In history's taut nomenclature it was "The July Crisis": One century ago this week, the mighty powers of Europe were deciding whether they would parlay the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian archduke into a massive regional conflict. From afar, the United States watched as continental diplomats and generals jostled for advantage and prepared their empires for the crimson slaughterhouse that was World War I.
If summer 1914 had any simplicity, it was that "The July Crisis" is singular; only one geopolitical emergency threatened to erupt in hemispheric combat. July 2014 is different. Thursday's downing of a civilian Boeing 777 in a quick-charred Ukrainian wheat field, followed within hours by Israel's ground invasion of Gaza, intensified a summer of strife that is testing the Obama administration and its hopes to diminish the use of American muscle overseas:
In Afghanistan, a scheduled U.S. military withdrawal exposes the uncertain future of American attempts to eradicate terror havens in South Asia. In Iraq, the U.S. thus far has had minimal involvement in Baghdad's frantic efforts to thwart marauding Islamic militants. In Pakistan, U.S. attack drones assist that nation's energized campaign against the Taliban. In Syria, a triumphal Bashar Assad on Wednesday took his oath of office for a third term as president in a ceremony that — despite the deaths of 160,000 people in his realm — joyfully celebrated his survival and defiance.
The disintegration of the Malaysia Airlines plane, and of the 298 lives that ended with it, instantly provoked accusations that Russia somehow was to blame — perhaps for arming and encouraging the Russia-leaning separatists of eastern Ukraine. "I would like to note that we are calling this not an incident, not a catastrophe, but a terrorist act," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement even as rescue teams searched — in futility, it appears — for survivors.
That plot line is intuitively appealing, but at this writing, not close to proven. If, as early reports state, the plane was struck at an altitude of 33,000 feet, the list of possible suspects abruptly narrows: That's far too high for many ground-based weapons. But it's comfortably within the 72,000-foot range of the Russian-made Buk, or Beech, antiaircraft system.
Whoever the culprit, the sight of bodies by the dozens dumped around the village of Hrabove is one more vivid punctuation to this summer of international strife.
Russia and Ukraine have been accusing one another of assorted mortar attacks, rocket launches and bombings; on Thursday, Ukraine charged that a Russian aircraft had shot down one of Ukraine's fighter jets, also over Ukrainian soil. If that accusation proves true, it would mark a resumption of Russian military action in areas of Ukraine where the separatists — many of them Russian citizens — have been fighting Ukraine's military as assigned or unwitting proxies for Moscow.
One day before the Boeing fell, President Barack Obama increased sanctions against Russia over the belligerence in Ukraine. The sanctions curb U.S. financing to important Russian firms but aren't so strict as to cut the companies' global business dealings.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's retort that the sanctions would bring U.S. relations with his country to a "dead end" strike us as intended for domestic consumption in Russia. We'd be startled if he was so rash as to knowingly permit, let alone order, the demolition of a Malaysian plane near air corridors where Russian passenger flights also operate.
Why this happened is a mystery the world hopes is swiftly and convincingly solved.
Israel's assault on Gaza and its supply tunnels for Hamas and other extremists is impossible to judge as unprovoked or indefensible: Despite Israel's 10-day bombardment of Gaza, the rocket fire that had initiated these aerial exchanges continued to imperil Israeli citizens.
None of these international hot spots scorches American soil, but some of them do affect American citizens. Obama is sending several hundred troops on a limited mission to Iraq. And reports that Americans lay among the air victims in Ukraine guarantees highly publicized anger in this country as mourning families gather for funerals and demand that Washington deliver justice.
What that will mean, we can't suggest without learning much more; early assessments of blame after plane crashes are always available — in people's minds, they bring tantalizing order to the unknown — but notoriously unreliable.
This we do know: Obama and Putin now stand at a dangerous intersection.
We don't anticipate the outbreak of war more extensive than the conflicts already roiling parts of the globe where Americans have important interests — and important allies whom we have pledged to defend.
We do, though, recall what happened at another dangerous intersection, this one in the city of Sarajevo in 1914. Who could anticipate where the killing of an archduke would lead.
And who now can anticipate where The July Crises of 2014 will lead an America debating how aggressive, or how passive, its overseas reach will be.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun