- - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

It’s in unscripted moments — when there’s no teleprompter rolling — that we get the most telling insights into the mind of President Obama. These insights were especially on view at his joint news conference with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Sunday in Kuala Lumpur.

Mr. Obama was asked about Malaysia’s record on “human rights, racial tolerance, political accountability and free speech” and specifically “the precarious legal position” of an opposition political leader, whose case has been taken up by Human Rights Watch, among other monitoring organizations.

“I think the prime minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia’s still got some work to do,” said Mr. Obama, quickly adding, “just like the United States, by the way, has some work to do on these issues.”

That not-so-subtle dig at America might have been excused as an excess of good manners, sparing his host from embarrassment by bringing up that country’s dirty laundry in a public setting. But there was more, with a gratuitous suggestion that America’s laundry is even more soiled: “Human Rights Watch probably has a list of things they think we should be doing as a government.”

Most world leaders celebrate the virtues and strengths of their own nations and people, particularly when abroad. Not this president. Mr. Obama goes out of his way to undermine America’s position in the world by making a show of deferential bows and curtsies to foreign leaders and despots alike.

He lowered himself before Emperor Akihito last week in Japan. He even bowed to a Japanese mechanical robot. He once prostrated himself before Saudi King Abdullah and the president of China. He cozied up as an equal to Cuban dictator Raul Castro in South Africa. Obsequiousness isn’t a virtue — ever — in the leader of the free world.

“There is no reason for an American president to bow to anyone,” former Vice President Dick Cheney told Politico, the Capitol Hill political daily, after an Obama bow to the Japanese emperor in 2009. “Our friends and allies don’t expect it, and our enemies see it as a sign of weakness.” It embarrasses everyone, even the president’s hosts.

The weakness isn’t limited to the presidential body. At a town-hall meeting in Strasbourg five years ago, Mr. Obama’s celebrated rhetoric bowed to the French and the Europeans. “In America,” he said, “there’s a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world … There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.”

The next day, in response to a reporter’s question about whether the new president believed in American exceptionalism, he said: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism.” Two weeks later in Trinidad and Tobago, he was at it again. “While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere,” he told a Summit of the Americas gathering, “we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms.” The president’s inaugural “apology tour” was without precedent — and it was an embarrassment.

In Malaysia, Mr. Obama visited that country’s National Mosque, an unusual gesture for a non-Muslim world leader. Had the president wanted to set an example for Malaysia on human rights and religious freedom, he could have met representatives of minority religious communities who are often persecuted and abused by Malaysia’s majority Muslims.

“Given the challenges and concerns for non-Muslim religions in Malaysia, especially Christianity,” said a spokesman for the Rev. Eu Hong Seng, chairman of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, “it would have been good for President Obama to also visit the places of religious worship of other religions.”

That would have been leading by example, rather than from behind, but Mr. Obama, alas, is more comfortable bringing up the rear wherever he goes.