WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Monday conceded that the United States should have sent a higher-level representative to a Paris unity march after deadly Islamic militant attacks there and said President Barack Obama would have liked to attend.
Some Republican lawmakers and U.S. media outlets criticized Obama’s administration for not sending a top leader to the march, which featured leaders from France, Britain, Germany, and Israel.
“I think it’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters, adding Obama would have liked to have gone.
“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.”
The United States was represented at the march by its ambassador to France, Jane Hartley.
Obama spoke publicly about the attacks last week from the Oval Office and during a trip to Tennessee. He spoke to French President Francois Hollande soon after the attacks and went to the French Embassy in Washington to sign a book of condolences.
U.S. administration officials cited security requirements as a central reason why neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden made the trip, saying their security needs can be distracting from such events.
Hollande and 44 foreign dignitaries headed more than a million people in a march called to show solidarity after Islamist militants killed 17 people in three days of attacks in the French capital last week.
The image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas flanking the leaders of France, Germany and Mali dominated coverage of the march and highlighted the absence of Obama or other senior U.S. officials.
The U.S. president is no stranger to criticism over ‘optics’ or image-related decisions close to big news events. Last year he was knocked for playing golf shortly after making a statement of condolences about an American journalist beheaded by the Islamic State militant group.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas were in Paris for security meetings on Sunday but did not attend the march.
Earnest said it was the White House’s responsibility to ask high officials to attend such events and said blame did not belong with Holder or others in the administration.
A spokesman for Holder said he had to return to the United States on Sunday afternoon but “was proud to join the world leaders gathered in Paris at a summit convened by President Hollande before the unity rally.”
The New York Daily News front page featured a photo of the packed rally along with head shots of Obama, Biden, Kerry and Holder and the admonition: “You let the world down.”
“The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz wrote in an opinion piece on the Time magazine website.
“Our president should have been there, because we must never hesitate to stand with our allies,” he wrote.
“I thought it was a mistake not to send someone,” another Republican senator, Marco Rubio, said on CBS “This Morning.”
Rubio and Cruz are both potential Republican presidential candidates for 2016.
Criticism of the American absence was not echoed in France, however.
“As far as the reactions of the U.S. authorities are concerned, we have been overwhelmed and very moved by them since the beginning of the crisis,” the French Embassy in Washington said on Monday.
The French ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, went to Capitol Hill on Monday to meet with lawmakers, who were expected to sign a condolence book.
Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to India, rebuffed criticism for not having a top-level official at Sunday’s march as “quibbling” and said Washington has cooperated deeply with Paris on many levels since the attacks.
“We have offered, from the first moment, our intel, our law enforcement and all of our efforts, and I really think that, you know, this is sort of quibbling a little bit,” said Kerry, speaking before Earnest’s comments in Washington.
Kerry plans to be in Paris on Friday.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle, Roberta Rampton and Michele Nichols; Editing by Christian Plumb and James Dalgleish