The White House is cutting its losses as stateside critics accuse President Barack Obama of snubbing America’s oldest ally by not joining, or at least sending a high ranking official, to a huge anti-terror march that produced some of the most evocative scenes on the streets of Paris since World War II.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged “we should have sent someone with a higher profile”not even trying to justify the fact that largely unknown U.S. ambassador Jane Hartley was the top American official at Sunday’s events.
For all the ruckus, the White House won’t likely pay a steep diplomatic price for its political clumsiness. Amid the outrage in Washington, the most significant and largely unnoticed reaction to the U.S. flub came from the French themselves.
France’s skilled diplomats have rarely had trouble communicating displeasure with American actions during two centuries of a sometimes turbulent relationship between kindred nations built on common ideals but which often act with sharply different impulses on the world stage.
The reaction from Paris was temperate compared to that of the U.S. media and Obama critics, including some of the Republicans lining up to fight for his job in 2016.
French President Francois Hollande and French diplomats in Washington moved quickly to offer Obama cover for the embarrassment, as soon as it became clear that the White House landed in its first big political row of 2015.
A senior official in Hollande’s office praised Obama for his strong words since the rampage put France on edge. Obama had been “very present” from the start, and had made an “exceptional visit to the French embassy in Washington,” the official said.
A French embassy spokesman said France had been “overwhelmed and very moved” by the U.S. reaction to the crisis. French officials also noted there have been “multiple” calls at the highest levels between the two governments.
The issue of Obama’s no-show in Paris on Sunday made little impact in the French media, which is still fixated on the domestic implications of the shooting at the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Major news sites carried only a few dispatches from the United States Monday on the story.
France’s stance is not just calculated to get Obama off the hook personally, though he and Hollande have carved out a political relationship that has offered important political benefits to both.
It reflects a belief in Paris and Washington that U.S. and French relations are enjoying their smoothest period in years. A decade ago, the two countries were bitterly divided over the Iraq war, with some in the U.S. renaming french fries as “freedom” fries. The two sides now work tightly together on national security. Their intelligence cooperation is seamless.
France has emerged as perhaps America’s most consequential U.S. military ally in Europe. It quickly backed Obama’s aborted plans to bomb Syria over chemical weapons use in 2013 and signed up fast to join Obama’s air campaign against ISIS. France also returned to the NATO command structure in 2010.
When French soldiers went to Mali to back local forces fighting Islamic rebels, they got there on American transport planes. U.S. and French diplomats have been working together closely on the Iranian nuclear challenge and paired with other European states to oust Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
Despite some differences of tone on sanctions, Washington and Paris are key members of an international coalition trying to deter Russian aggression in Ukraine.
France is not a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence relationship between U.S. and Anglo-Saxon covert agencies. But French spy services work increasingly closely with the United States as evidenced by the brainstorming after the Paris attacks on the travel and background of the Kouachi Brothers who carried it out.
It did not go unnoticed in Washington that some of the most muted reaction in Europe to revelations of mass U.S. surveillance by Edward Snowden, which put EU leaders in a political bind, came from the Hollande government.
By inclination, this may also be the most pro-French administration in Washington for years. It seems odd that the White House didn’t see the political row coming. And if the French are not offended by the low level US delegation at the march, the episode at the very least must go down as a missed opportunity for U.S. diplomacy. that Obama had missed an important chance to show that the relationship with the French matters to him.
The White House climbdown followed a tirade of criticism in the U.S. media on Monday.
“You let the world down,” screamed the New York Daily News. Sen. Marco Rubio told CBS it was a “mistake” not to send someone. Sen. Ted Cruz said Obama should have been on the streets of Paris himself. “The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage and it is dangerous … our President should have been there,” Cruz wrote in an op-ed on Time.com.
It has revived questions that have dogged the administration over its commitment to allies in Europe, which after seeing Obama address tens of thousands of people in a campaign rally in Berlin in 2008, surely expected more from his presidency and worries he is more interested in Asia.
Revelations by Snowden have also fed Obama fatigue in Europe, especially in Germany, and Obama’s deadly drone strikes against terror suspects have also dismayed more pacifist sectors of European opinion.
So when Hollande rushed to Obama’s defense on Monday, he was doing more than safeguarding one of his country’s most important diplomatic relationships. He was also repaying a political favor.