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Commentary: The US’s shameful absence at Sunday’s historic Paris march

APTOPIX France Attacks RallyAPTOPIX France Attacks Rally
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas march during a rally in Paris, France, on January 11, 2015. Photograph by Philippe Wojazer — AP

On Monday afternoon President Barack Obama acknowledged through a spokeperson having erred it not sending a higher ranking official to Sunday’s historic march in Paris’s Place de la Republique, where 44 heads of state linked arms with French President François Hollande, expressing solidarity, unity, and, most of all, courage in the fight against terrorism and for freedom of speech and the press.

It’s an important admission, but the depths of the bungle are mind-boggling, how it happened remains hidden, and the damage is lasting.

While the mistake will be—and already has been—exploited by Obama’s predictable enemies, the truth is that those enemies happen to be right this time. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. This mistake transcended partisan politics, and a historic opportunity was irretrievably lost.

Clichéed as it might sound, in the wake of the murderous twin terrorist attacks on the headquarters of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher grocery in Paris, my wife’s and my eyes filled with tears and our hearts with hope and pride as we watched such world leaders as Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Germany’s Angela Merkel, David Cameron of Britain, King Abdullah of Jordan, and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority risk their lives to literally join ranks with Hollande.

The daring of these leaders, prime terrorist targets every one, was breathtaking. So, too, was that of the surviving relatives of the 17 victims of the attacks and of the other estimated 1.6 million Parisians present, especially given the frightful terrorist firepower brought to bear just days earlier, which included AK-47 assault rifles, grenade launchers, machine pistols, and 15 sticks of dynamite.

But as my wife, who is a dual French-American citizen, and I watched on television, waiting to see the U.S. representative marching, we, like other Americans, felt growing discomfort, disbelief and, finally, shame. Though the New York Times in its web coverage and CNN in its news crawls kept assuring us that Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., was there participating, representing our country, there was no video footage verifying these assertions, and no TV or web correspondent present claimed to have actually seen him.

We wondered if he was in a back row, or if the French TV channel my wife prefers to watch wasn’t finding him because its journalists didn’t know who he was.

Like many journalists and pundits, we had been wondering all along whether Holder really had sufficient stature to serve as the U.S. representative, given that France, our oldest ally and probably our second-closest politically at the moment, had just sustained its worst attack since World War II. Our nation’s unique ideological links to France are aptly commemorated by a certain gift it made to the American people in the 19th century, the one standing in New York harbor and named the Statue of—not coincidentally—Liberty.

The painfully obvious, totally unambiguous answer to these musings was: No, of course Holder was the wrong choice. If President Barack Obama himself couldn’t be there himself—a significant if in itself—Vice President Joe Biden, Michelle Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry were all manifestly better choices. Kerry, in particular, speaks French well; is known to French audiences; and has the appropriate organizational-chart duties. (Kerry was in India, on a scheduled visit to visit to see the prime minister there. Today he has announced that he’ll visit Paris Thursday or Friday, to show solidarity.)

Attorney General Holder, by contrast, is less known to the French people, even if he does enjoy, according to the Washington Post, one of the closest personal relationships with President Obama among cabinet members.

It had been decided, news organizations reported, that Holder should represent us at the march because he was already scheduled to be in Paris for a pre-rally security summit on anti-terror measures. (Seriously? He was chosen to save on air fare?)

But the dawning truth—the subject of front page stories in Monday’s Daily News and NY Post (headlined: “Sorry Charlie”) —was that not even Holder showed up. The Times and CNN had been misled. (How has not been explained.)

As I kept Googling and doing Twitter searches throughout the day, I finally found a tweet by Evan McMorris-Santoro, the Buzzfeed White House Reporter, stating that Holder had “left Paris before rally to attend ‘urgent’ meetings, a DOJ official told me.”

I assumed that he meant Holder been pulled away to attend a meeting in Paris about an imminent terror attack—the only conceivable justification I could think of for ditching an assignment of this gravity.

I was wrong. Monday’s Daily News reported: “Around the time other world leaders and dignitaries boarded buses to get to the front of the march, Holder was taping an interview for ‘Meet the Press,’ NBC confirmed.” So his meetings weren’t quite so urgent after all.

Instead, the U.S. representative that actually did end up attending the rally was the U.S. ambassador to France.

Do you even know who the U.S. ambassador to France is? Neither did I. She’s Jane D. Hartley, an Obama fundraiser who headed the Observatory Group, an economic and political consulting group, before her appointment. I’m sure she’s a well-qualified ambassador, but she was just an utterly, preposterously, offensively low-level official to send to an occasion of this moment.

CNN’s Jake Tapper, who was present for the rally, wrote Monday morning: “I say this as an American—not as a journalist, not as a representative of CNN—but as an American: I was ashamed.”

Now let’s get down and dirty. This event was dangerous. Frankly, as it was unfolding, I could barely believe what I was watching. The heads of state left the presidential residence, the Elysée Palace, to board buses to take them to the march. Yes, the French security police said they’d checked every building along the route—and even the sewers—and there were three official planned routes, to make it hard for terrorists to know which would ultimately be selected.

But the roads were lined with buildings, all with windows and many with balconies, and, as a practical matter, security assurances only go so far. Those buses were sitting ducks in the path of a rocket-launched grenade. For what seemed like an achingly long minute or two Netanyahu was locked in a crowd between the palace and his bus, a stationary target, his eyes darting around as fitfully as those of his bodyguard. Yet Netanyahu stayed all day, later attending a synagogue service in Paris with Hollande. I guess he had no urgent meetings.

Let’s just avoid a separate discussion and concede that maybe it didn’t make sense for President Obama himself to venture into this setting. That’s a complex question and there were only 36 hours to prepare. (Though Politico called what happened “Obama’s French Kiss-Off.”) Could we really send no one higher up than Jane Hartley? Obama has just acknowledged that of course we could have.

Maybe it was insensitivity. Maybe it was American self-involvement and obliviousness toward the world beyond our borders.

But at some point an uglier inference is raised. There arises at least an appearance of cowardice. With our all-volunteer army, maybe our policymaking class no longer feels any need to lay it all on the line for principle any more. That duty and honor is relegated to different socioeconomic classes in our society.

Of course there were security risks. And this was a time and a cause that called for a top American official to face those risks, just like Hollande and 44 other world leaders were willing to do.

The rubric CNN appropriately chose for its coverage of the Paris march Sunday was “Standing with France.”

It is to our great and lasting shame as a nation that the United States failed to stand with France on Sunday.