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Obama let France down

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Jordan’s Queen Rania attend a rally Sunday.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Jordan’s Queen Rania attend a rally Sunday.

America’s failure to march with world leaders against terrorism marked an embarrassing diplomatic misstep. As leaders from some 40 countries joined more than 1 million demonstrators Sunday in a solemn and extraordinary progression along the boulevards of Paris, the highest-ranking United States official on the scene was America’s ambassador to France, Jane D. Hartley — hardly a familiar face on the world stage.

And that simply wasn’t stature enough, not for a display of solidarity against violence by Islamic radicals that turned into what French officials described as the most massive rally in the history of America’s oldest ally. The numbers of marchers in other cities around the world — from Boston to Sydney — surpassed 3 million, according to news reports. Seventeen people died in the attack last week on the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a related hostage-taking at a kosher grocery, also in Paris.

The bewilderment and international criticism were justified. In a belated concession, the Obama administration on Monday said that it should have dispatched an official of greater prominence to join France’s Francois Hollande, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron, and dozens of other leaders. “I think it’s fair to say we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there,’’ White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

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No one questions that the United States is deeply committed to battling terrorism. The tone of many analysts who noticed the absence of a top-rank American leader at the solemn Paris march was more rueful than angry. “I wish our American president had gone to Paris to stand with our European allies,’’ tweeted James Stavridis, dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a former US Navy admiral.

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Said Graham Allison, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs: “I’m sure there’s now feeling [in the White House] that, ‘Yikes, we should have put the vice-president on a plane to Paris!’ But the French know as well as any nation that the US is in the very first circle of the fight against terrorism.’’

For Obama to have gone himself on short notice would have presented mammoth security obstacles. But Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris after attending an emergency summit of world leaders convened after the attacks. It’s unclear why Holder reportedly chose to fly back to Washington rather than link arms with prime ministers and other heads of government from around the world. Vice President Joseph Biden, according to news accounts, spent the weekend in his home state of Delaware. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, was headed to India on a critical international economic summit but planned to fly to Paris at the end of the week.

Obviously no diplomatic snub was intended by Obama. Still, the White House should have done a better job of showing solidarity at a time when one of America’s best friends is in deepest grieving.