Obama's Authorization of Force Against Pirates Is a Defining Moment

The rescue of American Capt. Richard Phillips shows that the president remains cool under pressure.

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It didn't play out minute by minute on the nation's television screens as so many other crises have, but the dramatic rescue of American hostage Richard Phillips on the high seas yesterday was still a defining moment for President Obama.

Obama's decision to authorize he use of military force to free Phillips, captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, from a band of pirates demonstrated that the new commander in chief will apply American muscle in a crunch. It also showed that he trusts the military to get the job done and remains cool under pressure. These are significant developments for a man who has endured considerable criticism about being too young and inexperienced to serve as an effective commander in chief.

In Obama's first national security test, he secretly gave the Pentagon the go-ahead at 8 p.m. Friday to use force if Phillips's life was in imminent danger. In a follow-up order at 9:20 Saturday morning, he gave more specific authorization that included allowing a Navy commander to order snipers to take out the pirates if the situation became dire, U.S. officials said. In the end, that's precisely what happened.

For years, Republicans have effectively branded Democrats as weak on national security, citing among other events President Jimmy Carter's failed mission to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980 and Bill Clinton's embarrassing withdrawal of a shipload of U.S. troops from the coast of Haiti in 1993 under the pressure of an armed mob of Haitians.

Obama was criticized by conservatives during the campaign for opposing the Iraq war and the surge of U.S. troops into that country that is now widely seen as a success.

But even though the crisis off the Somali coast was not a huge confrontation—it involved only one American hostage—it was a personal benchmark for Obama, showing that he has a judicious temperament and will act aggressively if necessary.

Throughout the crisis, Obama avoided saber rattling in public. His aides said that would have made negotiations for Phillips's release more difficult. It also might have raised expectations for a positive outcome when the talks were still unpredictable.

Instead, Obama proceeded with a routine public schedule, attending Easter services in Washington as his aides described plans for today's annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn.

Behind the scenes, however, Obama received several briefings per day on the hostage situation throughout the five-day crisis—a total of 17 briefings before the rescue, U.S. officials said. After the successful rescue, Obama continued to be discreet. He didn't claim credit, and he stayed away from the TV cameras yesterday. Instead, he issued a written statement praising Phillips and the U.S. Navy. "We must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, be prepared to interdict acts of piracy, and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes," the president said.

Prior to the outcome, many analysts said the stakes for Obama were high. "If he handles this poorly and we wind up not only losing the captain but seeming to give in to terrorism, there will be the possibility of a narrative that people and critics can tell about how he is supposedly weak in protecting the country's security," Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution, told ABC News over the weekend.

The long-term consequences of the rescue could still be negative, however. Vice Adm. William Gortney told reporters in Bahrain yesterday that the use of force could "escalate violence in this part of the world" by inflaming the pirates and others against the United States.

Ominously, a pirate leader said there would be retribution if military operations were launched to free hostages in the future.