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In the immediate aftermath of the downing of Ukraine International's Flight 752, the Canadian government — wisely, I think — was careful about not ascribing specific blame and responsibility. It’s Donald Trump, remember. He is known for his unpredictable and often cutting Twitter fingers.
But who is responsible for this horrible tragedy? The Trump administration? Or the theocrats in Tehran?
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was first asked whether Washington bore some responsibility for this terrible calamity, he responded carefully. “I think it is too soon to be drawing conclusions or assigning blame or responsibility in whatever proportions.”
In a later interview with Global, Trudeau again chose his words carefully: “I think if there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families,” he said. “This is something that happens when you have conflict and war. Innocents bear the brunt of it.”
Obviously, that was a bridge too far for some of Trump’s keen supporters, especially those in the halls of the U.S. Congress. Responding quickly, U.S. House Minority Leader, Republican Kevin McCarthy, took issue with Trudeau’s characterization, saying bluntly: “There’s no blame here for America. America stood up once again for freedom.”
He then went on to add categorically: “Iran shot down an innocent commercial airliner. There’s no doubt where the blame lies.”
Conversely, U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier from California, a Democrat who sits on the House intelligence committee, was quick to accuse Trump. “If what is being projected is true (the Ukrainian airliner shootdown), this is yet another example of collateral damage from actions that have been taken in a provocative way by the president of the United States,” she said angrily.
Closer to home, a Globe and Mail editorial, titled “But what if Donald Trump was right?,” left little doubt about who was the main culprit: “The U.S. is not responsible for the Flight 752 tragedy — that’s all on Iran.”
The Globe argues convincingly that Iran was not an innocent party. In fact, the regime shot down a U.S. surveillance drone in June, used Iranian mines to damage two commercial tankers in the Gulf of Oman and was complicit in a September drone barrage on critical oil refineries in U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia.
The editorial then noted: “Despite the president’s verbal belligerence, his passivity was signalling a willingness to allow America to be bullied without consequence.” That was the back story to the early January assassination-by-drone of top Iranian Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
But if the threat from Soleimani was not “imminent,” as increasingly looks to be the case, then there was no real need for the United States to defend itself by taking military action at that time. Trump has even acknowledged in one of his recent tweets that “it doesn’t really matter” if the threat from Iran was imminent. Really!
Outspoken Maple Leaf Foods Inc. CEO Michael McCain tweeted out his anger over the role of the U.S. in the tragedy. Pointing out that the wife and 11-year-old son of a Maple Leaf employee were passengers on the aircraft, McCain referenced a “narcissist in Washington” for “needless” and “irresponsible” actions before the aircraft was hit by two Iranian surface-to-air missiles. He went on to write: “U.S. government leaders unconstrained by checks/balances, concocted an ill-conceived plan to direct focus from political woes.”
Hopefully, McCain is mistaken about Trump taking out Gen. Soleimani for mostly domestic political purposes. It’s hard to imagine that Trump would try to deflect attention from his impeachment travails — or placate certain anti-Iran Republican Senators whom he may need — by initiating a questionable provocation of Tehran.
But who knows? When you have a serial liar as president, it’s hard to distil fact from fiction. And when you do that in the foreign policy domain, it can have incalculable consequences, as we all have seen.
Remember, the Iranians were expecting a reprisal attack from the U.S. on that fateful morning. Remember, Trump had tweeted about “targeting 52 Iranian sites … some of a very high level & importance to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself.”
Of course, Iran is ultimately to blame because it was their military that fired the deadly missiles at Flight 752. It has to answer for that, and also for why it didn’t close its airspace to all aircraft after its missile strikes in Iraq earlier in the night.
I’m not sure if this human tragedy rises to the level of a “fog of war” scenario. Yes, there is plenty of blame to be shared by both sides. But it was surely a result of escalating conflict and tensions between Tehran and Washington. And, more importantly, it was certainly avoidable.
Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.