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Dick Polman: A plane is shot down; what would Ronald Reagan do?

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Dick Polman
July 22, 2014

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 incident 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.

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 Reagan's cabinet demanded he take action, and members of Congress wanted him expel all the Soviet diplomats who were living (and, in some cases, spying) on American soil.

So what did Ronaldus Maximus do? 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.”

A lot of conservatives promptly went medieval on Reagan. Human Events, the right-wing newspaper, ran a headline, “Conservatives Dismayed by Limp Response to Soviets.” The Washington Times complained Reagan “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.” Columnist William Safire wrote that Reagan has “acted more pusillanimously than Jimmy Carter.”

Civilian disasters such as 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 Ukrainian crisis—with circumstantial evidence fingering the pro-Russia rebels—Obama would be similarly foolish to overreact.

Obama said the incident 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.

Here are more words from 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.

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at dickpolman7@gmail.com. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.



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