BOSTON — Countries, like individuals, can get their feelings hurt. Sometimes a rift between leaders can do damage to international relations in ways that neither country would wish. At other times incidents that have nothing to do with governments can get in the way.
The latest example of the latter is the case of the great Indian cricket snub, in which India’s Premier League, which usually has scores of Pakistanis playing for its eight professional teams, this year declined to bid on any Pakistani players.
The Indian league said it feared Pakistanis might have trouble coming to India should tensions increase, but the Pakistanis took such offense that street protests broke out in several Pakistani cities. Delegations to India were canceled, and Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, said: “We cannot tolerate the humiliation of Pakistani cricketers and demand an apology from the Indian authorities.” The Indian government said it had nothing to do with the cricket decision.
Unfortunately, the incident came just when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was visiting the subcontinent trying to get the two arch-enemies to patch up their quarrels and concentrate on terrorism.
One of the most long-lasting incidents of hurt feelings among leaders involves Turkey’s Prime Minister Receep Tayyip Erdogan, who still appears cross at Israel for the way he was treated at the Economic Forum at Davos a year ago.
I happened to be in the audience, and reported for GlobalPost, on how the usually unflappable Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, lost his cool and began yelling at Erdogan in an open forum and wagging his finger in Erdogan’s face.
Peres had been taking a lot of flack from fellow panelists, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the Arab League’s Amre Moussa, about Israel’s Gaza war. When Erdogan chimed in with his own criticism, Peres blew up.
My feeling, then and now, is that Peres expected criticism from the U.N. and the Arab League, but Turkey was supposed to be a friend and ally.
Erdogan had just been describing his efforts to bring Syria and Israel closer together, and felt betrayed by Peres. When he was not given what he thought was enough time to reply to Peres he walked off the stage and went home.
Israel recently poured more fire on the flame when Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon went out of his way to humiliate the Turkish ambassador, Oguz Celikkol. Ayalon called him into the ministry, sat him down in a low chair in front of a table with no Turkish flag. Ayalon told the previously assembled TV cameras that “we just want it to be seen that he is seated below us, and that there is only one flag here, and, as you can see, we are not smiling.”
Ayalon was upset about a Turkish TV drama that portrayed Israeli soldiers in a bad light. The Turkish government said it had nothing to do with the show, and demanded an apology, which Ayalon reluctantly gave.
As one of Israel’s Turkey experts, Alon Liel, put it, Ayalon had made “Israel’s diplomacy look ridiculous.” In a sea of not-so-friendly Arab states, it would have been in Israel’s interest not to further alienate its best friend in the Muslim world, Liel said. But the hurt feelings of first Shimon Peres, then Erdogan, and then Ayalon, caused them all to act in ways that were not really in their nations’ interests.
There have been less serious examples of international hurt feelings in recent weeks. When President Obama was planning Hanukkah festivities last month, word got out in the Israeli press that Obama was asking fewer Jews to his party than had President Bush. “Obama Downsizes Hanukka in the White House,” headlined Yediot Achronot. Jews on both sides of the Atlantic were upset, even though the numbers of Jews invited were almost the same — 450 for Obama and 500 for Bush.
The silliest case of hurt feelings came when the British press objected to President Obama returning a bust of Winston Churchill which had been loaned to President Bush. “Under the headline “Obama Gives Britain the Cold Shoulder,” the Daily Telegraph’s Con Coughlin listed the returned bust in his ridiculous bill of particulars in an article for the Wall Street Journal headlined “Obama Gives Britain the Cold Shoulder.” Coughlin wrote that the Obama administration “can barely conceal its disdain.”
It is not uncommon for presidents to re-decorate the Oval Office when they come to occupy the White House. I have no doubt that no insult to the United Kingdom was meant, nor was there any disrespect for the great statesman intended. But there is no accounting when feelings are looking to be hurt.