The Cable

White House Goes Into Damage Control Mode After Skipping Paris March

The White House is facing a barrage of criticism for skipping Sunday’s march in Paris. Monday, it took the rare step of admitting it made a mistake.

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Barack Obama’s administration has come under withering criticism for failing to send a top U.S. official to Paris for a high-profile solidarity rally held after last week’s bloody terrorist attacks there. On Monday, Jan. 12, the White House admitted it made a mistake and scrambled to send Secretary of State John Kerry to France to help smooth over any bad feelings.

The absence of any senior Americans at Sunday’s march, which clogged Parisian streets with more than 1.5 million people, was glaring. Some 40 world leaders, including President François Hollande of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, joined arms at the head of a procession Sunday from the Place de la République to the Place de la Nation.

A recognizable American face was nowhere to be seen, however. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris but did not attend the rally. Both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had no public events on their schedules but remained stateside. Kerry was in India meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ambassador Jane Hartley was the highest-ranking American official to march; she was joined by staff from the U.S. embassy in Paris.

“I think it’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at a press briefing Monday afternoon.

Earnest said Obama would have liked to have attended the rally “had the circumstances been a little different.” He blamed security protocol for Obama’s absence, arguing there was not enough time to undertake the “onerous and significant” checks needed for the president to attend. Earnest added that the president’s presence would have limited the movements of others at the march.

“That said, there is no doubt that the American people and this administration stand foursquare behind our allies in France as they face down this threat,” Earnest said. “And that was evident throughout last week.”

Many analysts, including those often sympathetic to the administration, disagree.

“I wish our US President had gone to Paris to stand with our European allies,” James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and FP contributor, tweeted Sunday. “He [sic] Suis Charlie indeed.”

Obama visited the French Embassy in Washington last week to express support, but he, Biden, and other cabinet-level officials were AWOL during a Sunday unity march in Washington organized by the French Embassy as a companion to the event in Paris. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland represented the United States at the Washington march.

Kerry is now set to travel to France on Friday, but his agenda while there has yet to be released. The nation’s top diplomat used decidedly undiplomatic language when he dismissed critics like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who blasted the White House for missing a moment to show leadership on the world stage and solidarity with allies.

“This is sort of quibbling a little bit,” Kerry told reporters, according to CNN. “I don’t think the people of France have any doubt about America’s understanding of what happened, about our personal sense of loss, and our deep commitment to the people of France in this moment of trial.”

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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