JKB says:

    Obama’s bow shows he still has little understanding of what the President is. When representing the US, it is important never to impugn its sovereignty. The President is always representing the US. The bow was a show of subjection, thus impugning the US sovereignty. Coupled with the choice not to show undue deference to the Queen of our closest ally but rather to show common familiarity, you get an odd situation indeed.

    The is an embarrassment but what can you expect? Obama didn’t go for the serious business of representing the US, he was just excited to be part of the club.

  13. Steve Hynd says:

    Then again, a quick bow is less creepy than holding hands with him, as Obama’s predecessor was known to do.

    Or feeling another head of state up.

    And as a Brit who’d prefer we were a Republic too, I’ve no problem with Michelle’s friendly hug. I honestly doubt Lizzie Windsor does either. Lizzie’s not too shabby as royals go, she’s always had an appreciation that “we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns”.

    Regards, Steve

  14. I’m surprised to see you buy into the ZOMG he gave her an iPod silliness. The iPod wasn’t the gift, it was just the vehicle for the video/photos of her historic trip. It’s an electronic photo album and I understand it was one of the items the Queen herself said she wanted when Michelle asked her for suggestions. And the signed Rodgers songbook was a rare item and a thoughtful gift. I’m told the Queen is a big fan of American musicals.

  15. Bithead says:

    Its big of you to agree that Obama is not an ideologically driven guy who simply wants to regulate for the sake of regulation.

    If that’s true, then why did’t that get trumpted by the administration as the cause of the betterment, rather than what DID get trumpted… the amount of confistacted money he spent?

    But as I say, end of discussion. As is typical with you, you change the subject when you can’t handle the one at hand…. but even then, your change of subject is wrong, too. I wasn’t too happy about straying from the stated topic, but I’m not about to leave your misdirections hanging out there, without stomping them.

  16. anjin-san says:

    The Queen responded to Michelle Obama’s gesture. Non-issue. If anything, it would seem the First Lady is a hit with the royals. As for DVDs, there are not that many gifts one guy can give another guy without it getting a bit weird, especially if you don’t really know the other party. DVDs are appropriate, I gave my boss a book once, and he can afford to buy his own bookstore. Non-issue.

    The bow was kind of lame, but not half so much as Bush’s hand holding.

  17. anjin-san says:

    But as I say, end of discussion

    Another day, another rant ‘n run from bitsy-doody. Guess you have to head over to Malkin’s site to find out what you think.

  18. Bithead says:

    Still can’t help but wonder whether anyone briefed the Obama’s on appropriate etiquette in these situations.

    Oh, I suppose that they have, just me, but based on the DVD’s, the Churchill Bust, and a few other little cues, what we’re seeing is not so subtle message sending from Obama and company about who is if import to them and who is not, by where and in what direction protocol isn’t followed.

  19. Wayne says:

    I personally don’t care a hoot about the protocols although I try to respect them somewhat when I am involved if that makes sense. The whole Obamas’ deals don’t upset me. Steve Plunk does make a good point though and I should care more because of it but for the moment I don’t.

    I think once again it is the hypocrisy of many that is annoying. I remember that outrage by the MSM of some of Bush’s missteps. Another recent example of hypocrisy is when the MSM and liberals give most of the credit to Obama anytime the market goes up but claim he has no influence on the markets when it goes down. I don’t think the left even try to be consistent.

  20. Joe Isuzu says:

    I’m not surprised by the outrage. Most conservatives are the idealogical descendents of the Tories who opposed the American Revolution and the urge to be ruled by an unquestioned authoritarian figure is inherent in their world-view. Any breach of protocol is considered a mortal sin.

  21. Our Paul says:

    Ah yes James, you do know how to obfuscate President Obama’s accomplishments at the G-20 meeting by presenting the frothing at the mouth over touching and bowing. Good red meat for the easily scandalized libertarian or conservative ideologues!!! Dare I quote their ravings in this thread?

    Yesterday’s New York Times article, and today’s Guardian, which reviews press comments from different countries, deserves a read by unfettered minds. Meanwhile, over at the New Atlanticist Alexei Monsarrat, who is a colleague of our host, is not impressed with the G-20 summit results. But then, Mr. Monsarrat did not get into the issue of bowing, leaving that up to James.

    Our host makes the distinction between bowing at a king at his home country, and doing the same at an International meeting. In his view, one is acceptable, the other is not. Me thinks a tad bit of the Ugly American is creeping into the discourse. Bowing while shaking hands is a convention in a variety of cultures, and what the President was doing was following this convention. To imply that this act diminishes the Presidency, or is a failure of protocol, is really scrapping the bottom of the barrel.

    What is clear is that President Obama was successful in presenting a different image of our country than what the previous Administration did. That in itself is a major achievement.

  22. An Interested Party says:

    The fact that any of this is being being held up as major news and “outrage” is being exhibited against it on certain websites only shows what a sad state the right is in these days…I mean, this is something to get that worked up over? Really?

