On the day that saw the double whammy of the downing of a Malaysian Airlines over Ukraine and the Israeli invasion of Gaza, President Obama seemed at first conspicuously unengaged for a man customarily regarded as the leader of the "free world."
He had started the day in Delaware making a pitch for more bridge and other infrastructure repair, and then went blithely on to New York for more political fund-raising.
His most outspoken critic, Republican Sen. John McCain, immediately blew the whistle on him. "It's just been cowardly, it's a cowardly administration that failed to give the Ukrainians weapons with which to defend themselves," he said on Fox News Thursday night, after the first news of the downing of the plane was reported.
McCain took Obama to task for staying on the political fund-raising circuit as the latest aspect of the crisis was unfolding. "I just don't understand this president," he said. "The crisis on the border, and he did the fund-raisers in New York while there are major conflicts (going on). I do not understand it. This is what we used to call in the military AWOL."
Obama did phone Russian President Vladimir Putin and reported that they agreed on the necessity of thorough investigation of the plane crash, and unimpeded access for investigators to the site. The president also made a sympathy call to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte over the death of many Dutch passengers aboard, and left it to Vice President Joe Biden to call Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to extend an offer of help in determining what had happened.
In the early fog of war, it was understandable that Obama did not wish to leap to conclusions before culpability had been established. Nor did he want to do further damage to the U.S.-Russian relationship that he had worked to "reset" ever since taking office in 2009.
But by the next morning, Obama was anything but AWOL. In the White House press room, he confirmed that the plane had been downed by a Russian-made missile fired from a location controlled by pro-Russian separatist. He forcefully if inferentially laid what he called "a global tragedy" and "an outrage of unspeakable proportions" at Putin's feet.
He declared that the separatists "are heavily armed and they are trained" to use Russian weapons. "That is not an accident," he said. "That is happening because of Russian support." It was "not possible for these separatists to be functioning the way they are" without Russian support. If Putin would shut off this assistance, he declared, "then it will stop."
Speaking with an aggressiveness absent a day earlier, Obama said it was time to step back and take stock of the situation, and for Putin to take the opportunity to return to a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and find a peaceful solution. But he also warned the Russian strongman that he was prepared to lead an international effort that would include tougher sanctions against the Russian economy if he ignored the perilous consequences of his actions.
In all, the current turmoil in Ukraine and the Middle East has underscored the difficulty facing Obama as he hopes to assert American influence around the world more through diplomacy than military might. Secretary of State John Kerry has been shuttling between trouble-spots seeking to keep the lid on various conflicts and disputes, and the Gaza invasion marks a notable setback in his tireless quest to keep Israeli-Palestinian peace talks alive.
Obama's damaged his own credibility last year when he declared a "red line" forbidding Syria from using chemical weapons against insurgents but then did not use force when that line was crossed. The subsequent diplomatic deal, in which the Assad regime agreed to surrender most of its chemical stockpile, did not mollify the president's critics.
Now the president has an opportunity in the Ukrainian crisis to mobilize greater international solidarity in response to what he has rightly called an international outrage. The question is whether Obama's personal outrage is great enough to stiffen his own back against the recklessly resolute Putin.
Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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