Just about everyone has offered an opinion as to why President Obama stayed away from the Paris anti-terrorism rally and why he sent no top administration official. I have a theory which I’ll offer momentarily.
Let me begin, though, by saying that I don’t think it’s a big deal that Obama didn’t go. The massive turnout of ordinary Parisians was important because their appearances were sincere. It’s heartening that such a large cross-section of Paris is prepared to make some effort to show support for free speech and for Jews.
Politicians are another matter. Their appearances are probably mere gestures. As such, they do not demonstrate a sincere commitment to free speech, to opposing terror, or to protecting Jews. Keep in mind that both Erdogan of Turkey and Mahmoud Abbas of the PA were present.
Even so, I don’t deny that Obama should at least have sent a high level official to the rally, and the White House has admitted as much. But, again, it’s not a big deal.
I should also add that on Friday evening, Obama visited the French embassy here in Washington to express his condolences and support. He did so without fanfare; I found out about it because my wife works at the embassy (the visit has since been publicized in response to criticism over the president’s non-appearance in Paris).
Taking the drive to Reservoir Road isn’t the same thing as flying to Paris. But I can assure you that the people who represent France in the United States very much appreciated Obama’s visit.
But why didn’t he go to Paris, or at least send, say, Joe Biden? Let’s survey the main theories that have been offered?
1. Incompetence: This theory should always be on the table when government at any level is involved. And it can explain why Obama didn’t have a top level official appear at the Paris rally.
It can’t, however, explain why Obama decided not to go. He had a simple decision to make, and he made it. Either he simply didn’t want to make the trip or he had some political/policy motive for not doing so.
2. Security: Don’t make me laugh. When Obama wants to do something, he doesn’t let security issues interfere.
It’s also been reported that the White House never consulted about the security issues that a Paris trip would have involved. Even the administration is no longer peddling this explanation (see #5 below).
But I’m not sure it satisfactorily explains the absence of a high-level administration official. Sending a high-level hack like Biden wouldn’t have elevated terrorism as an issue.
If anything, not sending anyone of note, by creating a major stir, has elevated the issue. This calls into question whether Obama was motivated by a desire to downplay last week’s terrorism in Paris.
4. No sympathy for colonialists: This is a crude summary of an elaborate theory offered by Lee Smith. It’s worth considering, but very speculative. I think Smith may be over-thinking this.
5. He’s too cool: This, in essence, is the theory the White House is now providing. From the Washington Post:
Obama has tended to take a cold-eyed view of war and peace that has played down the cultivation of personal relationships with fellow leaders and, at times, placed a priority on talking with enemies, said White House officials and foreign policy analysts. “He sees [foreign policy] as a giant puzzle,” a senior administration official said, “an intellectual problem to be solved.”
The enemies who gave us the Paris murders were either dead or on the run, and thus not available to talk with Obama.
To be fair, however, if you change “too cool” to “too arrogant,” you are pretty close to the real explanation. My strong sense is that Obama regards displays like the Paris protest as, if not exactly cheap, then too easy. Any world leader can show up at such a march. Obama wants it to be clear that he’s not just any world leader.
It’s not that Obama — he of the Greek columns in Denver — is against ostentatious ceremonies. It’s that he’s against ostentatious ceremonies at which he must share the limelight with dozens of other politicians, none of whom he regards as an equal and some whom (notably Netanyahu) he can’t stand.
Why go all the way to Paris, missing a great weekend of sports viewing, for that? I doubt that Obama ever seriously entertained the idea.
But why didn’t Obama send Biden, for example? Talkin’ Joe isn’t too cool to go.
I offer two possible explanations. The first is incompetence. The second is that if it didn’t seriously occur to Obama that he should go, it may simply not have occurred to him to send anyone else.