  23. Eneils Bailey says:

    No big deal here.

    I kinda liked it when the First Lady butt-bumped the Queen, with that ample ass, knocked Queenie to the floor. Queenie got up, gave her a two-fingered eye poke and then challenged her to a bout of arm-wrestling…
    The things the MSM refuses to report.

    After all, the Messiah’s wife has the ranking protocol over the Queen when it comes to bitches in distress.

  24. Wayne says:

    “the urge to be ruled by an unquestioned authoritarian figure is inherent”

    Joe what are you smoking? In this post conservatives are arguing against overbearing and abusive government. In general we are against large powerful, very controlling governments. We condemn our President or other elected officials if we think they are wrong regardless of what party they belong to. Unlike most liberals who think their guy or gal can never do any wrong. Although there are a few groups that will protest regardless. So what unquestioned authoritarian figure are you talking about unless you mean God.

  25. davod says:

    “As for DVDs, there are not that many gifts one guy can give another guy without it getting a bit weird, especially if you don’t really know the other party.”

    The gift is to the UK people. That’s why Brown gave Obama:

    A copy of the first edition of Sir Martin Gilbert’s authorized biography of Churchill; a framed commissioning paper for HMS Resolute, rescued by an American whaler in 1856; and a pen holder fashioned from the timber of HMS Gannet, a sister ship of the Resolute that also served for a time on anti-slavery missions off Africa.

  26. Wayne says:

    Sorry I mistook which post I was on.

  27. An Interested Party says:

    re: Eneils Bailey | April 3, 2009 | 03:21 pm

    Hmm…I guess that’s some sorta sarcastic humor there and/or someone’s really bitter about the election results in November…if one really wanted to be snarky, one could point out that, despite Michelle Obama’s alleged faults of having an “ample ass” and of being a “bitch in distress”, at least she never killed anyone

  28. Eneils Bailey says:

    AIP,

    It may do you well to get a life and not take things so seriously.
    My attempts at humor often fall short, as your trying to be serious is is actually more humorous.

    at least she never killed anyone…

    But the queen did beat her two out three in arm-wrestling.

  29. Bithead says:

    The fact that any of this is being being held up as major news and “outrage” is being exhibited against it on certain websites only shows what a sad state the right is in these days…I mean, this is something to get that worked up over? Really?

    So, when other blogs went ape on Bush for holding hands with the Saudi King, it indicated a sad state of affairs for the left?

    Oh, I SEE….

    (Staring hard…)

  30. anjin-san says:

    The gift is to the UK people

    Maybe Obama just wanted to give a personal gift that he thought Mr. Brown would actually enjoy using.

    There is such a thing as over analyzing…

  31. An Interested Party says:

    re: Eneils Bailey | April 3, 2009 | 05:56 pm

    I have a life, but thanks for your concern…I wasn’t being too serious…just as sarcastic as you were, and, apparently, more funny…

    re: Bithead | April 3, 2009 | 09:20 pm

    Any blogs that went ape because Bush held hands with the Saudi king deserve to be ridiculed, as that was something simply to make fun of, not take seriously, or get as outraged as someone like Michelle Malkin is about these current events…but really, please continue to show horror at stuff like this, see if it improves the right’s political fortunes…

  32. Our Paul says:

    Said it before, but I will say it again: If you look at the world through fixed ideological eyes you are going to miss problems. And, if you see problems, the fixed ideology will prevent examination of the universe of potential solutions.

    From the above we can infer the obvious:

    (1) Unable to discern problems, attention is fixed on the trivial, in this case President Obama’s greeting of the Saudi Prince, and his wife’s interaction with the Queen of England.

    (2) Unable to provide alternative solutions to readily discernable problems, the ideologue only way to advance a conversation is by ridicule, or a change of topic which might advance his credentials.

    Thus, Eneils Bailey ( April 3, 2009 | 05:56 pm ) persistent asininities about arm wrestling, Wayne ( April 3, 2009 | 03:21 pm ) screed about the purity of conservatives, JKB ( April 3, 2009 | 10:06 am ) slam on Obama’s bow on greeting the Saudi Prince, Steve Plunk ( April 3, 2009 | 09:41 am ) implying that Obama is a “Chicago Hillbilly”.

    Three months after his election, facing a world financial catastrophe that assuredly originated in the US, President Obama either had to show that he could play the game on the world stage, or that he was a lightweight. Assuredly folks are entitled to their opinion, just as they are free to join the Flat Earth Society.

    Ignorance in this matter is no excuse, the problem are easy to identify, and Obama’s performance can be weighed against them.

  33. just me says:

    Maybe Obama just wanted to give a personal gift that he thought Mr. Brown would actually enjoy using.

    Except he can’t enjoy using them unless he comes to the US to watch them, and that is a pretty expensive trip to watch a DVD set. Obama (okay technically his people, because I seriously doubt Obama actually went shopping for the DVD’s) bought the wrong format.

    Makes me think there wasn’t much thought put into the gift.

