Friday, July 18, 2014

The peace president

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.


  1. The peace president? The one thing I hoped he would do is give us peace in the world. Instead, I have never seen so much unrest in the world since the late 60's. The mid east is on fire, the southern boarder out of control, and race relations are worse than I can remember, and where is the president? Playing golf and going to fund raisers. I have never before been so sorry about the vote I cast in 2008. We need real leadership in DC. Somebody the can bring us together no tear us apart.

    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting, n2cycles. I can appreciate your frustration at seeing so much conflict in the world. The question is what to do about it. Are you advocating a more militaristic approach, a la John McCain? Because we've tried the peace through war approach before and it brought us Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. President Obama is trying something new. It's not militaristic, but it's not appeasement either. It's a concerted effort to de-escalate conflict and use other tools like sanctions and diplomacy to deal with trouble spots in the world. If you want to criticize that approach, fine, but then you have the burden of setting out what we should do differently, and why you think that would work better.