A plane is shot down. What would Reagan do?

     A woman walks at the site of a crashed Malaysia Airlines passenger plane near the village of Rozsypne, eastern Ukraine Friday, July 18, 2014. Rescue workers, policemen and even off-duty coal miners were combing a sprawling area in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border where the Malaysian plane ended up in burning pieces Thursday, killing all 298 aboard. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Photo)

    A woman walks at the site of a crashed Malaysia Airlines passenger plane near the village of Rozsypne, eastern Ukraine Friday, July 18, 2014. Rescue workers, policemen and even off-duty coal miners were combing a sprawling area in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border where the Malaysian plane ended up in burning pieces Thursday, killing all 298 aboard. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Photo)

    Smoke from the Malaysian plane wreckage had barely begun to spiral skyward when the first rhetorical salvos were fired at President Obama, demanding that the wimp get off his butt and Do Something.

    Gee, what a surprise.

    For instance, some Fox News infauxtainer named Todd Starnes binge-tweeted that Obama wasn’t “interested” in the shootdown because it didn’t involve “beer or golf,” that Russia was “bracing for a severe hash tag from the Obama administration,” and that “Obama won’t comment on Malaysian jetliner crash until he’s had a chance to read tomorrow’s paper.” Charles Krauthammer grumped on Fox News that Obama needs to “make a damned decision for once in his life,” like maybe pumping more weaponry into the Ukraine conflict. John Bolton, the ex-Bush ambassador to the U.N., told Fox News that Obama’s economic sanctions against Russia are “pinpricks,” that Obama should stop viewing Vladimir Putin as “a reasonable guy,” that he should be “ramping up American missile defense,” and that he should tear up the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty even though the Senate has ratified it.

    Predictable stuff like that, from the usual suspects and keyboard-warrior trolls.

    Alas, if only they knew their history.

    On Sept. 1, 1983, Korean Airlines 007, was blown out of the sky by Soviet Union fighter planes. All 269 passengers perished. Americans were outraged, and waited to see what Ronald Reagan would do. The general assumption was that he’d respond aggressively – perhaps militantly – to our Cold War rival, whom he had already nicknamed “the evil empire.” The heavy hitters in his Cabinet demanded that he take action. They wanted Reagan to cancel arms talks, to launch severe economic sanctions and boycotts, to nix a newly-negotiated grain deal, to sever or severely limit U.S.-Soviet diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, members of Congress demanded that he expel all the Soviet diplomats who were living (and, in some cases, spying) on American soil.

    And what did the Republican icon do? He talked big (denouncing the “massacre”), but he did very little.

    As chronicled by conservative writer Steven F. Hayward in his 2001 book The Age of Reagan, the commander-in-chief rejected all the aforementioned options. Instead, Reagan “settled for a number of weak-sounding measures such as slowing cultural exchanges, and extending limits on landing rights for Soviet civilian airliners.”

    And a lot of conservatives promptly went medieval on Reagan. Not that they’d ever admit it today.

    Human Events, the right-wing newspaper, ran a headline, “Conservatives Dismayed by Limp Response to Soviets.” The paper also said that Reagan “for whatever reason, is acting for all the world like Ramsey Clark.” (Back in the day, that was a major insult; in right-wing circles, Clark, an ex-LBJ attorney general, was caricatured as the ultimate bleeding-heart liberal.) Meanwhile, the Washington Times complained that Reagan was wimping out on the Soviets; in the paper’s words, he “did no more than pelt the swaggering offender with the adjectives of pious outrage.” Columnist George Will hurled sarcasm: “Thank God it is not December, or some dunce would suggest dimming the Christmas tree.” The Heritage Foundation think tank denounced Reagan’s “modest actions. Ultimately a tougher response is required….Moscow respects only force.” And columnist William Safire wrote that Reagan has “acted more pusillanimously than Jimmy Carter.” (Referencing Jimmy Carter was even more insulting than referencing Ramsey Clark.)

    My point should be obvious. Civilian disasters like KAL 007 and Malaysian Airlines 17 require carefully calibrated responses – no matter who sits in the Oval Office. Reagan was a rhetorically sworn enemy of the Soviet Union, but he refused to overreact. And in the current Ukranian crisis – with circumstantial evidence fingering the pro-Russia rebels – Obama would be similarly foolish to overreact. He said this morning that the shootdown is an “outrage of unspeakable proportion,” that he wants a full investigation, and that our European allies should now be more motivated to squeeze Putin economically. But as a commentator at The New Republic magazine rightly notes:

    “Even if and when the evidence is marshaled to point to the rebels, what can the West do to punish them? What can it do to punish Russia for giving them these capabilities? What can it do to end the conflict? More sanctions? Putin’s been blowing them off and they haven’t altered his calculus all that much. A peacekeeping mission? There is still no appetite for boots on the ground and Russia still has that U.N. veto. Even if the U.S. gives Ukraine lethal military aid, it in no way guarantees that Kiev’s military will be able to crush the separatists, especially not without some bloody, horrific urban warfare.”

    And here’s a president: “I know that some of our critics have sounded off that somehow we haven’t exacted enough vengeance. Well, vengeance isn’t the name of the game. Short of going to war, what would they have us do?”

    That’s not Obama talking. That was Ronald Reagan in September of 1983. I’m just saying.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

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