On Sunday, millions of people rallied in France in a show of unity for Western political freedoms and against Islamist extremism. World leaders from dozens of other countries came to Paris, the site of the largest rally, in a show of solidarity and strength in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter and the murderous siege of a Kosher supermarket. The United States didn’t send a high-ranking delegation and the absence was noted by American media and concerned critics of the Obama administration.
Some simply wanted the United States to formally acknowledge the shock and horror France dealt with last week, as well as our shared efforts in the fight for liberty. Others hoped a strong U.S. presence would indicate our strong adherence to democratic values and, as Peggy Noonan put it, “to demonstrate the shared understanding that the massacre may amount to a tipping point, whereby those who protect and put forward Western political values will insist upon them in their sphere and ask their Muslim fellow citizens to walk side by side with them in shared public commitment.”
But President Obama didn’t make the trip. Neither did Joe Biden. John Kerry was otherwise occupied. And Eric Holder was even in Paris and didn’t make the event.
Some pundits and journalists derided criticism of the Obama administration as diversions and defended President Obama. New York Times and CNBC reporter John Harwood offered his speculation of why President Obama didn’t attend the rally:
important to note: Hollande asked Netanyahu NOT to attend, was angry he did. Obama may have gotten similar request: http://t.co/tVLdBHuTi6
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) January 12, 2015
Sure! Anything’s possible.
In any case, here are four reasons we shouldn’t be the least bit surprised Obama snubbed Paris.
1. Team Obama Likes To Downplay Islamist Terrorism
Over at the Washington Examiner, Byron York astutely notes that the Obama administration’s avoidance of the unity rally in Paris was not surprising:
The uproar over whether President Obama or another top administration official should have attended the massive unity rally in Paris has obscured an important point about the White House's reaction to the latest terror attacks in Europe. The administration no-shows were not a failure of optics, or a diplomatic misstep, but were instead the logical result of the president's years-long effort to downgrade the threat of terrorism and move on to other things.
2. Team Obama Thought Charlie Hebdo Had Questionable Judgment
Back in 2012, the White House press secretary Jay Carney said “We are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Muhammad and, obviously, we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this.” White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked on Monday whether the administration stood by that statement and he said they did.
President Obama has previously said, “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” And the Obama administration responses to the deadly attacks following an anti-Islam video weren’t strong defenses of free speech:
President Obama claimed that in the U.S., “we reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” Hillary Clinton said of the U.S. government, “we absolutely reject content and message.”
3. Team Obama ‘Leads From Behind’
Ryan Lizza discussed the Obama administration’s foreign policy style in The New Yorker:
One of [Obama's] advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”
It’s not stealth to send high-ranking leaders to Paris to talk about how principles the United States are known for — freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious liberty, etc. — are worth defending over the values of others. Indeed, recall President Obama’s candid remarks on American exceptionalism at a 2009 press conference:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world...Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.
You might question the foreign policy restraint he claims when you consider how many countries he’s bombed or how many drones he’s launched, but at least rhetorically, he seems to want a softer footprint.
4. Team Obama Isn’t Terribly Interested In Or Particularly Good At Diplomacy
In a Politico story we’re told:
White House aides were so caught off guard by the march’s massive size and attention that they hadn’t even asked President Barack Obama if he wanted to go.
How could that be? Everyone knew the march was going to be big. It wasn’t a surprise. Here was one foreign policy reporter’s question a day before the march, when she believed that even Holder might make an appearance:
@JeffreyGoldberg what still cant believe is US not upgrading its presence beyond holder. Not same level as merkel or israel pm etc
— Laura Rozen (@lrozen) January 11, 2015
Except that it’s totally believable that the White House wouldn’t have been keeping tabs on the global movements of the more than 40 world leaders that attended the march. I mean, we’re talking about a White House that just isn’t particularly attuned to diplomacy or international issues. That’s manifest in everything from giving the Queen of England an ipod complete with speeches by Obama to giving UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown a set of DVDs that weren’t compatible with British players. Brown, for his part, gave Obama a pen holder made from the timbers of the Victorian anti-slave ship HMS Gannet. The desk in the Oval Office was carved from Gannet’s sister ship — the HMS Resolute. Brown also gave President Obama a “framed commission for HMS Resolute and a first edition of the seven-volume biography of Churchill by Sir Martin Gilbert.” When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to give Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a mock “reset” button, which was intended to suggest a repair of relations with Russia, it instead said “overloaded.”
Obama’s Been Clear
In fact, while critics of President Obama hope that he’ll lead the country to strongly defend religious liberty, freedom of speech and freedom of the press and to show solidarity with other countries when those values are under attack, it would be unwise to count on it. The fact is that, when it comes to Islamist radicalism, the Obama administration works to downplay threats. And probably for reasons related to that approach, the administration isn’t going to be the strongest defenders of art that is considered a capital offense of blasphemy by Islamist radicals. They’ll lead from behind, emphasizing stealth and modesty in foreign policy rhetoric. And when you combine all that with just a general incompetence in diplomatic relations, the Paris snub was no surprise at all.