Obama’s absence from Charlie Hebdo rally: egregious diplomatic error?

The White House says that it was a mistake not to send someone of higher rank than ambassador to the Paris unity rally. But the world leaders who did attend didn't actually take part in the march, either. 

Philippe Wojazer/Pool/AP
From the left : Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, France's President Francois Hollande, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU President Donald Tusk, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a rally in Paris on Sunday.

On Sunday, what many estimated to be the largest crowd to appear in the streets of Paris since the city was liberated from the Nazis in 1945 brought some estimated 1.6 million people into the streets in a show of unity in the wake of the attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. Along with them were some 40 world leaders, including leaders from most of the nations of Western Europe, several African nations with ties to France, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The United States, meanwhile, was represented by our ambassador to France, and that led many to wonder why the US had not sent a higher-ranking representative to the march, especially given the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder was already in Paris for security meetings and neither President Obama nor Vice-President Biden had anything on their schedules this weekend:

The heads of Great Britain, Germany and Israel were there.

But President Barack Obama didn’t attend a unity march in Paris on Sunday, days after the deadly attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Nor did his secretary of state, John Kerry, who has deep ties to France.

Holder: Not yet sure which group is behind Paris attack

Kerry was in India, attending an entrepreneurship summit with new Prime Minister Narendra Modi – with whom the United States is hoping to develop much closer trade ties.

Instead, the United States was represented by U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley.

Attorney General Eric Holder was also in Paris, attending a security summit on combating terrorism. He recorded interviews that appeared on several U.S. news outlets Sunday, but was not spotted at the unity march.

No one from the administration would speak on record about the U.S. representation at the march.

“Attorney General Holder – a Cabinet level official – is representing the United States at the security meetings in Paris today. He is joined by the DHS Deputy Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas. The United States is represented at the march by Ambassador Hartley,” a senior Obama administration official said.

An administration official added: “As far as public signs of French solidarity from the U.S. – don’t forget several public statements from the President, his call to [French President Francois] Hollande and a condolence stop to the French embassy.”

Beyond that, the official said “all relevant components” of the U.S. government have been aiding their French counterparts, in some cases on “essentially a minute-by-minute basis to support their efforts.”

On Sunday night, a White House official who also asked not to be named added: “It is worth noting that the security requirements for both the President and (Vice President) can be distracting from events like this – for once this event is not about us!” The official did not address how other prominent world leaders were able to work around the security requirements.

Politico’s Edward Isaac Dovere raised questions:

France’s top diplomat in the U.S. tried, diplomatically, to make the best of it.

“Thank you to Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary at the Department of State, who has represented the U.S. Authorities at the demonstration in DC. A friend,” Ambassador Gérard Araud tweeted Sunday evening, as criticism of the administration mounted.

And though it’s symbolism – Obama made several statements last week condemning the terror, and the government has been supporting French efforts throughout – the symbolism has caught a lot of attention.

“I wish our US President had gone to Paris to stand with our European allies,” tweeted James Stavridis, the retired Navy admiral and current dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

“It’s stunning, truly stunning,” said Aaron David Miller, who among other responsibilities during his time at the State Department under both Republican and Democratic administrations, helped deliberate over which officials to send to which events. “It’s a poster child for tone deafness.”

Miller said he could see only two explanations for not sending the president, vice president or even first lady Michelle Obama to Paris: either that there was a deep terror threat, or that Obama might be secretly planning a larger event with NATO allies – bigger than the visit that British Prime Minister David Cameron (who was in Paris Sunday) will be making to the White House at the end of the week. But there’s no sign of such an event being organized, and Miller said there’s no reason to believe one is coming.

But Miller said he couldn’t see a reason to skip the rally even if there is a bigger leader event in the planning, and the idea of a security threat didn’t make sense either: After all, the security in the area met the standards of so many other leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, combined.

It’s unclear what role security concerns might have played in the decision to have no senior American officials take part in the Paris march. As a general rule, the Secret Service doesn’t let either Obama or Biden be in the open air in areas that haven’t had a full security sweep, and the White House tends to be mindful of having security precautions create distractions around events.

