In the immediate aftermath of the initial terrorist attack in Paris last week, President Obama condemned the violence in the strongest possible terms, as administration officials reached out to their French counterparts to offer assistance. The president himself made a surprise visit to the French Embassy in Washington on Thursday and left a sympathetic message in a condolence book.
Gerard Araud, the French Ambassador to the United States, hailed the president’s visit as “a moving and highly significant gesture,” adding, “The French are grateful.”
As of yesterday, however, an entirely different story about a symbolic gesture was all the rage.
It was a photograph printed, broadcast and tweeted around the globe: The front line of Sunday’s Paris unity march. There was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Between them were the French president, the German chancellor and the leader of Mali, arm in arm.Glaringly missing were President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. or Secretary of State John Kerry…. Conservatives were uniformly brutal, as expected.
Now, it’s simply not realistic to think President Obama himself would have participated in the march – the amount of Secret Service prep work in a wide open public space would have been prohibitive, and worse, the security precautions would have made the event Obama-centric, promoting a very different kind of backlash.
That said, Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris for a counter-terrorism meeting, but he did not participate in the march. The U.S. Ambassador to France did participate, but Jane Hartley is apparently not an official of a high enough rank, especially when standing alongside so many world leaders.
The administration presumably could have sent Vice President Biden, and in retrospect, the White House probably wishes it had. Press Secretary Josh Earnest conceded this afternoon, “I think it’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there.”
And with that in mind, if White House critics want to complain about a diplomatic error, they appear to have a clean rhetorical shot. Unfortunately, the right went completely overboard.
It started this morning with the New York Daily News, which is apparently convinced the White House “let the world down” by not participating enough in a symbolic march. The condemnation seemed a bit much – chances are, France still realizes we’re close allies, and I have a hunch the world has other things on its mind.
The flood gates opened soon after. Fox News’ Doug Schoen argued that Obama “morally abdicated his place as the leader of the free world,” sending a message that “Obama just doesn’t care.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Obama’s absence from the symbolic event was “dangerous,” presumably from some kind of counter-terrorism perspective.
Fox News’ Ralph Peters went so far as to argue that Obama “chose the side of the terrorists” – he did not appear to be kidding with this garbage – while the Council on Foreign Relations’ Robert Danin said this might be “Obama’s diplomatic Katrina moment.”
I think he was serious, too.
Look, if the right wants to make the case that the White House made a mistake, it has a decent case to make. Indeed, the White House itself apparently won’t put up much of a fight on the point. A little grandstanding from politicians and pundits is to be expected.
But ideally we’d approach the larger context with a little more seriousness and with a greater appreciation for context. A diplomatic mistake at a symbolic march is not “dangerous.” It is not comparable to a deadly natural disaster. It does not prove that Obama is indifferent to terrorist deaths, since Obama has quite clearly proven the opposite to anyone who looks at reality with any degree of seriousness.
Our foreign relationships and our counter-terrorism strategies are multi-faceted. To ignore every other relevant detail and declare that a diplomatic misstep is the only fact that matters is rash.
Yesterday was not the defining moment for the U.S./France alliance or the American commitment to combatting terrorists. The right, whether it’s willing to admit it or not, must realize this, today’s manufactured outrage notwithstanding.