Obama too cautious in responding to Malaysia Airlines shoot-down?

UN Ambassador Samantha Power was more forceful than President Obama about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine. “Other administration officials can say things that presidents can't,” says one analyst.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about the situation in Ukraine at a press conference Friday. A Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down by a surface-to-air missile in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

In his press conference Friday, President Obama was direct but measured in his reaction to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Mr. Obama described it as an “outrage of unspeakable proportions,” and he noted that pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine can’t shoot down large aircraft at high altitude “without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia.”

But he was careful not to get ahead of what’s provably known or of suggesting any US action in response other than “investigating exactly what happened and putting forward the facts.” 

At the United Nations the same day, US Ambassador Samantha Power was more forceful and detailed in her analysis of the incident.

She laid out high-altitude antiaircraft missile systems in the hands of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, which had previously been used to shoot down Ukrainian aircraft – including a troop transport aircraft, a helicopter, and a fighter jet – and she suggested that a cover-up may be underway.

"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 U.N. Charter," Ambassador Power said.

And she pointed an accusing finger straight at Russian President Vladimir Putin:

“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.”

Why didn’t Obama himself speak out more forcefully?

“Other administration officials can say things that presidents can't, while still giving the remarks the imprimatur of the United States,” explains Mike Allen at Politico.com. “Declarations by other officials can be used to test responses, push the envelope on what we actually know, and preserve flexibility for the president in future negotiations.”

That’s no doubt true, but it also leaves Obama open to criticism that he’s hanging back when he should be more direct.

“What was missing from the president’s comments was a clear moral conclusion about the regime of Vladi­mir Putin …,” the Washington Post chided in an editorial. “An atrocity committed as a byproduct of Moscow’s attempt to violently break apart a sovereign nation demands a firmer response.”

“The greatest foreign-policy failing of this Presidency is that he refuses to see that the world has bad actors,” the Wall Street Journal said in its editorial. “He can explain the consequences of aggression as he did [at his press conference] on Friday, but he refuses to admit or explain that certain countries are responsible for those consequences and must be opposed.”

If Obama is taking flak for being too hesitant about the airliner shoot-down in Ukraine, he “might take some comfort from the experience of former President Ronald Reagan, the conservative icon who faced sharp words from fellow conservatives over his response to the Sept. 1, 1983, incident in which a Soviet fighter jet shot down a South Korean airliner with 269 people aboard —including a U.S. congressman — killing them all,” writes Oliver Knox of Yahoo News.

Mr. Reagan referred to it as “an act of barbarism” and a “massacre.”

“The administration is pathetic …,” declared conservative columnist George Will, referring to Reagan’s anti-Soviet rhetoric. “We didn’t elect a dictionary. We elected a president and it’s time for him to act.”

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to appear on five TV news shows – NBC's "Meet the Press,” ABC's "This Week,” CBS's "Face the Nation,” "Fox News Sunday,” and CNN's "State of the Union.”

It’ll be another chance for the Obama administration to articulate its reading of Ukraine and Russia in light of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

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