But a forceful president could dismiss such concerns to make a public point about terrorism. “You want to counter that, and you want to show up,” Miller said. “It’s very much about symbolism. And France and the United States, for a longer period of time, embody the very propositions that are under attack

And CNN’s Jake Tapper, who typically is rather restrained in editorializing, is fairly critical of the administration:

The United States, which considers itself to be the most important nation in the world, was not represented in this march – arguably one of the most important public demonstrations in Europe in the last generation – except by U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley, who may have been a few rows back. I didn’t see her. Even Russia sent Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

I say this as an American – not as a journalist, not as a representative of CNN – but as an American: I was ashamed.

I certainly understand the security concerns when it comes to sending President Barack Obama, though I can’t imagine they’re necessarily any greater than sending the lineup of other world leaders, especially in aggregate.

But I find it hard to believe that collectively President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Attorney General Eric Holder – who was actually in France that day for a conference on counterterrorism – just had no time in their schedules on Sunday. Holder had time to do the Sunday shows via satellite but not to show the world that he stood with the people of France?

There was higher-level Obama administration representation on this season’s episodes of “The Good Wife” on CBS.

I get that the President visited the French Embassy in Washington and that Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in French, and I certainly understand that the American commitment to security in Europe rivals no other. But with all due respect, those are politicians spending money that they didn’t earn and sending troops whom they don’t know.

And this is not just a matter of the current occupant of the White House.

I find it hard to believe that Speaker of the House John Boehner and new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had more worthy pursuits on Sunday than standing side-by-side with our French brothers and sisters as they came together in an inspirational way.

After September 11, the first world leader to visit the United States was France’s Jacques Chirac, though the most forceful conversation about France in Congress that I can recall came a few years later during debate over whether to invade Iraq and revolved around renaming pommes frites in the U.S. House cafeteria.

And I’m frankly floored that not one of the people who is contemplating running for president in 2016 has yet to even tweet on the subject of the momentous demonstration in Paris, much less attend France’s biggest rally in the history of the republic.

I imagine that Hillary Clinton and her husband are kicking themselves for not hopping on a corporate jet to get here. Can you picture Hillary and Bill walking in the front row, arm-in-arm with Netanyahu and Hollande?

Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Paul Ryan attended the Green Bay-Dallas football game Sunday and at least one of them sent his potential rivals mischievous tweets as if they were contemplating running for president of Beta Theta Pi.

And Jeb? Mitt? Crickets.

Why? I hope it’s not American arrogance, a belief that everyone should express shock when something bad happens to us but that our presence at an international rally is worth less than a ticket to the Green Bay game when the victims speak in accents we don’t understand.

As a preliminary matter, I think it’s fairly easy to dismiss the criticism that President Obama, or even Vice-President Biden, should have been the one to go to Paris yesterday on a trip that, obviously, would have been very last minute, to say the least. The most obvious reason for this, of course, is the fact that both men travel inside of a security bubble that is unlike anything that any other world leader lives with on a daily basis. Even the simple act of the president traveling the few blocks from the White House to Capitol Hill involves multiple levels of security, closed streets, counter-assault teams on rooftops and, of course, a massive motorcade. All of this follows the president everywhere he goes, whether it is within the United States or on an overseas trip. How, exactly, is security of that type supposed to be reconciled with a crowd of nearly 2 million people at close quarters like the one we saw in Paris yesterday? Quite obviously, it can’t and had President Obama traveled to Paris this weekend, he likely would not have been able  to participate in the march for this very reason. The same likely would have been true for Vice-President Biden, who also travels inside an extensive security bubble whenever he travels. One can, perhaps, criticize the extent to which we have allowed the presidential security bubble to grow, but it is a reality of the office and the idea that the president can just pick up and decide to take a trip to a foreign country on a whim is simply absurd. Certainly, the Secret Service is capable of putting together last minute security plans when they are required to, even for international trips, but those types of last minute trips are unusual for presidents for a reason: because they are difficult to plan and, quite often, disruptive. Given all of that, the idea of the president or vice-president going to Paris to march with other world leaders, which in the end is merely a symbolic act in any event, seems to be rather silly and likely would have led to logistical issues that would have taken away from the real purpose of the march, which was for the people of Paris themselves not an opportunity for politicians to get their picture in the paper.

