WASHINGTON – There is a certain je ne sais quoi in conservatives’ criticism of the Obama administration over last week’s terrorist attack in France.
A decade ago, Republicans in Congress were renaming French fries “freedom fries” and French toast “freedom toast” because of that country’s refusal to support the Iraq war. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld belittled the “old Europe” French, President George W. Bush mocked an American reporter for speaking French to the French president, and conservative critics called the French “weasels,” “appeasers” and worse. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, was ridiculed by the Bush administration for being “too French” and looking French, and his fluency in French was a liability in the campaign.
And now, that very same Monsieur Kerry, the secretary of state, and his boss, President Obama, are being condemned by conservatives for … not being nice enough to the French.
The cause celebre this time is the failure of the Obama administration to send anybody of higher rank than the U.S. ambassador to attend Sunday’s march in Paris showing solidarity against the terrorists.
“Our president should have been there, because we must never hesitate to stand with our allies,” proclaimed Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican agent provocateur from Texas.
Fox News’s Greta van Susteren said the absence was “embarrassing” and that “Obama should not have snubbed Paris.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., – like Cruz a would-be presidential contender – declared it “a mistake not to send someone.” (For the record, neither Cruz nor Rubio attended the march.)
A former Pentagon official in the Bush administration, Dov Zakheim, wrote an article complaining that Obama and other officials “opted out of what may have been the most important demonstration for decency since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Media outlets joined the cri de coeur: Politico called it “Barack Obama’s French kiss-off,” and the New York Daily News said Obama and his lieutenants “let the world down.”
Largely absent from this condemnation of the American government’s slight of the French were the French themselves. French President Francois Hollande said Obama had been “very present” in the response to last week’s attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish market.
This is because the failure to send a high-ranking official to the march was in the category of faux pas. Sending the president across the ocean on 36 hours’ notice to an open-air rally of hundreds of thousands of people was never a possibility, for security and logistical reasons. But Vice President Biden could have gone; instead, the closest he got to Paris was dining at the French restaurant Le Diplomate in Washington on the eve of the attack. At least Attorney General Eric Holder, already in Paris, might have dropped by. Officials I spoke to said it was a simple screw-up: They didn’t understand how significant the event would be, with leaders of some 40 countries in attendance.
But the notion that Kerry, of all people, was slighting the French is a bit (BEG ITAL)incroyable.(END ITAL) The son of a diplomat, Kerry has close family in France and learned the language at a Swiss boarding school. After the initial massacre in Paris last week, he addressed the shooting at an appearance with the Polish foreign minister, in both English and in French.
Not too long ago, Kerry’s Francophilia earned him ridicule. Tom DeLay, a House Republican leader, would greet crowds by saying, “Hi. Or, as John Kerry would say, ‘Bonjour.’”
But now Kerry is being called insufficiently pro-French, snubbing them because he had the nerve to be in meetings in India on Sunday. It didn’t matter that he had signed a condolence book at the French Embassy (as did Obama) or that he'll be in Paris on Thursday and Friday, at the end of his current trip. Neither did Obama get credit for his call to Hollande on the day of the attack, the various statements he has made about the attack or, of most importance, all the counterterrorism help the U.S. government is giving France.
The conservatives are guilty of a bit of inconsistency, if not hypocrisy, in criticizing the Obama administration for snubbing a people they not long ago called cheese-eating surrender monkeys.
But, ça ne fait rien. It’s tres bien that Francophobia has waned on the American right, and that the land of Lafayette, socialist government and all, is again in conservatives’ good graces.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.