The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Charlie Hebdo march: where were the American leaders? [UPDATE: White House response added]


ABC reports that the massive march in Paris included "Germany's Angela Merkel, Britain's David Cameron, Italy's Matteo Renzi, Mariano Rajoy of Spain, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker." CNN adds "Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu," as well as "Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu [and] Jordan's King Abdullah II and Queen Rania." BBC reports there were "40 world leaders" present.

But President Obama wasn't one of them; Vice-President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry apparently weren't there, either. CNN reports that "A senior State Department official told CNN that Kerry had committed a long time ago to be the lead speaker at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's entrepreneurship and innovation summit in India. The official said that Kerry did not want to cancel that as he continues to work on the United States' relationship with the nation."

Agence France Press published a list of "world political figures who have confirmed their attendance," before the march itself. It noted, in the first sentence, that "United States President Barack Obama will not join other world leaders at Sunday's Paris march in tribute to the victims of this week's Islamist attacks in France, a US official told AFP," though it included Holder as the representative of the U.S. But CNN reported that, though Attorney General Holder was in Paris "to attend a security summit on combating terrorism," he didn't come to the rally.

The U.S. was represented by our Ambassador to France, normally a logical choice but rather an odd one, I think, when dozens of world leaders—including leaders of many of our main allies—were present. And this is especially so when the march is about protecting values that are so important to us as Americans, as well as to the French, the English, and others.

President Obama also didn't appear at the Washington march organized by the French Embassy; the U.S. was represented by "Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary at the Department of State." According to Politico, "Obama wasn't far from the march in D.C. on Sunday that wended silently along six blocks from the Newseum to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Instead, he spent the chilly afternoon a few blocks away at the White House, with no public schedule, no outings." Politico adds a good deal more; if you're interested, read the whole article (by Edward-Isaac Dovere).

Am I missing something here? Is there some particularly good "smart diplomacy" reason why we would be absent when so many others were present?

UPDATE: The White House responds (Post Politics, Katie Zezima & Sean Sullivan):

The White House said Monday that it should have sent a higher-profile official to a Paris rally where 1.5 million people marched in a show of unity against terrorism. The absence of President Obama and other top administration officials drew intense scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic on Monday, with Republicans sharply criticizing the president at home and both domestic and foreign media raising questions about the dearth of U.S. presence at the event.

"I think it's fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile" to the event, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. The U.S. ambassador to France attended. Of the criticism, Earnest said, "We agree that we should have sent someone with a higher profile in addition to the ambassador to France." …

Earnest said that the White House wants to send a "clear message, even in a symbolic context like this," that Americans stand with the French people.

"And sending a high-level, highly visible senior administration official with a high profile to that march would have done that," Earnest said.

FURTHER UPDATE: The Paris march was originally reported to consist of 3.7 million people, and I originally stated that; but it now appears that the 3.7 million number is the total estimate for all of France, with the Paris march estimated at "up to 1.6 million."