At the same time, I think one can argue that it would have been appropriate for the United States to have been represented by someone above a mere ambassador at an event that had heads of state, prime ministers, and foreign ministers in attendance. As noted, Attorney General Eric Holder was present in Paris on Sunday and even did several of the Sunday morning shows via satellite from Paris. Why he was unable to attend the rally is unclear. In the end, though, I have agree with Ron Fournier that the administration made a mistake here, but that it certainly was not a major one nor does it demonstrate anything about American commitment to the War On Terror:

Get a grip. Just as Obama has a responsibility to recognize and exploit the power of presidential symbolism, his critics must not forget the importance of context. There are bigger things to worry about – and more important failings of the Obama administration – than the delicate feelings of the French.

His critics seem to forget a few things.

1. The United States has some 66,000 military personnel deployed in Europe. More than 6,800 U.S. service members have died in post-9/11 operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. treasury finance intelligence and military operations across the globe, making the United States the most stalwart enemy of terrorists.

2. The president of the United States doesn’t need to march in the streets of Paris to prove his nation’s commitment.

3. Somebody should find out how many federal agents, spies, and intelligence assets the United States has dispatched to Europe since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Does anybody think the Obama administration hasn’t flooded the zone?

4. Obama’s presence at the rally would have been disruptive. The apparatus that follows the U.S. president is isolating and suppressive – a direct counter to the vibe that organizers achieved in the streets of Paris.

5. Obama and his national security team are rightly worried about the next 9/11. Only hard work and good luck have kept the wolves at bay this long. An attack like the ones in Paris last week keeps U.S. national security personnel awake at night because among their greatest fears are so-called lone wolf attacks on soft targets in the United States. There could have been a copycat.

Here’s my thought process: Had there been an attack on U.S. soil while Obama marched in Paris, I would have wondered whether the president and his team had taken their eyes off the ball. Wouldn’t that be the natural reaction? The conservative Outrage Machine would have demanded impeachment proceedings.

It’s also worth noting that had Obama gone to Paris many of the president’s critics on the right would have accused the president of making the march “about him” rather than a way for the people of France to express their grief and outrage over the attacks and their support for the ideas of liberty that have long been an important part of their national culture. Had Biden been sent as the representative, then the comments would have been all about how we were somehow “insulting” France by sending a “buffoon” like the vice-president to such an important event in the capitol of one of our closest allies. In that sense, the administration would have been criticized no matter what it did. So, yes, it was perhaps an error to not send someone higher ranking than an ambassador to what turned out to be the biggest rally in modern French history, but the idea that the president himself should have gone is really rather silly.

Update: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on Monday that they now recognize it was a “mistake” to not send someone of a rank higher than ambassador to Paris:

The White House conceded Monday that it made a mistake in not sending a senior official to the weekend unity march in Paris.

“I think it’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at his daily briefing.

“Had the circumstances been a little bit different, I think the president himself would’ve liked to have been there,” Earnest said, noting that the rally came together quickly late Friday and it would’ve been difficult for President Barack Obama to attend.

“We’re talking about a march that came together in about 36 hours, and a march that took place outdoors,” he added, explaining some of the security challenges that a presidential trip would have presented. He added that the security measures necessary for the president to attend the Sunday rally would have had a “significant impact” on the millions of people who gathered in Paris.

Earnest declined to describe the administration’s decision-making process about the trip, though he did say that the issue did not reach the president. Earnest said he didn’t know what Obama was doing while on White House grounds on Sunday.

Perhaps more significantly, it turns out that the world leaders didn’t really take part in the march at all:

Heads of state including David Cameron, Benjamin Netanyahu and François Hollandehave been criticised for what some believe is a misleading photo opportunity.

The world leaders were pictured supposedly at the forefront of a march of one million people on the streets of Paris, protesting the actions of Islamist militants who slaughtered 20 in a spree lasting three days.

A photo has emerged which suggests the politicians were in a heavily guarded street which was closed to the public, prompting critics to accuse them of abusing the situation.

Politicians fought to be at the front of the picture, which many said showed them heroically “leading” the marches.

Critics suggest the government figures were misleading the public and it was all just a “photo op."

Had Obama gone, this, no doubt, would have been the basis for his critics to attack him.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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