Here is the sad state of affairs in U.S. foreign policy today: We are seeing more resolve projected from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations than from the Oval Office.
At the White House, President Obama finally addressed the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine last week, but in his tepid prepared remarks Obama mentioned Russian President Vladimir Putin precisely once (and then only to mention that they had spoken by phone the day before).
By contrast, over at Turtle Bay, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power delivered a searing indictment of Russia to the U.N. Security Council, laying responsibility for this barbarous act exactly where it belongs — at Putin’s feet. “Time after time, President Putin has committed to working towards dialogue and peace,” Power declared, “And every single time, he has broken that commitment.”
Power told the Security Council that the plane was likely shot down by an SA-11 missile and that “it is unlikely that the separatists could effectively operate the system without . . . technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the systems.” (Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that Russia had in fact trained the separatists in how to use the missile, while Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, went even further, raising the possibility that the Russian military had actually fired the missile.)
Power also accused Putin of providing separatists with tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launchers, man-portable air defense systems, mines and grenades — noting that many weapons captured by Ukrainian forces included “accompanying documentation verifying the Russian origin.”
Power charged Putin with holding Ukrainian prisoners in Russia on behalf of separatists. She cited recent shoot-downs in Ukrainian airspace of a Ukrainian Air Force cargo plane and a Ukrainian fighter jet and said the Ukrainian government believes “that these planes were fired on from Russian territory.”
And she declared of the downing of Flight 17: “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. . . . This appalling attack occurred in the context of a crisis and has been fueled by Russian support for separatists . . . and by the Russian failure to follow through on its commitments and by its failure to adhere to the fundamental principles of the U.N. Charter. . . . This war can be ended. Russia can end this war. Russia must end this war.”
Our U.N. ambassador is sounding like Ronald Reagan while our president is sounding like Jimmy Carter. It seems Obama has become so accustomed to projecting weakness that he can’t even seem to muster a strongly worded statement.
But the real problem in Ukraine is not Obama’s rhetoric, but his actions (or lack thereof).
The shoot-down of Flight 17 shows how decisions that a U.S. president makes in one part of the world can have unanticipated and tragic consequences elsewhere.
The path to tragedy in the skies over Donetsk began with U.S. inaction in the skies over Damascus. When Obama drew his red line in Syria and then failed to enforce it, it was Putin who found him a face-saving way out. After that embarrassing episode, Putin saw that Obama did not have the stomach to impose consequences on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and knew that he would face no real consequences for destabilizing Ukraine. So he annexed Crimea and began to arm Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with advanced weapons, including surface-to-air missiles.
Now, a commercial passenger jet has been shot out of the sky, either by Russian-backed separatists or Russian forces themselves — killing all 298 innocent people on board, including at least one confirmed U.S. citizen.
Inaction has consequences. If Obama does nothing in the face of Putin’s actions, our inaction could have consequences far from Ukraine. Just as Putin measured Obama’s resolve in Syria and found it lacking, others are now measuring Obama’s resolve in response to the tragedy in Ukraine. Our adversaries, from Beijing to Pyongyang to Tehran, are watching. So are Islamic State, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabab in east Africa, the Taliban and the leadership of “core” al-Qaeda.
Will they find Obama’s resolve lacking as well?
If the president can’t match the resolve of his U.N. ambassador and impose severe consequences on Putin’s regime, we could soon pay the price elsewhere in the world.