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US President Barack Obama (R) and French President Francois Hollande hold a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, DC on November 24, 2015. (YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)

A Tale of Two Presidents

Kenneth R. Weinstein

When French President Francois Hollande visits the White House on Tuesday, it is Hollande who will be the undisputed leader of the free world in this latest phase of the war on terror, not American President Barack Obama.

Since the horrific attacks in Paris on November 13, Hollande has demonstrated a resolute moral clarity in the fight against Islamist extremists largely unseen among the current leadershipin Washington, DC. “We are at war,” Hollande stated, “A war declared by terrorists.” ISIS “fights us because France is a country of liberty, because we are the homeland of the rights of man.”

In speeches before a rare joint session of the French National Assembly and Senate and at a gathering of French mayors, Hollande firmly rejected equivocation and moral relativism in the fight against terror. Denouncing ISIS as “cowards,” the French president declared that “we are not engaged in war of civilizations” because “these murderers don’t represent” a civilization. Instead, he described them as “barbarians” attacking “the very concept of France itself.” Following Hollande’s lead, his cabinet and the French Prime Minister have been equally forceful in defending French civic values in the wake of the terror onslaught.

None of this was to be automatically expected from the French president and his government. Much like President Obama, Francois Hollande is a man of the left. He was elected to battle domestic issues such as income inequality. But since the January massacre at the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, the killings at a Paris kosher supermarket, and now the horror of 11-13, Hollande has emerged as a passionate advocate for French and Western exceptionalism and full-throated defender of republican principles.

The same cannot be said for the Obama administration in Washington. In a striking and sad contrast, President Obama has focused his greatest ire on Congressional Republicans for their caution over accepting Islamic refugees and on the press corps for questioning his strategy against ISIS, which relies on seven air strikes per day against ISIS targets and fewer than fifty technical advisors to aid the Kurdish resistance. Secretary of State John Kerry did the President one better, strangely implying at a recent Paris press conference that the murders at Charlie Hebdo had a “legitimacy” because of Muslim anger at the magazine’s decision to publish cartoons depicting and at times mocking the Prophet Mohammed.

Moreover, instead of reaffirming core American democratic principles and values and thoroughly delegitimizing ISIS, Obama and Kerry have continued to ascribe a unique form of original sin to the United States and the West: directly implying that Western policies and attitudes towards Islam bear a central responsibility for breeding Islamists, some of whom then go on to become violent terrorists.

At this pivotal moment in Western history and the war on terror, President Hollande understands what President Obama seems to have missed: the French president recognizes that his primary duty is not to represent one political party or to score points in defense of his personal political record, rather his duty is to rally his nation and prepare public opinion for the challenges ahead. His message is “national unity” in the wake of terrorists aiming to divide the French nation.

Nor is Hollande reluctant to call upon French citizens to embrace and support their national ideals. “The French people,” Hollande noted, expect their fellow citizens to embody “republican ideal[s]” including a “passionate attachment” to secularism, the right to peacefully practice or not practice religion as they so choose, which is the cornerstone of the Republic and an anathema to ISIS.

History is filled with ironies and paradoxes. Twelve and a half years after the start of the Iraq War when France criticized the US for its intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussain, it is now the president of France who declares “We will lead the fight and we will be ruthless.” He lacks the military equipment and manpower to sustain a prolonged fight to defend Western civilization, but he is determined to lead. Meanwhile across the Atlantic in the one-time arsenal of democracy, a reluctant Commander-in-Chief seems resigned to allowing this virulent form of extremism to expand and, in the process, claim still more victims in the Middle East and Europe and beyond.

Something for American voters of all political persuasions to consider as they evaluate the presidential candidates between now and next November.

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