As politicians in the western world elevate their demands for punishment and retribution against Russia for the downing of a Malaysian jet over eastern Ukraine, they are once again exhibiting signs of selective memories and hypocrisy driven by hubris. Whether it's John McCain's foam flecked promises of "incredible repercussions," president Obama's stumbling struggle for appropriate words to convey U.S. condemnation, or Australian prime minister Tony Abbott's declaration of the event as mass murder, western leaders are unified in their self-righteous outrage.
This fatal downing of a civilian airliner immediately brought to mind the downing of Iranian Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes in 1988. But with the exception of an article by Fred Kaplan in Slate.com, plus a few independent bloggers with a sense of history, not a mention has been made of the obvious parallels between the two tragedies.
During the long war between Iran and Iraq, the U.S. surreptitiously aided one side or the other, depending on what our strategic planners thought at the moment. In 1988 when the Vincennes was illegally engaged in Iranian waters, we were helping Saddam Hussein, giving him information about the location and strength of Iranian troops. On July 3 of that year, Captain Will Rogers, contrary to orders from Capt. Richard McKenna, was sailing his billion dollar Aegis cruiser north into Iranian waters hoping to engage some Iranian speedboats that constituted the bulk of the Iranian navy at the time.
After the deadly attack, U.S. officials, lied repeatedly about the facts of the case. They claimed that the USS Vincennes was in international waters, when in fact it was in Iranian territorial waters (which the speedboats were trying to defend). They claimed that radar showed the plane descending toward the cruiser while increasing in speed, but the Navy's report showed that it was, in fact, climbing at a slow speed. They claimed that the airliner had strayed out of the civilian flight corridor, but in fact it was within the prescribed corridor the whole time. They claimed that the airliner was communicating on a Mode 2 military frequency, when in fact it was using a Mode 3 civilian frequency. They said that the airliner had ignored repeated radio warnings from the Vincennes, but the reality is that in the process of take off, the airliner pilots had just barely finished communicating with air traffic controllers to safely take off and start their flight and had had no opportunity to be listening to other radio frequencies. Since they were flying a scheduled flight in a civilian corridor following all international rules and regulations, they had no reason to suspect that someone would be treating them as a target.
Even though the subsequent Navy investigation exposed all of these lies and incompetencies, the U.S. declined to criticize either the captain or the crew. Eventually, the U.S. paid an indemnity to the Iranians but refused to apologize and captain Rogers was later awarded the Legion of Merit by the Navy.
In the Ukraine, we now know that pro-Russian separatists tweeted that they had shot down a Ukrainian military transport, and that they deleted the tweet when they learned that they were mistaken. They have denied culpability and are doing what they can to obscure the facts from investigators. But it seems clear that this was a military mistake, made by fighters with far less sophisticated weapons than those deployed on the USS Vincennes. But we seem determined to categorize this as intentional (according to John Hockenberry on NPR), criminal mass murder and are clamoring for retribution and reprisals, all of which would only exacerbate the military tensions in the region and further sour the already degraded relations between the West and Russia. What value there would be in pursuing these actions is unclear at best and most likely would only make things worse.
Why does it matter that we seem to have forgotten the accidental murder of 290 Iranians by a United States ship? Because, as we clamor for blood and punishment without acknowledging the parallels between our own mistake and that of the Russian separatists, we prove ourselves to be fools and hypocrites. And while that may not matter to Americans who want to believe in American goodness, it completely destroys our credibility in the rest of the world. America can no longer boss the world strictly on our own terms, as the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention Vietnam) have shown. We need the respect and cooperation of the world in dealing with international crisis. At the moment we are accorded very little respect and thus get lip service cooperation driven mostly by the fear of antagonizing the big bully, rather than by a genuine solidarity with U.S. interests. We may keep lumbering along in this fashion for awhile, but as the American star loses its glow, we will have to step back, shed our self-inflicted sickness of believing ourselves superior to all others, start recognizing and accepting our mistakes and thus re-enter the world of global cooperation on terms which are sustainable.
Dan DeWalt writes from Newfane.