It was another shockingly awful and passive performance. Appearing Friday in the White House briefing room, presumably to respond to criticism from Thursday when he hardly mentioned the crash of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, President Obama looked half asleep. Many words were spoken, but very little was said. Any hint of moral outrage or clarity was kept far from view.
It was left to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to give a crisp, clear indictment of the Russians. She began, “Yesterday, we were all shocked by the downing” of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. She continued, “All 298 people aboard – 283 passengers and 15 crew – were killed. As we stared at the passenger list yesterday we saw next to three of the passengers names a capital ‘I.’ As we now know, the letter ‘I’ stands for infant.” Unlike the president she was conveying the depth of the horror. She continued, “A full, credible, and unimpeded international investigation must begin immediately. The perpetrators must be brought to justice. They must not be sheltered by any member state of the United Nations.”
Unlike the president — who sounded like Inspector Poirot (or was it Inspector Clouseau?) investigating a crime — can’t jump to conclusions, can’t rule out anything — she assigned responsibility for the dastardly act:
There was nothing threatening or provocative about MH17. Of the operational SAM systems located near the border, only the SA-11, SA-20, and SA-22 SAM systems are capable of hitting an aircraft at this flight’s altitude of 33,000 feet. We can rule out shorter-range SAMs known to be in separatist hands, including MANPADS, SA-8 and SA-13 systems, which are not capable of hitting an aircraft at this altitude. Early Thursday, an SA-11 SAM system was reported near Snizhne by a Western reporter, and separatists were spotted hours before the incident with an SA-11 system at a location close to the site where the plane came down. Separatists initially claimed responsibility for shooting down a military transport plane and posted videos that are now being connected to the Malaysian airlines crash. Separatist leaders also boasted on social media about shooting down a plane, but later deleted these messages. Because of the technical complexity of the SA-11, it is unlikely that the separatists could effectively operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel. Thus, we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the systems.
The Ukrainians do have SA-11 systems in their inventory. However, we are not aware of any Ukrainian SAM systems in the area of the shoot-down. And, more importantly, since the beginning of this crisis, Ukrainian air defenses have not fired a single missile, despite several alleged violations of their airspace by Russian aircraft.
This also follows a pattern of actions by Russian-backed separatists. On June 13th, separatists shot down a Ukrainian transport plane, carrying 40 paratroopers and nine crew. On June 24th, as this Council was meeting to welcome Ukraine’s unilateral cease-fire, we received word that separatists downed a Ukrainian helicopter, killing all nine on board. On July 14th, separatists claimed credit for the downing of a Ukrainian military cargo plane, flying at 6,000 meters, and on July 16, they claimed credit for the downing of a Ukrainian fighter jet.
If she hadn’t laid out the case, the American people — and the world — would never have known how definitive is the evidence. After warning about the risk of a cover-up (already begun by the Russians), she added context, something entirely lacking in the president’s sleepy news conference:
The context for yesterday’s horror is clear: separatist forces — backed by the Russian government — continue to destabilize Ukraine and undermine the efforts of Ukraine’s elected leaders to build a democratic Ukraine that is stable, unified, secure and able to determine its own future.
Russia says that it seeks peace in Ukraine, but we have repeatedly provided this council with evidence of Russia’s continued support to the separatists. Time after time, we have called on the Russian government to de-escalate the situation by stopping the flow of fighters and weapons into Ukraine, pressing separatists to agree to a cease-fire and release all hostages and support a roadmap for negotiations. Time after time, President Putin has committed to working towards dialogue and peace: in Geneva in April, in Normandy in June and in Berlin earlier this month. And every single time, he has broken that commitment.
She then detailed Russia’s continued involved in the Ukraine fighting. She recounted Ukrainian efforts to forge a diplomatic resolution. And then she ended with a stem-winder:
As we sit here, the remains of nearly 300 people — of innocent infants, children, women and men — are strewn across a blackened, smoldering landscape in Ukraine. Those victims came from at least nine different nations. They could just as easily have come from any of ours. We must treat all of them as our own victims.
We have a duty to each and every one of those individuals, their families and their countries to determine why that jet fell out of the sky and to hold the perpetrators accountable. We must stop at nothing to bring those responsible to justice. This appalling attack occurred in the context of a crisis that has been fueled by Russian support for separatists — through arms, weapons, and training — and by the Russian failure to follow through on its commitments and by its failure to adhere to the fundamental principles of the UN Charter.
This tragedy only underscores the urgency and determination with which we insist that Russia immediately take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine, support a sustainable cease-fire, and follow the path toward peace that the Ukrainian government has consistently offered.
This war can be ended. Russia can end this war. Russia must end this war.
The problem is that her boss doesn’t see things that way — or prefers not to let on that he does. He lacks urgency, clarity and the will to act. Perhaps he is overwhelmed, or perhaps he is so averse to exercising U.S. power and leadership that he aims to fuzz up moral distinctions and chooses not to illuminate evidence. Otherwise, he might be forced to do something and to acknowledge that a decade of war is not behind us, but that real and growing threats abound that cannot be ignored. His entire world view — The United States is the troublemaker, the world can take care of itself, tyrants can be engaged — has proved to be not just wrong but also foolish and dangerous. Hence, we see his near catatonic state.
As for Power, here’s a suggestion: No more excuses for the administration. Tell the truth daily — about Syria, Hamas, Iran, Russia and the rest. Forget talking points and administration shushing. Ignore the message of the day. Make no effort to smooth differences between your own statements and the hapless State Department spokeswoman or between you and the White House. This president never fires anyone anyway. And if he did, she would be a martyr for the truth.
Jimmy Carter woke up with the invasion of Afghanistan. He expressed moral outrage and took a number of tough steps to respond to and punish Soviet aggression. This president will never wake up. He is impervious to reality and incapable of moral clarity. We and the world are in deep, deep trouble.