If we can be serious for a moment: The president made an error in judgment by not sending someone with a higher profile than our ambassador to join world leaders Sunday at a solidarity rally in Paris. The White House has admitted the error.
This more or less sums up the news of the past two days, but you wouldn’t guess it from the coverage and commentary. Based on the nearly 24-hour rehashing of the administration’s failure to assume a more important role at the rally, you’d think the U.S. had dropped out of NATO.
I’m not usually mistaken for an Obama advocate, but I’m finding it difficult to embrace the direness of his uncharacteristic disobedience to stagecraft. The lead headline in the New York Daily News Monday instructed the president: “You let the world down.”
Really? The United States has been leading the world in the fight against terror for well over a decade, and the president let down the world by not appearing at a rally?
Don’t get me wrong. The rally was important. Beautiful and profound, it was a consummate expression of the modern world’s commitment to end the madness of terrorism. I loved every moment of it and, as both a reporter and a member of the human race, which are not always mutually exclusive, I longed to be there.
I also would have enjoyed seeing our president among the other 44 leaders who attended.
But who really doubts America’s commitment to fighting terrorism or supporting the French in this moment of crisis? Certainly not the French. Not the terrorists. And certainly not our military men and women who have sacrificed blood and limb in the fight.
Thus, it seems we might reserve our high dudgeon for the murderous actors rather than the administration’s decision to send only U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley. Poor Hartley. She has been so minimized by President Barack Obama’s critics that chopped liver sneers with contempt.
Realistically, it is entirely possible that Obama’s advisers considered the terrorist threat in France sufficient to keep him away — not out of fear or lack of courage, as some commenters have suggested, but out of an abundance of caution. As important as all leaders are in the conduct of man’s moment on the planet, none is as important to the enemies of freedom as the U.S. president.
Obama the man may not be able to alter the position of stars or rewind the tides, but Obama the president can move crowds — or inspire havoc. All it takes is just one of the thousands of jihadists believed to be living in France to pull a stunt with the American president in attendance and the world teeters.
Moreover, anyone who has traveled with a president knows that preparations are elaborate and time-intensive. Dozens upon dozens of people work weeks or months in advance to plan and arrange such an expedition, coordinating security in the host country, mapping routes and timing details to the minute.
One reporter in Monday’s White House news briefing pointed out that Obama was able to get to Nelson Mandela’s memorial service on short notice. Why not Paris? Press secretary Josh Earnest responded that the Mandela memorial plans had been in the works for years. Spoiler alert: Reporters write important people’s obituaries long before those people die, as well.
More to the point, South Africa hadn’t just suffered a terrorist attack. In fact, it was such a relaxed occasion that one would have been comfortable taking selfies in the middle of the ceremony.
In the grand scheme of things, Obama’s calculation may be unpopular but was probably the right one. No disrespect to France’s ability to handle security around an enormous crowd while still reeling from a terrorist attack, but Obama’s presence unquestionably would have added several more layers of concern, logistical headaches and, not inconceivably, imposed greater risk for the throng.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who was in Paris at the time, would not have been so problematic. In hindsight, he should have filled the void.
But beyond the historic optics, there was no rational reason to expect the president to be there. In fact, one could reasonably argue that his going would have been a dereliction of duty given the potential risks.
What France and other nations need from us is support, sympathy and, most of all, intelligence. Symbolic gestures have their place in diplomacy and war, but sometimes the wiser act is playing it safe.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.