The man who wasn’t there

Front row from left, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU President Donald Tusk, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga join other dignitaries, heads of government and heads of state as they march during a rally in Paris, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. More than 40 world leaders, their arms linked, marched through Paris Sunday to rally for unity and freedom of expression and to honor 17 victims of three days of terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

The White House is correct in conceding that it should have sent a high-level government official to Paris to represent the United States at Sunday’s mass rally against Islamic extremism and in favor of free speech. It was a rare chance to show solidarity with our allies for Western values.

The White House said security concerns prompted the decision, but those concerns did not stop the leaders of Britain, Germany, Israel and the Palestinian Authority from joining arm-in-arm with President Hollande on a Paris street in a demonstration attended by more than 1.6 million people. Even Russia sent its foreign minister.

On Monday White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, “I think it’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile” than the U.S. ambassador to France to join Mr. Hollande’s rally.

The best representative would have been President Obama, though a secondary choice, such as Vice President Joe Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry, would have been adequate. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris, though he did not attend the rally.

Sending any of the secondary figures would have been better attuned to the spirit of the occasion than the indifference shown by the White House.

The president’s absence has again raised questions about his ambivalence toward the struggle with Islamic extremism — a conflict now well into its second decade. The White House has announced that he will host a February summit on how to counter violent extremism. But Mr. Earnest was careful to say it was about “all forms of extremism,” not just the Islamic version, making it sound more like an academic exercise than an effort to come up with an answer to the ongoing wave of terror.

The focus of the Paris rally was appropriately on Islamic extremism. The Paris killers were trained and motivated by extreme Islamist organizations in Syria and Yemen.

President Obama did not have to wait until February to address this burning subject. If he had been in Paris on Sunday, he could have gotten a jump on that summit with his top allies. Given the circumstances, that would have been the smart thing to do.

But he wasn’t there.