The disappearance of a Boeing 777 airliner with 239 people on board has ignited speculation ranging from catastrophic malfunction to hijacking. That the United States, a global power with the intelligence assets to solve this mystery, has decided to keep a low profile in addressing this mystery is not surprising. For one thing, “leading from behind” has become a theme in the Obama administration’s approach to global affairs, especially in the Islamic world. This is evidenced in the lack of reaction to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, the ongoing tragedy in Syria where Moscow has taken the lead and is bolstering the murderous Assad regime, and to the blind eye turned to persecution of Christians from North Korea to the Middle East. In this case, however, there may be good reasons for keeping a low profile and doing so does not necessarily reflect U.S. impotence or lack of initiative.
Things might be different if this had been a U.S. air carrier filled with Americans. News outlets would be interviewing distraught families of missing passengers throughout the 24/7 news cycle. Their questions would be more pointed and the pressure to respond would prompt a far greater level of American involvement. A highly visible U.S. response also would benefit the administration by diverting attention from the IRS scandal, the uproar over Obamacare, and also any information gained from electronic and other means of intelligence gathering could silence criticism concerning intrusion into privacy.
Given U.S. intelligence capabilities it is possible the Obama administration, constrained both by diplomatic considerations and the need to protect national security, knows more than it is revealing. Diplomatically, since the vast majority of those on board the plane are Malaysians and Chinese and the missing aircraft is Malaysian, Washington probably wants to be sensitive to Malaysia and China--the nations primarily leading the search.
Furthermore, there are significant national security concerns. Since there is no pressure from the U.S. media interviewing distraught relatives, and U.S. talk show hosts are not lambasting the administration to act, Washington doesn’t have to reveal how much we may know and risk jeopardizing the capabilities of advanced reconnaissance assets. This doesn’t mean the primary actors cannot be nudged in the right direction.
Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.