That someone in an area dominated by pro-Russian separatists would hit a commercial airliner with 298 innocent people aboard brought home a critical point for everyone: Modern wars, with their advanced weapons and proxy rebels, require national leaders to act with more humility than hubris before unleashing violence in the belief they can control events.
The “fog of war” is thicker and costlier than ever, demanding ever higher levels of certainty and adherence to norms of civility.
The shock of the disaster was not a shock to many who track world conflicts. A recent American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, gave this warning last March about the Russia-Ukraine conflict: “There are unintended consequences that happen when there are lots of people running around with grievances on their minds, with guns in their hands,” he said.
Other recent conflicts also reveal a need for more caution than conviction before countries let loose the kind of forces that may cause great harm. The arming of Syria’s rebels in 2011, for example, led to the use of chemical weapons last year. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was based on inaccurate information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The US arming of Muslim militants in 1980 against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan led to the founding of Al Qaeda.
The downing of MH17 last Thursday finds a historic echo in the downing of Korean Air Flight 007 by Soviet forces in 1983 and Iranian Air Flight 655 by US forces in 1988. Such tragedies, even if done by mistake, call for greater prudence and circumspection by nations at odds.
Trying to decide which conflicts are “necessary” and which are “dumb” (to use President Obama’s term about the Iraq war) has only become difficult. The tools of war are more complex, stealthy, and violent, relying less on standing armies and close-range weapons. Leaders who overplay their hand can end up with massive collateral damage.
A century ago, the countries in Europe stumbled into World War I and the first use of mass weaponry. But they didn’t learn enough about the conceit of overconfidence in order to prevent a string of wars over the next 100 years. Ukraine is the latest example.
As evidence is collected about the downing of the Malaysian plane, it may point back to Russia as either instigator or indirectly responsible. If so, President Vladimir Putin has much to answer for, not least the arrogance of thinking he could control the violence in Ukraine.
In a speech last May, Mr. Obama said, “Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventure.” Other leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, offer even more caution about the hubris of certainty in a conflict.
Knowing when not to set a war in motion may be a leader’s greatest virtue. If the world wants to honor the victims of MH17, it can use this tragedy to remember that lesson once and for all.