President Barack Obama has declared the apparent shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane over Ukraine is a “terrible tragedy” and warned that “the world is watching”. He has offered full assistance to the Ukrainian authorities to investigate the incident and determine who is responsible.
Voices outside the administration have been less guarded in their comments, pointing the finger of blame firmly at pro-Russian insurgent forces and their alleged backers in Moscow. Most notably, former US secretary of state and probable presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has called on Washington to “put [Vladimir] Putin on notice that he has gone too far and we are not going to stand idly by.”
The options for the Obama administration are very limited in terms of direct action, however. Just a day ago, Washington toughened sanctions it has placed on Russia over its support for the insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine. No doubt there will be further deepening of sanctions should the evidence point to the pro-Russian forces being responsible for the downing of the passenger jet.
International pressure, not just from the US, will mount on Russia to draw back its support for the separatist movement. If this tragedy can be traced to Moscow-supplied weaponry, Putin is likely to be put on the defensive and may try to save face by brokering a deal to end the violence in Ukraine.
Don’t hold your breath …
But anyone looking for a more forceful response from the US is unlikely to get it. Despite the gravity of this incident, there will be little interest in the US for any form of direct military intervention, not least as it is unclear what form such action could take or what it would achieve. While latent Cold Warriors may see this as the strongest evidence yet of renewed Russian aggression, and there will certainly be a toughening of anti-Russian and anti-Putin rhetoric, there are few in Washington with an appetite for a return to the days of superpower confrontation.
It is worth looking back at the Cold War era, in fact, as a reminder that even during one of its most tense periods, the US administration dealt with a similar incident relatively calmly. On September 1 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 en route from Anchorage in Alaska to Seoul, killing 269 people on board. The incident occurred just a few months after president Ronald Reagan had labelled the Soviet Union an “evil empire”, at a time when the fear of a nuclear confrontation was higher than it had been since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Reagan condemned the shooting, calling it a “horrifying act of violence” that was “an attack against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere.” He attacked the Soviets for this “act of barbarism,” which he argued was “born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.”
Yet despite the ferocity of his words, the US responded with restraint of action. Privately, Reagan told his foreign policy advisers that the US should not overreact: “The world will react to this. It’s important that we do not do anything that jeopardises the long-term relationship with the Soviet Union.”
The US demanded a full explanation and apology from Moscow, suspended all Aeroflot activity in the US, encouraged other nations to do the same, and held a symbolic day of mourning for KAL 007’s victims. But the administration refused to consider any form of military response, rejected calls to suspend arms talks with Moscow, and did not break off any other diplomatic activity.
As with so many points in the Cold War, the unthinkable consequences of actual war with the Soviets constrained American action and limited the response largely to rhetorical sparring. Obama is in a far less tense and dangerous position relative to Russia but is nonetheless highly unlikely to risk any level of response that might draw Moscow toward aggressive direct action against US interests.
Skeletons in the American closet
Less than five years after the Korean airliner incident, on July 3 1988, the US itself shot down a commercial airliner. The USS Vincennes fired a surface-to-air missile that destroyed an Iranian Airbus flying from Tehran to Dubai, killing all 290 people on board.
Although a legal settlement was reached with the families of the victims, the US has never accepted responsibility or apologised to Iran. Washington holds to the argument that the passenger plane was genuinely mistaken by naval officers for an Iranian F-14 Tomcat fighter. The Obama administration will therefore be fully aware of the potential difficulties involved in reacting strongly to the shooting down of MH17.
The US is often talked about in terms of being the world’s hegemon or only remaining superpower. Relative US inaction over this tragic development in the struggle over Ukraine’s future will cause some critics to lambast Obama for not doing enough and failing to stand up to Putin – indeed Twitter is already littered with such comments.
But the stark reality is that the US, despite its massive wealth and military power, does not have the capacity to respond effectively to every crisis that occurs in the world. As Reagan found in 1983, so Obama must recognise now, there are significant limits to American power and often a cautious rhetorically strong but restrained response is more likely to serve the best interests of the US in the long run, even when it is faced with an incident as devastating and tragic as today.