US admits Paris march error
Tempered French reaction defuses row
U.S.-France ties at their best point in years
The Obama administration doesn’t often admit it messed up.
But 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.
Kerry’s unusual televised statement last week in his fluent French was also considered a highly significant gesture in France.
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.
“This is a storm in a D.C. tea cup,” said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, who teaches at some of France’s most prestigious international relations institutions.
“The relationship is so close it is highly unlikely that this results from an oversight,” he said, arguing that the French reaction to the controversy suggested that U.S. participation in the march was agreed by both sides and was not in any case an issue of contention for the French.
Heather Conley, head of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that though the U.S. missed an opportunity to show solidarity with a key ally, it was not a long-term problem.
“I don’t believe there will be any damage,” she said, noting that the Franco-US partnership had remained “quite strong” since Hollande’s state visit to the United States last year.
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,” Dungan said.
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.
In some ways, France has stepped into a national security vacuum left by the closest traditional American ally Britain, which has experienced huge defense cuts and deep public ambivalence to new adventures abroad.
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 has become a punchline that Kerry, perhaps the most francophile U.S. secretary of state since Thomas Jefferson, spends so much time in Paris. His new deputy, Tony Blinken, a former White House official, was brought up in Paris and speaks French well.
Still, given the close cooperation, 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.
“These are gestures. Is it going to break the relationship? Of course not,” said Conley, but argued that Obama had missed an important chance to show that the relationship with the French matters to him.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator, said the low level U.S. delegation revealed Obama’s deficiencies as a President and as a statesman in that he failed to recognize a moment to engage France.
“The good ones, the great ones for sure, look for moments that are replete with meaning and resonate broadly,” he told CNN, adding that either Biden or former president Bill Clinton could have been called upon to go if the security risks were too great for Obama to walk the streets of Paris.
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. CNN anchor Jake Tapper said he was “ashamed” at the lack of U.S. representation.
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’s worth noting, however, that none of the potential 2016 GOP candidates criticizing Obama were in Paris either.
At the very least, the oversight appears to be another sign of the Obama White House’s puzzling struggle to master diplomatic and political optics, a liability which has hounded the President for years at home and abroad.
And 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.
Time and again, in small-scale incidents, from a paltry gift of DVDs offered former British prime minister Gordon Brown to the length of Obama’s stays in various European countries, the President has seemed unable to offer the reassurance a needy continent in the grip of a generational economic crisis has sometimes craved.
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.
Even the current close relationship with France is the product of painstaking Obama diplomacy after a string of optical missteps.
In July 2009, the White House was forced to deny Obama had snubbed former French president Nicolas Sarkozy over a dinner invitation. The President also seemed bewildered when asked by foreign journalists why he always seemed to be in a hurry to leave Europe.
That perceived snub to Sarkozy was papered over with an unusual private dinner in the White House family quarters for Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, a year later.
Obama’s early interactions with Hollande didn’t go smoothly either. The French leader was left high and dry by Obama’s last minute decision not to order strikes on Syria – one reason why the French leader got such a warm welcome on his state visit to Washington last year.
With Hollande beset by a diplomatic crisis over his chaotic personal life, and with approval ratings already crashing to historic lows, Obama offered his guest a significant political boost - and even took him to Jefferson’s former home at Monticello.
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.