President Obama had already planned to visit Paris next week to press for a far-reaching outcome in the international climate talks set to open there Monday.
But after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks at the hands of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Mr. Obama’s trip becomes something more: a declaration of sorts that the international community will not be cowed by forces that would take the world backward, but will instead come together to move forward on one of the most urgent global issues of the day.
“What a powerful rebuke to the terrorists it will be when the world stands as one and shows that we will not be deterred from building a better future for our children,” Obama declared at the White House Tuesday, with French President François Hollande at his side.
Now, Obama said Tuesday, his trip will express America’s solidarity with “our oldest ally,” and the Paris climate summit – where nearly 150 world leaders will gather just two weeks after a major terrorist attack – will demonstrate how the pull of a “barbaric” ideology cannot prevail against the forces of human progress.
The fight to “destroy” the Islamic State promises to figure on the president’s agenda, particularly when he dines with Mr. Hollande Monday night at the Élysée Palace.
Obama will be in Paris Monday and Tuesday, helping to open what is set to be two weeks of tough bargaining aimed at delivering a set of global commitments on emission reductions that are designed to slow the rise in global temperatures. He will meet with the leaders of China and India, which along with the United States form the troika of top carbon emitters. He'll also meet with the leaders of small island nations expected to bear some of the heaviest impact of climate change.
The White House is also hinting that the president is likely to make time over the two-day visit to express the American people’s condolences to the French, but perhaps for security reasons has remained vague on how and where that might occur.
“I’m sure [Obama] will want to mark the recent terrorist attack and pay tribute to the people of Paris,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told members of the press earlier this week. He said the president “will want to speak to” French and indeed global determination to defeat terrorism.
“We see ... the fact that Paris, so soon after these attacks, is hosting this important summit of world leaders as a clear sign of strength and resilience in the face of terrorists, that we will not be deterred from doing the important work that the world demands because of the actions of a number of terrorists,” Mr. Rhodes said.
Other world leaders appear to want to send a similar message by attending the Paris conference. French officials noted this week that none of the 147 leaders scheduled to attend – including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin – has canceled plans in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
French officials this week announced a reinforcement of security measures for the summit on top of the state of emergency that France has been under since the attacks, and a large number of side events organized by nongovernmental groups have been canceled. But French officials, in particular Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, pushed back against some suggestions that the summit be postponed or moved, saying that would send the wrong message.
Hollande’s visit to the White House this week was all about solidarity and what Obama referred to as “unity of purpose” against the Islamic State, but some cracks in that Franco-American unity may show when Obama and Hollande meet again in Paris to discuss the French “war” on the terrorists.
On Friday, the French suggested for the first time publicly that ground troops who would complement international airstrikes aimed at destroying the Islamic State might include government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Troops on the ground cannot be ours,” Mr. Fabius told a French radio station Friday, but he added they could include Syrians from the opposition Free Syrian Army, which the US supports; Arabs from neighboring Sunni states; “and why not regime troops.”
French officials say it is not a matter of accepting Mr. Assad’s political survival, but of focusing first on the battle against the Islamic State to lay the groundwork for a viable political transition in Syria. France wants the terrorist group destroyed and Assad deposed to make way for a political transition, “but not all at the same time,” as one French official says, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing international discussions on Syria.
Obama may not buy into everything he hears about Syria and the Islamic State at the Élysée Palace Monday night, but that is not likely to alter the expressions of solidarity he’s expected to offer the French people or his intention to see the Paris climate summit demonstrate a world uniting to move forward.