President Barack Obama must have missed his calling as head of the National Transportation Safety Board.
In the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Obama has been the nation's forensic investigator-in-chief. He has summoned all the moral authority of his office to call for the professional handling of the wreckage.
President Ronald Reagan famously implored the Soviets to "Tear down this wall." President Obama's injunction is "Investigate this crash." Or as he put it rousingly in his statement on Ukraine from the South Lawn Monday, "I've sent teams; other countries have sent teams." If transportation disaster assistance specialists strike fear in Vladimir Putin, the Russian strongman is no doubt daunted by the Western response.
A fair, expeditious investigation of the crash is obviously preferable to the depredations of Putin's minions, but is largely beside the point. This isn't the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. There is no mystery. Forces controlled by Putin shot a civilian airliner out of the sky. End of story. Whether Ukrainian separatists or Russian personnel pulled the trigger is almost moot, since both are creatures of the Russian state.
The downing of Flight 17 is of a piece with Putin's lawless aggression. Having already absorbed Crimea, he seeks to further dismember a European country for the offense of seeking to govern itself in keeping with its values and interests.
So far, he hasn't paid enough of a concrete price, despite repeated warnings from President Obama. When they go unheeded, Obama simply makes new warnings. They have marked each step of Putin's escalation, and never made a difference. What Teddy Roosevelt was to gunboat diplomacy, Barack Obama is to the ineffectual demand.
Putin is surely counting on the urgency of the latest outrage fading with time, and with his inevitable obfuscations and lies. President Obama said on Monday that if Russia persists in Ukraine it "will only further isolate itself from the international community." But isolation isn't an autocatalytic process. Someone has to do the isolating.
The U.S. has been more aggressive on sanctions than the Europeans, yet has stopped short of cutting off broad sectors of the Russian economy from our financial system. That is within our power to do, even if the Europeans balk at going so far, and there also is nothing stopping us from providing the Ukrainian military with the heavy arms to win the Putin-instigated civil war.
The Ukrainian military was starved of funds by pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country earlier this year. Ukrainians have been holding bake sales to support the army. Our initial response was to send the Ukrainian military meals ready to eat, which would have been a fearsome response if Russian-backed rebels could be defeated by Spam. A report in The Wall Street Journal in April captured the administration's mindset when it noted that we were reviewing Ukrainian requests for medical kits and military socks because "you want to calibrate your chest-thumps," in the words of a senior military official. The nonlethal aid is now flowing, but who thinks of socks as a "chest thump"?
President Obama speaks as if both the Ukrainian government and the Russian-supported separatists need to stand down. This glosses over that the Ukrainian government was elected in a landslide and seeks merely to reassert control over its sovereign territory. It deserves our fullest material and moral support.
In international affairs, President Obama possesses only an uncertain trumpet. It's not as though he's incapable of outraged righteousness in other circumstances. He summons it against Republicans all the time. If Vladimir Putin tried to repeal Obamacare instead of merely overturning the post-World War II order in Europe by force of arms, perhaps he would be truly exercised and fully engaged.
The president lacks the same passion for his responsibilities as alleged leader of the free world.