President Obama's statement this morning on the tragic downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet made all the right points. The president was careful not to jump to any more conclusions than are warranted by what we know so far, yet clearly made the connection between the fact that the shots were fired from rebel-controlled territory, and Russia's supplying of sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons to Ukrainian separatists, so as to point the finger squarely at President Putin. He was firm in condemning whoever was responsible, yet careful to emphasize the goal of de-escalating tensions and violence so as to prevent further loss of life.
In short, it was just the sort of speech that was bound to infuriate hawks such as Senator McCain who called the president's response to the fighting in the Ukraine "cowardly." At the same time, it wasn't the kind of speech likely to inspire the president's supporters either. What would probably stir people more might be a Rooseveltian ("day that will live in infamy") or Churchillian ("fight on the beaches") type of response to the outrageous act of violence apparently committed by these Ukrainian separatists.
But remember that both Roosevelt and Churchill made those remarks in an effort to whip up national resolve to fight and defeat an enemy that had already brought war to our shores. Our side needed to be mobilized for all out war. President Obama's much harder challenge is to stir up the desire for peace, not only to avoid a military confrontation with Russia, which no responsible person wants, but also to reduce tensions in the Ukraine, as well as in Gaza, another area of crisis addressed in the president's remarks today. To do that you have to emphasize the goals of fairness and impartiality. You have to be careful not to exaggerate threats or to accuse the enemy of anything more than you can prove. You have to give your adversary a face-saving way out of a dangerous situation.
President Obama was describing a way forward that does not involve capitulation on our side, but instead requires our adversaries to put down their arms. Laying out a path to peace in this way is far from easy. It's shameful to call this approach cowardly. But President Obama will probably never be able to rally people around a march to peace in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, the way people might rally around a call to respond militarily.
Remember that this president has not shied away from fighting when deemed necessary. He called for an escalation of the effort in Afghanistan, and he has pulled the trigger on pirates and terrorists. But if we can obtain our objectives without the horrific costs of war, and we can induce other warring parties to stop fighting, that would represent the greatest sort of foreign policy triumph.