Why Obama and Boehner are So Cautious About the Malaysian Jetliner

A firefighter sprays water to extinguish a fire, on July 17, 2014 shows flames amongst the wreckages of the malaysian airliner carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine. There were 298 people, including 154 Dutch nationals, on board the Malaysia Airlines flight that crashed in strife-torn eastern Ukraine on Thursday, an official from the carrier said. AFP PHOTO/DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
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George E. Condon Jr.
July 17, 2014, 4:14 p.m.

While the cable chan­nels were ex­plod­ing in spec­u­la­tion from one pan­el of ex­perts after an­oth­er Thursday fol­low­ing the Malay­si­an air­liner tragedy, the most cau­tious pub­lic re­ac­tions came from Pres­id­ent Obama and Speak­er John Boehner. Both were low-key. The pres­id­ent spoke of find­ing out “what happened and why.” The speak­er called for pray­ers while “we await the facts.”

The cau­tion was for good reas­on. Al­most al­ways in such in­cid­ents, the im­me­di­ate cer­tain­ties prove wrong. When a bomb downed Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, for ex­ample, U.S. in­tel­li­gence ini­tially was con­vinced that Syr­ia was to blame. It turned out to be Libya. Both Obama and Boehner un­der­stand the scarcity of Amer­ic­an in­tel­li­gence re­sources in the sec­tion of Ukraine where the plane fell to the ground and they un­der­stand that it may take some time to as­cer­tain ex­actly what happened and who fired the fatal mis­sile.

But even as the world waits for those an­swers, it is not too early to con­clude that the po­ten­tial im­pact on the war over Ukraine is great. Already, back­ers of the Kiev gov­ern­ment be­lieve the in­cid­ent has placed Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin on the de­fens­ive and brought home the real­ity that the sep­ar­at­ists are fight­ing with weapons giv­en them by Rus­sia.

“This can change the nar­rat­ive of the con­flict be­ing solely a homegrown sep­ar­at­ist move­ment and a nar­rat­ive mainly writ­ten by Rus­sia to an op­por­tun­ity for Ukraine and the West to show that Rus­sia is man­u­fac­tur­ing much of the con­flict and thus needs to be thwarted,” said Ro­man Popa­di­uk, the first Amer­ic­an am­bas­sad­or to Ukraine after the coun­try be­came in­de­pend­ent. “From a PR per­spect­ive, this could be a game changer,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

An­thony H. Cordes­man, the former dir­ect­or of in­tel­li­gence as­sess­ment for the sec­ret­ary of De­fense and now at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, is more cau­tious. He said people already should have known that Rus­sia had giv­en sur­face-to-air mis­siles to the rebels since they had already shot down two Ukrain­i­an planes. Cit­ing the Lock­er­bie pre­ced­ent, he said “there is reas­on here for pa­tience.” He also doubted that the situ­ation on the ground in Ukraine had changed much in the hours after the plane was shot down.

“We’ve for­got­ten that the morn­ing began with con­cern that the Rus­si­ans had moved 12,000 troops back to the bor­der, which may or may not be af­fected by the air­liner crash. But, cer­tainly, it won’t have changed in­stant­an­eously,” he said.

Already, though, Popa­di­uk sees the po­ten­tial for changes that would be im­port­ant dip­lo­mat­ic­ally and for Obama’s ef­forts to rally the West to stand stronger against Putin through sanc­tions. The down­ing of the plane, said Popa­di­uk, “will fur­ther unite the Ukrain­i­ans and also em­bolden the Ukrain­i­an mil­it­ary since it will show the world that Ukraine is not just fa­cing a sep­ar­at­ist is­sue but also fight­ing a shad­ow war against Rus­sia.” Ad­di­tion­ally, he said, it “will put pres­sure on the West to come up with more sanc­tions in a quick­er time frame…. And it may start chan­ging pub­lic opin­ion in West­ern coun­tries to a more pro-Ukrain­i­an po­s­i­tion, which will make their gov­ern­ments’ de­cisions on sanc­tions much easi­er.”

It is too early to know, but if the pres­sure on Mo­scow does in­crease be­cause of this, there could be more pres­sure by Putin on the sep­ar­at­ists to en­gage in ne­go­ti­ations with Kiev and there may be more of a move on Cap­it­ol Hill to grant Ukraine’s re­quest for more de­fens­ive mil­it­ary equip­ment and aid. That will not be clear, though, un­til the smoke clears from the crash and Amer­ic­an in­tel­li­gence gath­ers enough an­swers that Obama and Boehner can safely move bey­ond the safe gen­er­al­it­ies of Thursday.