IN Paris on Sunday, the United States really led from behind —so far behind that President Obama and other important U.S. officials stayed stateside as 40 other world leaders joined about 1.5 million Frenchmen in a stirring riposte to terrorism and anti-Semitism. Even Vice President Joe Biden stayed home. He remained in Delaware where, possibly, he stood at attention in front of the TV. It was, I’m sure, a moving moment.
The Obama administration has not yet explained why no high-ranking American official could hop on a Paris flight — although it did concede on Monday that it had erred. Leaders came from Germany, Britain, Israel and even Palestine. The U.S., however, was represented by the ambassador, the newly arrived Jane Hartley. With the possible exception of her staff, no one in France would recognize her. Shouts of “Vive la Hartley” were not heard.
Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive in Paris on Thursday. He has been in India, attending some sort of business conference that he could not break off. Why that is, we are not told. History cautions that there have been times when secretaries of state or national security advisers were said to be in one place and were really somewhere else. Henry Kissinger did that sort of thing while negotiating to end the Vietnam War and preparing the ground for President Nixon’s visit to China. So, we shall see.
But where was Biden? As Fareed Zakaria observed on CNN Sunday, the occasion in Paris is why God created the vice presidency. Or where was House Speaker John Boehner or Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s new majority leader? How about Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, to name two ex-presidents who are adept at boarding airplanes, or any of the many Bushes, especially the most recent one, George W.? (OK, the French might not have been so pleased to see him.)
The lack of a high-level American came across as a snub, or if not that then the usual Obama detachment. Perhaps security concerns will be cited, but other world leaders have them, too — especially Benjamin Netanyahu — and, anyway, those same concerns don’t apply to, say, Boehner. Only members of his own caucus are after him.
The giant Parisian rally was a feel-good moment. It managed to mask for the moment the astounding intelligence failure that allowed some known Islamic radicals to arm themselves to the teeth and commit mayhem. But the symbolic nature of the event should not itself obscure that Obama’s apparent indifference to it was, in fact, consonant with his indifference to Europe and its leaders. It is not for nothing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly asked then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy if she is alone in finding Obama so “peculiar, distant, and short on warmth.” (Obama might have asked the same question about her.)
Obama has missed an opportunity with Europe. His vaunted pivot to Asia may yet robustly materialize and turn out to be wise, but it need not have come at the expense of Europe. The Germans, especially young people, swooned for candidate Obama in 2008. His rally at the cinematically evocative Brandenburg Gate drew 200,000 people, and they cheered lustily when he announced that the US would no longer go it alone. After listing some world problems, he said, “No one nation, no matter how large or how powerful, can defeat such challenges alone.” With that, it was auf wiedersehen and on to the White House.
Predictably, Republicans were all over the White House for its Paris blooper. This time, though, justice was on their side. My guess is the failure reflected not only Obama’s own lack of concern — did he even ask what his administration was doing? — but the sort of sloppy staff work that saw the president last May mount a Rose Garden event to announce the freeing of accused Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl. One would have thought Bergdahl was a hero. One would have thought that the staff would have shaped up since then.
France is our oldest ally. It joined the American colonies in the Revolutionary War and even before that the remarkable Marquis de Lafayette enlisted in George Washington’s army. That debt was famously recognized when the U.S. entered World War I and Lt. Col. Charles Stanton, an aide to Gen. John J. Pershing, told the French, “Lafayette, we are here.” His line became instantly famous because it acknowledged our debt to France. After Sunday’s American no-shows, the line will have to be amended. From here on, it’s “Lafayette, we’re busy.”
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