Last Thursday’s apparently deliberate shoot down of a Malaysian civilian airliner by Ukrainian separatists using Russian weaponry inevitably brought back memories of the Soviet’s shooting down of Korean Airlines 007 in August, 1983. And, not surprisingly, conservative and liberal pundits have drawn different lessons from President Reagan’s response to that earlier tragedy. Conservatives have cited with approval the national address Reagan made in which he condemned the attack as a moral outrage, and have openly wondered why President Obama has not made a similar speech to a national audience. Liberals, in contrast, have focused on Reagan’s initial reluctance to leave his California ranch when first notified of the KAL shootdown, a decision that attracted a fair share of media criticism at the time. Ultimately, Reagan did come back to Washington to give a nationwide address.
Both perspectives, I think, miss the important lesson from Reagan’s handling of the KAL007 incident. Before developing that point, however, it’s worth listening to Reagan’s speech.
It appears that President Obama will shortly provide his own brief statement regarding the Malaysian Airlines tragedy. I’ll be on with comments and some context regarding the KAL007 comparison shortly after.
11:30 a.m. President Obama has just completed his brief statement re: the Malaysian airline shootdown. His primary message was to push Russian leader Vladimir Putin to cooperate in the investigation of the Malaysian jetliner tragedy. Beyond that, however, he offered very little in the way of concrete steps, although it is likely additional punitive options, such as stronger sanctions, are being debated. In short, the statement was vintage President Obama – cautious, pragmatic, devoid of rhetorical excesses and designed to buy time while keeping public pressure on Putin. As such it almost surely will be condemned by conservative pundits as more talk, with little action. It bears remembering, however, that Reagan received similar pushback from conservatives for not acting more strongly in the aftermath of the KAL007 shootdown in 1983. That incident occurred during a period of heightened tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union – tension that had been exacerbated in part by Reagan’s previous words. In June, 1982, Reagan gave a speech to British members of Parliament, in which he proclaimed that the “Soviet Union…runs against the tide of human history.” The following March, in a speech to evangelicals, he famously called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Also that month he unveiled the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars”, against the backdrop of a rapid increase in U.S. defense spending. In October, after the KAL007 incident, Reagan sent troops into the Caribbean island of Grenada to overthrow the Cuban-backed government there. The next month West Germany agreed to accept U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles, prompting the Soviets to walk out of arms control talks in Geneva.
In retrospect, the KAL007 shootdown marked the low point of U.S.-Soviet relations during the Reagan presidency. By the end of 1983, even Reagan was acknowledging the necessity to dial back the harsh rhetoric, in order not to further inflame an already tense situation. That deescalation was helped when Soviet leader Yuri Andropov died in February, 1984, and was replaced with Konstantin Chernenko. Although Chernenko lived for little more than a year after assuming power, he recognized that the Soviets were in no position to win an arms race with the U.S. and, shortly after Reagan’s reelection in 1984, the Soviets agreed to restart arms negotiations without preconditions. Chernenko’s softening position laid the foundation for his successor’s Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost at home and more conciliatory, albeit still contentious, relations with Reagan and the U.S.
At this time, of course, it is impossible to tell whether the Malaysian shootdown represents a turning point in U.S.-Russian relations, and if so, whether that means a resumption of a Cold War-like standoff or a realization from both sides that it is time to step back from the brink and engage in more constructive diplomacy. And that uncertainty is exactly my point. There is a tendency for pundits, with the benefit of hindsight, to simplify their read of history in ways that accord with their own ideological preferences. Whether liberal or conservative, however, the “lessons” pundits derive often overstate the degree to which presidents felt free to act at the time these incidents are occurring. While Reagan’s nationwide address did evoke a moral clarity, and on a more visible platform, that perhaps was a bit less evident in Obama’s just-concluded statement, Reagan’s actual response to the KAL007 shootdown stopped short of actions that might escalate an already tense situation. In part, this reflected Reagan’s uncertainty over Andropov’s motives, or even the circumstances behind the shootdown. It also reflected the limited range of possible responses available to Reagan, many of which had the potential to exacerbate an already tense situation.
When we get beyond the pundits’ take on the KAL007 shootdown, it appears that Reagan’s response then isn’t much different than Obama’s reaction to the Malaysian jetliner incident, at least to this point. And it is a reminder that the powers of the presidency seem much more limited, and the repercussions of acting rashly much more consequential, when you are sitting in the Oval Office than when you are critiquing the president’s actions from afar. This is not to say that history will judge Obama’s foreign policy, taken as a whole, as better, or worse than Reagan’s. But in contrast to what pundits are currently suggesting, that comparison is not likely to turn on Reagan and Obama’s respective handling of these two tragic shootdowns which, so far, seem remarkably similar.