One of the basic rules of satire is that it is virtually impossible to satirize something that is already inherently ridiculous. That axiom is brought to mind as America belatedly sought to reaffirm its friendship with France in the wake of the administration’s decision to snub the Paris unity rally that commemorated the terror attack on the Charlie Hebdo office and a kosher market. Neither the president nor the vice president or even Secretary of State John Kerry bothered to come to a gathering attended by over 40 world leaders. But to make up for this, Kerry brought folk rock singer James Taylor to Paris to serenade French officials with a version of Carol King’s classic ballad, “You’ve Got a Friend.” This is something so absurd that it isn’t clear even the cleverest minds at Saturday Night Live or even Charlie Hebdo could adequately convey the sophomoric nature of a lame attempt to make up for a gaffe. While the real problem is the administration’s lack of comfort in standing up for the rights of cartoonists to offend Islamists as evidenced by the decision to stay away from the rally, it also tells us something significant about the inadequate man who is serving as the nation’s chief diplomat.
That Kerry would think schlepping an aging rock icon from his youth to Paris to tell the French that “all you’ve got to do is just ca-aall” if they need us is the sort of thing that makes one longs for the diplomacy of an earlier era when envoys wore uniforms, swords, and feathered hats and stuck to rigid formality.
That’s not just because such a gesture is jejune as well as puerile, though it is both of those things as well as a clear reflection of Kerry’s lack of seriousness as a public official. It’s that the French and the rest of Europe know very well that the last thing they can count on in a crisis is the willingness of the Obama administration to “be there” for their oldest ally or anyone else for that matter.
This is an administration that has spent six years offending and snubbing allies all the while seeking in vain to appease old foes and rivals such as Russia and Iran. Though U.S. and French policies often intersect, Paris and the rest of Europe have come to understand that Obama is as uninterested in their point of view or their needs as he is of those of congressional Republicans. In a week when French officials were rightly calling on the world to join them in the fight against Islamist terror, Washington was dithering and couldn’t even force itself to say the word “Islamist.”
As is well known, French opinion about the United States is decidedly mixed with resentment of American wealth and culture often overwhelming the basic commonality of interests shared by two great democracies. A James Taylor concert won’t make things much worse but neither will it improve the situation. What it will do is to remind Europe and those enemies once again that this is an administration that neither understands symbolism or how to reaffirm an alliance.
It is no small irony that an administration that came into office determined to work with the international community, and our allies rather than to be Bush-like unilateral cowboys, is now reduced to this sort of nonsense. What the French or any ally wants is not a touchy-feely Oldies song but a sense that the U.S. believes it is still part of the war against international terror. To the contrary, Obama’s instincts are such that allies have come to expect his contempt or disinterest in their problems.
Kerry’s cringe-inducing turn hosting his friend Taylor isn’t the dumbest thing he has done at the State Department by a long shot. Having faith in Mahmoud Abbas as a champion of peace and signing a weak nuclear deal with Iran are hard to top. But is an iconic moment that will symbolize Obama and Kerry’s ham-handed approach to allies. A song, even a folk rock classic that allows Kerry to reminisce about his youth spent falsely testifying against his fellow Vietnam vets, can’t substitute for a strong stand against Islamists or even the ability to say the word. Prior to this, it was possible to argue that U.S. foreign policy had become a joke. But after Taylor had finished warbling, even the president and his inner White House circle must be wondering what sort of a fool they’ve unleashed on the world.