Shortly after terrorists attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week and killed 12 people, the U.S. ambassador to France put out an official statement condemning the act of brutality and expressing solidarity with the victims and the French people. “Americans stand in solidarity with the victims of this senseless attack, their families and the people of France,” the statement read. “Today we are all Charlie Hebdo.” President Obama echoed that sentiment in his own statement on the attacks and promised the French government whatever help it would need from U.S. law enforcement agencies. “We are in touch with French officials and I have directed my Administration to provide any assistance needed to help bring these terrorists to justice.” Obama made good on that promise – the FBI began sharing information and assisting French authorities with the investigation almost immediately.
This past weekend, world leaders traveled to Paris as over a million people gathered in a mass demonstration of unity. Barack Obama was not among them. Nor was Vice President Joe Biden. Nor was any other elected Democrat or Republican of national significance. But this absence by the president – all the previous statements of solidarity and acts of official cooperation notwithstanding – has become proof that Obama doesn’t care about France and doesn’t take terrorism seriously.
Most of this line of argumentation is coming from opportunistic conservatives, though there are plenty of media types grinding the axe. It’s a bit surreal for those of us who endured the era of “Freedom Fries” and “Axis of Weasel” to see the right criticize a sitting president for insufficient Francophilia. (One can still buy “Boycott France” bumper stickers at BillOReilly.com for just $1.25.) But like good students of Bush-era foreign policy, they get that the “war on terror” will be won through superior optics, and that the efficacy of a foreign policy strategy can be judged largely by how tough or serious you sound.
Hence you have insipid reactions to Obama’s rally non-attendance from would-be Republican leaders like Ted Cruz, who wrote this in Time magazine:
The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous. The attack on Paris, just like previous assaults on Israel and other allies, is an attack on our shared values. And, we are stronger when we stand together, as French President François Hollande said, for “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”
“Dangerous”! Cruz never got around to explaining what “danger” Obama exposed the world to by not attending this rally. Apparently “standing together” against terrorism requires that leaders from these countries literally stand in close proximity to one another, otherwise the terrorists aren’t going to take us seriously. But seeing as we’re discussing the importance of sending a strong message of determined resistance to terrorists, let’s also take a moment to consider the fact that last month Ted Cruz tried to derail funding for the Department of Homeland Security because he’s upset with the president over immigration. He had little chance of succeeding, but if he had he would have cut off appropriations to the agency charged with safeguarding the nation from terrorism.
The New York Daily News served up an even worse reaction in an editorial lashing out at Obama for missing “one of the most critical turning points in the war between radical Islam and the West since 9/11.” Why was Obama’s absence so unforgiveable?
Still worse, Obama’s abdication of leadership reflects a larger presidential failure to convey the gravity of the Charlie Hebdo attack, even if the substance of his anti-terror policy remains strong.
I don’t know… seems like the world already had a pretty good sense of the “gravity” of the attacks, given the non-stop global coverage, outpourings of support from governments and media organizations, condemnations from Muslims groups, etc. But what gets me about this is that they’re criticizing Obama for not conveying to the world that he takes this seriously, even as they credit him for a strong policy response. It’s one thing to fault Obama for not taking the optics into account, and quite another to put bad “optics” ahead of the strength of the actual policy.
But the worst of the worst response to the president’s Paris absence goes to Doug Schoen, a Fox News Democrat and concern troll extraordinaire, who offered this steaming take on FoxNews.com:
Sunday, President Obama morally abdicated his place as the leader of the free world.
His decision to stay home instead of standing side by side with French President Hollande as millions marched in Paris in solidarity with the slain journalists of Charlie Hebdo in opposition to radical Islam – an enemy fiercer than we have seen in decades – sent a clear message to the world: Obama just doesn’t care.
His words about the horrendous terrorist attack this week were not enough. They came off as inauthentic at best and offensive at worst.
To speak about the most serious terrorist attack on Western soil since 9/11, London and Madrid, in between speeches about his free community college plan demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding for the gravity of the situation in Paris and, indeed, the world.
I’m hard-pressed to convey how utterly stupid this is. “Obama just doesn’t care” about radical Islam might be a compelling observation if Obama hadn’t started an actual, for-real war against an Islamic extremist group. You can criticize him for having a muddled strategy, you can criticize him (and Congress) for not following the proper legal framework for prosecuting that war, but seems pretty clear he’s a least a little concerned by terrorism.
And this idea that an incidence of terrorism requires that the president do ONLY TERRORISM-RELATED THINGS is precisely backwards. Terrorists do what they do precisely so that governments will give them their undivided attention. If Obama had derailed his entire agenda because of a terrorist attack in France, he’d have been playing right into the hands of the extremists. Schoen’s invocation of the 2004 Madrid bombings actually helps reinforce the point that presidents can and should be able to handle two things at once, even if one of those things is international terrorism. The day of the Madrid attacks, George W. Bush condemned the terrorists and expressed solidarity with Spain in a brief statement. Later that night he flew to New York for a reelection fundraiser.
Of course symbolism matters in politics, but what this represents is a deliberate effort to obscure actual White House terrorism policy with over-hyped minutiae. You expect this sort of stuff from conservatives, but the “Paris snub” is also precisely the sort of calorically empty micro-scandal that pundits and the media love to binge on. It’s completely divorced from policy issues that actually matter, so it’s safe for journalists to cluck their tongues at Obama for not following the arbitrarily set guidelines of public perception. The White House has already buckled to pressure and said that they should have sent a higher-ranking official to participate in the photo-op, so hopefully that will put a swift end to this nonsense.