Foreign policy is not a 'CSI' episode

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Article Highlights

  • President Obama's response to the July 17 attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has followed a well-established pattern

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  • Obama has dwelled on getting forensics to the crash site instead of learning lessons from this terrible episode

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  • Tectonic power and political forces—not legalisms—are now clashing in Europe

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President Obama's response to the July 17 attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has followed a well-established pattern. Viewing international affairs through the confining prism of legal procedures and restraints, Mr. Obama is treating this terrorist act—which even such a stalwart supporter of the president as Sen. Carl Levin called "an act of war"—as something akin to a police homicide investigation.

Mr. Obama has unfortunately dwelled on getting international forensic experts to the crash site instead of emphasizing the vital strategic lessons to be drawn from this terrible episode. He did warn on Friday and again on Monday of unspecified steps that would be taken—no doubt after the criminal-justice approach plays out—but his vague incantations about "consequences" are also familiar. Red lines ultimately prove illusory with this president, retribution never materializes, and American lassitude and disinterest approach surreal levels.

Tectonic power and political forces—not legalisms—are now clashing in Europe. Vladimir Putin, though a lawyer like the American president, understands this. Mr. Obama does not. Subordinating a president's primary, existentially important political role to an emphasis on the sifting of evidence impairs America's ability to protect its vital interests. And, hour by hour, delay saps Europe's willingness to do more than simply wring its hands.

For much of the past two decades, Russophiles contended that Moscow was finally ready to join the West, but Mr. Putin's iron determination to re-establish Russian hegemony within the former Soviet Union has repeatedly proven the opposite. For an American president, making clear the broader political implications of Russian belligerence and mobilizing our NATO allies and other like-minded countries ought to be far more important than verifying details like which missile battery fired the deadly rocket, from where, and by whose hand.

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the situation in Ukraine on July 21. European Pressphoto Agency

The strategic reality is that the rebellion in eastern Ukraine's conflict is being conducted with Russian direction and material assistance. To be sure, Mr. Putin plays on the local population's pro-Moscow sympathies, but the key operatives, as in the annexation of Crimea, are either Russians or Ukrainian citizens under Russian command and control.

Ukraine is the great prize among the former Soviet republics, and Mr. Putin suffered a significant setback last winter when Ukrainians overthrew the Yanukovych government. The Flight 17 catastrophe is another crushing blow—or it should have been. But Mr. Putin has played his hand skillfully against a Western alliance left rudderless by detached and indecisive leadership from the White House.

Immediate and longer-term action from the U.S. and its allies is required. It is Moscow's broader policy of aggressive behavior, extending well beyond Ukraine, that the West must counter. Many have suggested, in response to the downing of Flight 17, instituting additional sanctions against Russia, and substantially increasing U.S. and European military assistance to Ukraine. These and related measures are sensible, but they must be made part of a larger strategic vision. Given Mr. Obama's short international attention span, even initially robust tactical responses will quickly dissipate.

The larger strategy must rest on recognizing that Russia has assumed an adversarial position against the West. Accordingly, we should not merely aid Ukraine militarily, but also renew President George W. Bush's 2008 proposal to put Ukraine (and Georgia) clearly on track for NATO membership. We should restore the missile-defense project for Poland and the Czech Republic that Mr. Obama unwisely scrapped soon after he took office, the president should give up on the ill-advised "New START" nuclear-arms treaty with Russia that he continues to pursue, and the U.S. should step up its nuclear readiness.

As for economic responses, sanctions should be sharp and effective. Abandon the gradual-escalation theories hatched in university faculty lounges and impose real pain. Barring Russian institutions from Western financial markets is a good place to start. And we should unleash development of North America's energy reserves, thereby providing Europe a strategic alternative to Russian hydrocarbons (and benefitting ourselves domestically).

Would Europe agree to such robust steps? Given the recent record of feckless U.S. leadership, we won't know Europe's "real" answer until our allies see decisive American action. Eastern and Central Europe would almost certainly respond positively, putting pressure on more-hesitant European Union capitals. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among others, is not about to get ahead of the White House in moving against Mr. Putin.

There is much to do, and the time to do it is slipping away. Significantly, the strategic framework we must construct has implications beyond Europe. Beijing is intently watching how Washington deals with Moscow. What China's leaders have seen to date simply feeds their aggressive aspirations in the East and South China Sea and along the country's land borders. China's near neighbors fully grasp the point.

Yet it is not just Europe and Asia that need U.S. leadership. America, for its own safety's sake, needs it too. On the evidence of recent days, such leadership is still not forthcoming.

Mr. Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad" (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

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