Yesterday, President Barack Obama’s spokesman Josh Earnest admitted that the United States might have sent “someone with a higher profile” to Paris. What he failed to explain was why the leader of the free world chose not to stand with other world leaders, 44 heads of state, to protest against extremism and commemorate the 17 French people murdered during the course of last week’s Islamist killing spree. Earnest’s admission also neatly elided the fact that the administration’s decision to stiff the French in their hour of national mourning was no accident—no move of that import, at that level of global affairs, is made without serious consideration by many, including the president himself. So it is worth pondering what, precisely, influenced this call.
Some observers followed the lead of James Fallows of the Atlantic, who insisted that the “security footprint for outdoor showing by POTUS” made it impossible for the president to show. But that didn’t keep away 44 other world leaders. Nor does it explain why the White House didn’t send the vice president, or even a cabinet member, like Secretary of State John Kerry, a noted Francophile. Kerry said it was “quibbling” to criticize the administration for sending only the U.S. ambassador to France—an Obama campaign bundler named Jane Hartley.
Obviously, the administration’s decision to stiff the French in their hour of national mourning was no accident. But again, why? Maybe President Obama thought it was hypocritical to stage a rally against Islamist terror and murderous anti-Semitism and invite Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister of Turkey, which is playing host to Hamas commander Saleh al-Arouri, whose West Bank cell was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli students in June that touched off a 51-day war between Israel and Hamas.
Or maybe the president is still mad at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who despite constant U.S. political and diplomatic support, never mind billions in U.S. aid money, is undermining decades of U.S. foreign policy by trying to circumvent the conventions of the peace process and gain membership to the International Criminal Court.
Or perhaps Obama just didn’t want to upstage his friend Benjamin Netanyahu, whose stirring appearance yesterday at the Grand Synagogue in Paris can only fortify his international prestige as he enters a potentially difficult Israeli election season.
But none of those seem likely, since the president doesn’t seem to have any serious beef with Turkey; he doesn’t seem peeved at all with Abbas; and Bibi Netanyahu is perhaps the last world leader he would ever be caught sharing a cigarette with.
The reason Obama wasn’t in Paris, of course, is that he didn’t want to be there. Obviously Obama supports free speech. But like the New York Times editor Dean Baquet, and the editors at Al Jazeera—who thought “Je Suis Charlie” might be an alienating slogan—Obama believes you can be against murder and also against the sentiments expressed by the journalists at Charlie Hebdo. As the president told the U.N. General Assembly in 2012, “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam”—and slandering Muhammad is exactly why those cartoonists were executed in their office last Wednesday.
Thus, had Obama shown up in Paris, it might have exposed him to some uncomfortable questions about slander and free speech. He’s not siding with Islamic lunatics who kill journalists; he simply doesn’t seem to think there’s any upside in swatting the hornet’s nest that he’s spent his entire presidency backing away from.
In drawing a clear and public distinction between France’s problems and ours at a moment when our ally clearly needs us, Obama is showing himself—again—to be a lousy friend. But his analysis of the situation isn’t actually wrong. The future that belongs to America is very different from France’s because our pasts are different. Largely thanks to its historical role in the Middle East and North Africa, France appears doomed to decades or more of violent social conflict with an angry and growing Muslim minority living inside its borders and bearing French passports as they cross into Syria or Iraq to wage Jihad—growing numbers of whom prefer to see themselves as anything other than French.
Muslim Americans, on the other hand, are immigrants and the children of immigrants who chose to become Americans. And partly thanks to the fact that the United States will soon be the world’s largest oil producer, the Persian Gulf is far less important to us than it is to Europe. Obama seems intent on extricating us from the Middle East, but by contrast French policies are often hostage to the region. For example, one reason Paris championed intervention in Libya is that it didn’t want tens of thousands of Libyan refugees washing up on France’s shores. We didn’t have that problem.
But more to the point, the issue from Obama’s perspective, isn’t just that France has done a poor job of integrating its enormous Muslim immigrant population. It’s that those brown and black kids setting fire to cars in the suburbs of Paris are the offspring of France’s long colonial project. Just as America is still struggling with its original sin of slavery, France is wrestling with its own horrific legacy of subjugating third-world people.
Those Kouachi brothers were from Algerian backgrounds, and everyone knows what the French did in Algeria—it’s all in The Battle of Algiers that favorite of generations of American liberal-arts graduates, like Obama. The French used the most gruesome methods to put down a national independence movement and preserve its colonial holdings and still lost. Torture and murder colonial subalterns, and someday their children or grandchildren will come to gun you down in the streets.
It’s not that Obama is saying, pace Malcolm X—a movie whose influence on the president has been noted by more than one close observer—last week’s murderous rampage in Paris is nothing more than France’s chickens coming home to roost. Nor does Obama have any imaginable interest in showing up in Paris for what could have easily been misconstrued as an anti-Muslim immigrant rally, or a rally in support of some racist cartoonists. At the very least, the rally no doubt at first struck him as politically naïve, as though France thought it could wash its hands of colonialism and everyone else would play along. Let the Europeans, each with their own sordid histories of racism, colonialism, and mass murder, extend their sympathies to the French. In the president’s apparent estimation, a violent Muslim backlash against French colonialism and racism is on the French.
In that company, the president’s decision to stay home counts as a clear political statement about where America’s future interests and sympathies lie. Obama was elected to get America out of the Middle East. And if we don’t leave, he seems to think, then we’ll wind up like France, with millions of people angry at us for our historical role as an occupying foreign power, for torture at Abu Ghraib, bombing Afghani weddings, for gunning down innocent Arabs in their own cities and villages, for our unbalanced support for Israel. What the French example shows is that all those sins will follow us home. And then they’ll kill us—just like they did in France. The way Obama sees it, France is a lesson for America—and the future does not belong to France.
In that, he is probably right. The bigger question is whether Islamist radicals will still want to slaughter Americans even after Iraq and Afghanistan have receded to what Obama imagines is a safe distance in our rear-view mirror. One can hope, though it’s worth noting that it’s been a long time since France occupied Algeria.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).