  34. Bithead says:

    ny blogs that went ape because Bush held hands with the Saudi king deserve to be ridiculed, as that was something simply to make fun of, not take seriously, or get as outraged as someone like Michelle Malkin is about these current events…but really, please continue to show horror at stuff like this, see if it improves the right’s political fortunes…

    AT what point did I actually do that?
    Michelle is correct that Obama’s actions here are outside of protocol, and, I think, indicative of what’s going on in the man’s mind. A foreign policy gaff, at least… but if you read what I actually wrote, you’ll probably notice that if anything I was having trouble keeping from yawning in my comments. This kind of nonsense is precisely what I expected out of this president. As such it generates no shock or surprise at all.

  35. anjin-san says:

    Michelle is correct that Obama’s actions here are outside of protocol

    Very thoughtful of Michelle to tell you what you think…

  36. Our Paul says:

    What truly OTB needs is its own resident protocol expert so that we no longer have to consult Our Lady of the Poison Pen on these matters. James Joiner does not truly fit the bill, as he is pre-occupied in convincing the nation that its salvation lies in accepting the tenants of Libertarianism.

    If such Protocol Expert is clairvoyant to the point of being able to determine what is going on in a man’s mind by how he greets the ruler of another country, why that would be an unexpected benefit.

    I nominate Bithead for he has positioned himself as to the final arbitrator of whether Malkin is correct or incorrect, to wit:

    Michelle is correct that Obama’s actions here are outside of protocol, and, I think, indicative of what’s going on in the man’s mind.

    Of course we may lose him if he ever confesses to an Emergency Room physician that he can tell what’s going on in the man’s mind by the way he shakes hands.

    Something will have to be done about his photo. A Protocol Expert cannot look like a glaring schnauzer deprived of his favorite bone.

  37. An Interested Party says:

    re: Our Paul at April 4, 2009 00:40

    Exactly right…it’s no surprise that many on the right are “outraged” by all this or that the GOP minority in Congress is presenting phantom budgets with no real numbers…what a sad little wilderness conservatives find themselves in right now…

  38. Bithead says:

    So, how is it that the thoughts of James… and apparently myself, are no longer valid?

    Ah.. because they ahve the ermidity to both agree with Michelle and disagree with YOU.

    Get it outta the sunshine, Herman.

  39. Our Paul says:

    The reason why I nominated you, Bithead, to be Protocol Expert at OTB is that you are a stickler for truth and honor. In addition, you speak with the righteous certitude of man’s whose soul fears neither fires of hell, nor the icy darkness of limbo.

    These qualities are essential to establish dominance over the fire breathing and icy veined Malkin, who has with one or two vitriolic blogs established herself as an expert in Presidential behavior. This has placed our host in a difficult position, as you will note that he split the difference with Our Lady of the Poison Pen. Michelle Obama, our First Lady, was not condemned by James Joiner, while her husband, our President was.

    Thus, what OTB needs is a man or woman, with a critical eye, with impeccable credentials, and who can call the shots in this most important of all matters.

    To whom can the President bow to in a greeting, and how much can he bow, if permitted. Does a head bow (remember, Obama is 6’4”), shoulder twitch, or a cough during a greeting count?

    Once we have a pronouncement from you we can proceed to discus more weighty matters, such as what did Obama accomplish of note at the G-20 meeting.

    There is still this matter of your photo, but I am sure that is negotiable.

  40. Oman says:

    He did not bow to The Queen who was his host in England. So why bow to King Abdullah who like him was another guest.
    .
    Perhaps he was looking at Seniority

    In terms of seniority she has ruled since 1952 and Abdullah since 2005

    She is a direct descendant of the first King of what became England Cerdi King of Wessex about 495AD

    His first claimed ancestor is Mani’ ibn Rabi’ah al-Muraydi 1446AD and his first ancestor who ruled as a King from 1744 Muhammad ibn Saud (probably more realistically 1819 by Amir Turki ibn Abdullah bin Muhammad) and certainly Abdullah’s father Abdul-Aziz in 1902.

    So if you look at the most definite claim to rule a Kingdom by the Saudis in 1902 her family have ruled for 1400 years longer.

    So why bow to this new King of a new Kingdom who was a guest like yourself and not bow to your host, a far more senior ruler and whose family are far more established as rulers.

    Perhaps he was considering the fact that having conquered independent states in the mid 20thc (Hijaz, Asir, Najran etc) that the Al Saud now call the country after themselves ‘Saudi Arabia ‘ — Perhaps it would go down better if Britain was called Windsori Britain.

    Certainly he would not have reflected on the recent conquests of the Al Saudi family over much of the Arabian Peninsular while the democratic British dismantled a substantial Empire during the same period.

    Obama claims to be a Protestant Christian not a Muslim. Queen Elizabeth is head of the Protestant Church of England as her family have been for 450years.
    As President of the USA there is no need for him to bow to any monarch — but why ‘KowTow’ to the Al Saud?