President Obama has come in for a lot of criticism for not attending the solidarity rally in Paris that followed the terrible murders of journalists, policemen and other innocent French men and women by French terrorists. By not being seen, arm in arm with other world leaders the President’s critics say he showed disrespect for the French and that he damaged U.S. leadership.
I feel that this criticism is unfounded.
I’ve worked with the Secret Service in arranging security for two Presidential dinners and cannot imagine the Service clearing a presidential visit to another country without the elaborate preparation that precedes such an event. These dinners were held in a secure location, with little public exposure, yet the security preparations were meticulous and intense. I simply don’t believe the Service would allow the President to appear in front of hundreds of thousands of people with some of the terrorists still on the loose, in a city on edge, with just 2 days of preparation.
Second, because of the lack of clarity of the rally’s purpose, the attendance of the President, or that of a Cabinet member, could easily have been seen as U.S. support for the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons which were deeply offensive to Muslims all over the world. At a time when America is trying very hard to demonstrate that its unending wars in Muslim countries are aimed at terrorists, not at Islam or Muslims, I can easily see the debate swinging against attendance for strategic reasons.
Which brings me to my third point - the on-going nuclear negotiations with Iran which are now at a critical go/no-go stage. Iran’s official position on the French murders is that these acts can never be justified and are in fact against the tenets of Islam. But Iran has also made it clear that it does not condone the offensive and hateful depiction of Prophet Muhammed that Charlie Hebdo regularly printed. Given the lack of clarity about the Paris rally’s purpose, and given that successfully concluding an agreement with Iran is a vital U.S. national interest, I can easily see the President’s national security team advising that he not attend.
I do wish the President and his advisers had been more sensitive to the public-relations fallout from his non-attendance. Although the Assistant-Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and the American Ambassador to France were in attendance, perhaps the inclusion of someone with a higher profile might have been more appropriate. That is a fair criticism. But non-attendance by the President is not.