Obama didn’t go to Paris? Quelle horreur!

The latest OUTRAGE on the right and in the media seems to be the fact that President Obama didn’t fly to Paris to take part in the group of other world leaders in the midst of a million-plus person march to show solidarity in face of the terrorist attacks against the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery, which killed 17 people in all.

CNN, which doesn’t seem capable of covering more than one news story at a time, had the headline “WHERE WAS OBAMA?” in giant letters on its website for about 24 hours. CNN’s Jake Tapper wrote that he was “ashamed” by the absence of U.S. leaders, and he includes both Republicans and Democrats in that dismissal. Tapper said it was a perfect opportunity for any political leader to chime in, and he wondered why potential presidential candidates didn’t attend the event or at least tweet about it.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was first out of the gate on that score. He wrote an op-ed for Time in which he stated, “The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous.”

Many world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, flew to Paris to participate. Of course, they’re in Europe. Flying in from the U.S. takes a little more planning.

And the White House admitted that the lack of top-level U.S. participation was an error. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris for a meeting about the response to the terrorist attacks; many thought he would participate as the U.S. representative with the group of 40 world leaders, but the signals about the event’s significance apparently got crossed. The U.S. ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, did participate.

“I think it’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there,” admitted Press Secretary Josh Earnest. What Earnest added — and what many in the media are failing to report — “Had Obama or [Vice President Joe] Biden attended, it would have significantly affected the ability of those in attendance to participate like they did yesterday.”

Exactly. Let’s break this down: When a U.S. president goes anywhere in public, especially in a foreign country, there are days — usually weeks — of advance planning by the Secret Service and security forces. This particular president gets about 100 death threats a day (that’s not an exaggeration; the figure comes from the White House Office of Correspondence, which sees these threats daily on email and sends them to the Secret Service). Whatever failings the Secret Service has had in recent months, like letting someone climb the White House fence and enter the building, the agency would not allow President Obama to march into a large throng without sufficient security.

Which would have ruined the point of the whole march. This wasn’t a march about a U.S. president, or about world leaders; it was a march about ordinary French citizens, standing together against terror.

According to a friend from Paris, the world leaders’ participation was more than a photo op, but “it was symbolic. [President François] Hollande greeted each one at the Elysées Palace like he does for a state visit. Then they had lunch — along with French government leaders who were also present and greeted. Then they were all taken by a fleet of buses to a half mile place that had been ‘sanitized’ for them for security reasons (snipers on roofs, apartments visited to make sure who lived there, etc.). They marched about 300 yards — first the families and friends of the victims, then the foreign heads of state and government and the French government officials. After they’d done their 300 yards, Hollande embraced each one and then each member of the friends and family group. And then they were taken back in the buses and the route was opened for everyone else.”

From all accounts, the French appreciated the effort made by the world leaders, even if it was symbolic. But no, Mr. Tapper, Sen. Cruz, and anyone else: This day was not about world leaders, and it was not about politics. It was about the French people, how they are hurting, how they are standing strong, and how the world is supporting them right now.

We saw footage of the size of the crowds, the people marching, the image of the giant pair of glasses, symbolizing Charlie Hebdo cartoonist and Editor Stéphane Charbonnier. For days, we’ve seen candles, signs, and flowers. We watched as they waved French flags. We listened to them singing along to John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

The most effective and moving photos have been those of ordinary citizens. They held signs besides the ubiquitous “Je suis Charlie.” Others said “Je suis Juif (“I am a Jew,” in honor of those killed at the kosher grocery), or “Je suis Ahmed” (in honor of the Muslim policeman shot and killed by the Kouachi brothers in front of Charlie Hebdo).

Of course, the GOP never misses a chance to claim that Obama is unpatriotic, weak, ineffective, soft on terror, etc., etc. Right-wing claims included the statement that this was “Obama’s diplomatic Katrina moment” (they’re just dying for SOMETHING to be a Katrina moment, aren’t they?). Someone on Fox said this proves that Obama “chose the side of the terrorists.”

Please. Remember that it wasn’t that long ago that the GOP was claiming that the French were “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Republicans also insisted on changing the name of a certain potato side dish from “french fries” to “freedom fries.”

Now imagine if Obama HAD gone to Paris to join the group photo of world leaders. No doubt the right would have been apoplectic that he had abandoned the United States at a time when he should be looking for terrorist plots. He would have been accused to trying to steal the spotlight from the French during a day of sorrow and solidarity.

Secretary of State John Kerry already addressed the French people in two earlier TV appearances, speaking in his fluent French. At the time of the march, he was at an event in India but will return to France soon. After his statements on French television, French TV channel TF1 said that Kerry’s “poignant statement in French” would “go down in history,” according to a column by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post.

The Obama administration is is the midst of planning a February conference on fighting anti-extremism in response to the terror attacks in Paris, with representatives from the same countries present at the Paris march. Maybe a well-run meeting with some new, dynamic, and ultimately successful approaches will move us all to the next step, and we can leave this symbolism silliness behind.

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