international analysis and commentary

The Paris attacks seen from Washington


American reactions to Friday night’s terrorist attack in Paris began pouring in while the violence was still ongoing. They have not stopped since and won’t for a while as what happened in the French capital is certain to change the terms of the 2016 presidential campaign and of the overall national security debate in the US. “This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share,” said President Barack Obama from the White House as terrorists held some 100 concert-goers hostage at the Bataclan theater.

Initially, the tenor was one of shock, horror and sympathy for France and the French people. Full support was pledged for the investigation that would ensue. The close ties that bind the US and France were emphasized over and over again, together with the values these two allies share across the Atlantic Ocean and the symbolic importance of Paris as the City of Light, which, as the President put it, “represents the timeless values of human progress.” Most government officials and media commentators were cautious not to immediately delve – even before the security situation in Paris was brought under control and before the overall picture surrounding Friday’s events was cleared – into the possible culprits and eventual response. But not everybody remained above board, particularly within conservative circles and especially as the hours went by. Social media formed the backdrop for both grief and controversy.

“We stand prepared and ready to provide whatever assistance that the government and the people of France need to respond,” declared Obama. “France is our oldest ally. The French people have stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States time and again. And we want to be very clear that we stand together with them in the fight against terrorism and extremism.” He then repeated this commitment in the phone call he had with French President Francois Hollande later in the night. Vice President Joe Biden commented along the same lines in his statement. “We will stand together,” said Biden. “We will never bow.  We will never break. That’s the character of our two nations. We are bound by timeless democratic values that the cowardice and perverse ideologues of extremist networks can never match, wherever they are.” US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter passed a similar message along to his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian when they spoke on the phone Saturday morning. Secretary of State John Kerry intervened from Vienna, side by side with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “[O]ur hearts go out to the people of Paris, to the French,” he said, “to people of other countries who lost their lives last night in this atrocious attack, and we intend to do everything in our power not just to stand with the French, but to stand with all people of decency who know this is wrong, this is evil, and we need to stand up against it.”

Kerry and Lavrov, along with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, were in the Austrian capital for scheduled international talks about the war in Syria that took place on Saturday. The tragic developments in Paris became the obvious focus of the discussions. If added to the two suicide bombings that struck southern Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday, killing 43 people and wounding at least 239 more, and to the explosive device that, on October 31st, allegedly brought down a Russian charter plane departing from Egypt, they suggest a remarkable outward shift in the strategy of ISIS, which claimed responsibility for all of them.

Back in the United States, presidential candidates also offered their condolences and thoughts. Most were subdued, at least at first. “Even in this darkest night, Paris remains the City of Light,” said Hillary Clinton in a statement. “No terrorist attack will ever dim the spirit of the French people or our common commitment to the democratic values we share.” Leading Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson took to Twitter and wrote, respectively: “My prayers are with the victims and hostages in the horrible Paris attacks. May God be with you all” And “My thoughts and prayers are with the people in Paris tonight.” Jeb Bush added: “Praying for Paris tonight. America will stand with you against terror.” Marco Rubio had more to say and sent out a series of six messages stating that “[i]t is important for all Americans to stand with the people of France in this difficult time. As we learn more about the attacks and who is behind them, the United States should assist the French government in finding those who are accountable and bring them to justice.”

Not everybody took the high road and, especially as Saturday morning began in the US, White House contenders and conservative pundits started to spin the issue politically. Former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich managed to wade simultaneously into the European debate over the recent flood of refugees and the US discussion on gun control. “Now can we have a serious debate about millions of Syrian refugees and how many terrorists will be in the crowd,” he wrote. And then added: “Imagine a theater with 10 or 15 citizens with concealed carry permits. We live in an age when evil men have to be killed by good people.” Rightwing commentators Ann Coulter also didn’t hold back, “How does one say ‘Illegal immigration is an act of love’ in French? How does one say ‘DREAMERS’ in French?” She then went on ranting about the fact that every year the US “imports 100,000 Muslims to live here permanently” and that the only way to stop terrorism from hitting this country would be not let them in. A couple of hours later she said of the anti-immigration Trump that “[t]hey can wait if they like until next November for the actual balloting, but Donald Trump was elected president tonight.”

By morning the real estate tycoon, along with the rest of the GOP field, had already begun criticizing President Obama for his policy vis-à-vis Syria, for being too tentative and too timid. They took issues with an interview that Obama gave ABC News a day before the Paris attack. “I don’t think they’re gaining strength,” he told George Stephanopoulos speaking about ISIS. “From the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them.

It is still early to predict exactly how this latest terrorist attack on yet another major Western city will affect US foreign policy going forward. But it is hard to imagine that it wouldn’t, especially as French President Hollande was quick to dub it “an act of war”. The carnage in Paris is likely to prompt a more aggressive approach by the current administration — moving beyond airstrikes and special forces in an advisory role — and more belligerent rhetoric by Presidential candidates, especially within the GOP camp. But even California representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told the New York Times on Saturday. “[the Paris attack] will add another sense of urgency to defeating [ISIS]”. Then added ominously: “[T]hat will be very hard to do without eliminating its sanctuary. If this doesn’t create in the world a fierce determination to rid ourselves of this scourge, I don’t know what will.”