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Why Obama didn't march against terrorism in Paris, and why critics think he should have

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, French president François Hollande, German chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council president Donald Tusk, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Paris.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, French president François Hollande, German chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council president Donald Tusk, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Paris.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

On Sunday, at least 3.7 million people across France — including 1.2 to 1.6 million in Paris alone — marched in anti-terrorism protests following this past Wednesday's attack against the French satirical magazine Charle Hebdo. Notably, a large number of world leaders were in Paris for the occasion, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, British prime minister David Cameron, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, and of course French president François Hollande.

US ambassador to France Jane Hartley attended the Paris rally, but the absence of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry has prompted criticism. This morning's New York Daily News cover is perhaps the bluntest example:

(New York Daily News)

But even the White House itself is conceding the point, with press secretary Josh Earnest conceding that "we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there."

Why didn't Obama, Biden or Kerry attend?

Earnest cited security concerns, and the short notice provided ahead of the event, in explaining Obama's non-participation.

His explanation jibes with statements other senior administration officials have given in off-the-record statements to press. "It is worth noting that the security requirements for both the President and (Vice President) can be distracting from events like this — for once this event is not about us!" one told CNN's Eric Bradner.

Emphasizing the latter point, another official told Bloomberg View's Josh Rogin that the White House didn't want the focus of the event to be on Obama rather than the people of France.

As Earnest said, Obama's participation could have been logistically difficult. NBC News' First Read reports, "White House officials tell us that that they weren't aware of the rally until Friday, and — for logistic and security purposes — they couldn't have organized a trip that quickly." Administration officials also noted that Obama called Hollande and visited the French embassy in DC to offer his condolences, and that US counterterrorism agencies have been cooperating extensively with the French since the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Kerry, for his part, was in India for an entrepreneurship summit with prime minister Narendra Modi. He will travel to Paris Thursday and meet with French officials on Friday. He dismissed the criticisms as "quibbling."

Most of the countries sending leaders and other high-level representatives are either in Europe or are majority Muslim. Like the US, other non-European major powers like Japan and China did not send top representatives.

What's the case for a senior administration member attending?

dc hebdo march

Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), left, and Gerad Araud, Ambassador of France to the United States, right, march with hundreds of demonstrators from the Newseum to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial during the Unity Rally on January 11, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)

The basic argument for an Obama or Kerry appearance was that most major countries sent representatives to the event of a higher rank than Hartley. Even many countries whose leaders did not attend sent other high-ranking officials. Russia sent foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, for example, and Turkey sent prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu (its number two official behind president Recep Tayyip Erdogan).

"The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) wrote in a Time op-ed. "The attack on Paris, just like previous assaults on Israel and other allies, is an attack on our shared values."

Others noted that Attorney General Eric Holder was actually in Paris at the time of the rally for a counterterrorism summit, and met with Hollande. "Holder had time to do the Sunday shows via satellite but not to show the world that he stood with the people of France?" CNN's Jake Tapper asked in an op-ed.

Critics also argued that the administration's invocation of security makes little sense given the number of other world leaders in attendance. Rogin and Politico's Edward-Isaac Dovere also raised the possibility of Obama joining in a DC solidarity march that also took place Sunday, in which assistant secretary of state for Europe Victoria Nuland participated. That could have mitigated some security concerns.

How big of deal is this, really?

In the scheme of things, this isn't likely to do any serious damage to US-France relations. US participation in the event would have been — like that of every other country — purely symbolic. That's the basic case against participating: it didn't matter much either way, and attending had the potential to be disruptive, and so staying home was a safe bet.

While the message of the event — against terrorism and violent intimidation, and for freedom of expression — was admirable, some aspects of it undermined that message. Many of the world leaders participating serve in governments that impede freedom of expression severely. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has openly expressed his desire to destroy liberal democracy in his country, was part of the march. Lavrov, whose government allows journalists to be murdered with impunity and threw the brother of an opposition leader in prison as a means of reprisal, was there too. So were representatives from Egypt, Turkey, and Algeria, which all jail journalists. The White House still judged the event worthy of American representation — at least by an ambassador — but they likely also looked at the event as having a real possibility to go awry.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect Josh Earnest's comments expressing regret for not sending a higher-level US official.