The lack of senior U.S. government officials at free speech, anti-terrorism rallies in Paris and Washington on Sunday left many wondering why President Obama’s administration would miss an opportunity to outwardly display solidarity with France, a country it supports in so many other ways, during its time of crisis.
CNN’s Jake Tapper noted that there were no senior U.S. officials at the Paris rally, which stood out due to appearances by dozens of world leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah. U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley led the U.S. delegation.
“I don’t mean this as a criticism of the Obama administration, but as an American, I do wish that we were better represented in this beautiful procession of world leaders,” Tapper said.
According to the White House pool reports, Obama was in Washington on Sunday at the White House and Vice President Joe Biden was in Wilmington, Del., with no official events on their schedules. (Secretary of State John Kerry is in India.)
A senior administration official told me that the security requirements needed if Obama or Biden were to have attended the Paris rally could have interfered with the event itself, and the White House didn’t want the focus to be on the United States rather than on the French. The official noted that Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas were in Paris for related meetings, although neither attended the rally.
But back in Washington, almost no senior administration officials participated in the much smaller rally and march that took place Sunday afternoon only blocks from the White House. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland was the only official representative.
International Monetary Fund President Christine Lagarde and France’s Ambassador to Washington, Gérard Araud, led about 1,000 mostly silent marchers from the Newseum, a monument to free speech, to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, where a picture of a police officer slain outside the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was on display inside a wreath.
Two lines of American law enforcement officers awaited the marchers when they reached the monument and the crowd, led by Legarde, sang the French national anthem.
Sean McCrohon, an independent researcher in the crowd, held up a sign that read: “Lafayette (and Charlie), we are here!” It was a reference to the famous quote often attributed to American General John J. Pershing in 1918 when American troops came to the rescue of France, finally repaying the French for their crucial help during the American Revolution.
“With this attack, I wanted to be with France, to stand next to them, to let them know they would never be without a partner, without a friend in the United States,” McCrohon told me.
Asked about the lack of American officials at the rally, he said: “I’m not sure what that’s about … I wish they were here.”
I did run into one U.S. government official at the event who was there in a personal capacity, not as an official representative of the administration. John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, was taking in the day’s events with his family.
“I wanted to show solidarity with the French people and the French police for what happened in Paris,” he said. “Free speech, we believe in it too, and we are threatened by terrorism as much as the French. You go back to the history, the French helped us. So we owe some solidarity to the French.”
There is no reason to think Obama doesn’t care deeply about the tragic events last week in Paris, or that his administration hasn’t done all it can to support French law enforcement and intelligence agencies during and after the attacks. Obama called French President Francois Hollande and paid tribute to the fallen at the French Embassy. Administration sources tell me that State Department, Justice Department, CIA and Homeland Security Department officials have been in near-constant contact with their French counterparts all week.
Rally attendees I spoke with in Washington said they weren’t very upset that U.S. officials were scarce. Many said the Obama White House simply isn’t skilled, or doesn’t care, about doing the small things that can make a big difference when it comes to maintaining relationships and showing respect. In doing so, the White House often misses opportunities and lets poor optics overshadow positive contributions. Luckily on Sunday, there were plenty of other voices to rally in their absence.
Josh Rogin is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about national security and foreign affairs.