The attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent shootout at a kosher grocery store were as much assaults on freedom of speech, democracy and the values for which much of the Western world stands as they were attacks on individuals in Paris. They were also the largest, deadliest instance of violent Islamic extremism in recent history. The aftermath of the attacks has resulted in a much-deserved international response. In France, President Hollande has essentially declared a new war on terrorism.
In solidarity with Hollande’s anti-extremism views, an estimated 3.7 million people marched in an anti-terrorism rally in Paris and throughout France on Sunday. In addition to citizens from around Europe and the globe, more than 40 world leaders joined the march. David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Mariano Rajoy were all present, as were the unlikely pair of Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. Although not every country was represented, one world leader was noticeably absent: President Obama.
The failure of Obama, Biden, Eric Holder or any other “high-profile” U.S. government representative to attend the rally was the subject of intense criticism in American media Monday morning. The main story on Foxnews.com this morning had the headline “Obama AWOL in Paris: Message to America, allies is we don’t care.” The article claims the President’s absence from the rally means he has “morally abdicated his place as leader of the free world.” In typical sensationalist fashion, author Douglas E. Schoen also goes so far as to say, “Obama just doesn’t care.” Sen. Ted Cruz, apt to jump aboard any easy criticism of the commander-in-chief, wrote an op-ed in Time magazine claiming, “The absence [of Obama] is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous.”
There was enough public anger over Obama’s absence that the White House was forced to issue a response, ultimately admitting to the mistake. “We should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there,” said Press Secretary Josh Earnest. The White House statement also acknowledged the difficulties the President would have faced in attending the event, especially considering it was planned on such short notice and the security measures may have negatively impacted the rally. Only Secretary of State John Kerry had a level response about the situation, claiming that he’s scheduled to arrive in Paris on Thursday and describing the criticism as “sort of quibbling a little bit.”
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Even Kerry’s response is an understatement. The presence of Obama at the Paris rally (or the lackthereof) has absolutely nothing to do with the United States’ view on terrorism and radical Islamic extremism. More than a decade of war against al-Qaeda is enough evidence of the country’s point of view. If the President or another “higher-profile” official would have been present, no one would have cared, and nothing would have changed. The rally is just being used as a way to criticize the commander-in-chief, probably due to disagreement on his policies regarding ISIS and other international acts of terror. The attack also took place in France, an admitted ally but also a distant nation. The United States has its own issues to deal with, its own threats of terrorism to face. Obama has been in Tennessee rallying for federally funded community college, and he can’t be expected to be everywhere at once in order to symbolically support obvious causes. It's unfortunate that the White House was forced to backtrack on its decision by issuing a statement of regret today, but apparently that's what happens when the media and the public sort of quibbles a little bit.