On Sunday, Paris held a “unity rally” in the wake of the horrific Charlie Hebdo attacks. Over 40 world leaders were reportedly in attendance and 3.7 million in the crowd overall.
President Obama was not.
And lo, did the wailing and gnashing of teeth ensue. Hardly a single writer, liberal or conservative, failed to harp on the president over his absence. The New York Daily News was downright hysterical, proclaiming on its cover that Obama “let the world down.”
Now, as a conservative, I do not often find myself defending Barack Obama. And, as a conservative commentator, I realize I am expected to consistently criticize Obama at any given opportunity, as any self-respecting partisan should, naturally!
But he deserves some slack here, for several reasons:
- Security/planning purposes. Obama’s security detail and planning takes weeks to coordinate. To scramble and get him to Paris on two days’ notice is not so easily done.
- The rally’s ultimate scale and size was unforeseeable. Sure, a rally was planned. How was the White House to know how many others would attend, exactly, or the monumental scale it would turn out to have?
- It is largely a European moment. As blogger Neal Dewing noted on Twitter, POTUS’s appearance could overshadow those of the European leaders in attendance – and this is a Euro issue. (While the threat of jihadism is a worldwide one, this particular event seems to be more about Europe waking up to the that reality.)
- Obama’s fiercest critics, after 12 hours of wondering why he wasn’t “leading the march” alongside the others, had a bit of egg on their face come Monday morning, when a viral photo revealed the world leaders did not, in fact, heroically “lead” the march after all but rather simply posed for a photo on an empty, heavily guarded street. Essentially, we are attacking Obama for not flying to France … for a photo-op.
- You may not have heard, because it has received curiously scant coverage in the media, but approximately 2,000 were massacred in Nigeria last week by Boko Haram – Nigeria’s equivalent of 9-11. All, however, are instead focused on Paris. The disconnect is troubling. Obama traveling to Paris, whilst not visiting Nigeria, would be terrible optics not to mention gravely insensitive.
- Sunday night, we learned that French president Francois Hollande had asked Israeli PM Benjamin Netenyahu not to attend, hoping to avoid the rally bearing any symbolism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu reportedly insisted on attending, at which point the French countered by inviting President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (both men attended). In other words, my chaotic sixth-grade birthday party invitation list had less drama than this rally. We are now left to, of course, wonder whether Hollande’s invitation to Obama was, perhaps, tepid? Did Hollande prefer to make this a rally that showcased “the rest of the world” and not one led, as usual, by the U.S.? It is certainly possible, if not probable.
- Considering the rally’s overriding theme was free speech, the list of world leaders who attended is rather amusing. On Twitter, a young student activist in England hammered the free speech record of several attendees, here. Others smirked over the ‘staunch defenders of the free press’ who attended the Paris rally. What is the point of Obama posing arm-in-arm with some of these folks?
Bottom line – while sending more senior officials would have been the right move, and the White House has acknowledged such, Obama’s skipping the rally was certainly excusable, if not advisable.