On Tuesday U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is in the Middle East trying to arrange for a cease-fire in the Israeli-Palestinian fighting in Gaza, met with the Egyptian President. Prior to the meeting, Kerry’s aides had to go through a metal detector, and Kerry himself was scanned with a security wand.
Reuters reports that such a security screening of a high-ranking U.S. official is “unusual.” I’d say it’s unprecedented. I cannot remember any instance where the American Secretary of State was screened, or wanded down, prior to meeting with a foreign dignitary. And, it’s hard not to feel a certain sense of schadenfreude at seeing a guy who is usually ushered from meeting to meeting by limo and subject to elaborate courtesies have to undergo a security scan like the rest of the masses.
Obviously, though, there’s a more important issue at work here. We know the Middle East is a place where symbolism is important and people are deeply sensitive to perceived slights; showing the sole of your shoe can be viewed as a deadly insult. I’m confident that the security screening was an intentional effort to send a message; no one could reasonably believe that the Secretary of State was packing heat or posed a security threat. The message therefore has to be that the Egyptian government doesn’t view representatives of the American government as needing special treatment, and they wanted Kerry and his aides to understand that new reality in a very tangible, personal way. With the incident being widely reported, and with the groupthink mentality at play in the Middle East, the Egyptian view may well be shared by other governments in the region, too.
If American diplomats are treated like security threats by governments in countries that we hope will help to keep the peace in that deeply troubled region and American power and influence in the Middle East in fact is waning, it is bad news for America and bad news for the world.