Sometimes, even small international dust-ups can generate big consequences for a commander in chief. History is peppered with cases where an American president was forced to deal with an emergency in a faraway place that wouldn't have amounted to much if handled correctly but damaged his reputation when the job was botched.
Barack Obama's decision to use force against Somali pirates this week fits into the success category. Above all, the plan worked, giving Americans a feel-good moment and showing off the new president's coolness under pressure, his good judgment, and his decisiveness. But it probably won't make an enduring difference in Obama's public standing. "He will get a short-term boost, but in the long run, it's not the kind of incident that makes or breaks a president's reputation," says Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian. The stakes, after all, were relatively low since the homeland wasn't threatened. Most important, it was the American military, particularly Navy SEAL sharpshooters, who deserved the credit for taking down the pirates and rescuing Richard Phillips, the U.S. captain of the Maersk Alabama who was being held hostage in a lifeboat.
But there would have been hell to pay if the operation had failed. "If he had tried dialogue and they killed that guy, he would've been in for a lot of criticism," says a veteran Republican strategist. As the crisis continued for five days, some Republicans, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, began beating war drums and calling for Obama to strike quickly. The critics resurrected questions from the campaign that Obama might be too inexperienced and naive to be an effective commander in chief. Zelizer, a specialist in national security issues, says failure under such circumstances "can define an administration and leave the perception of a weak president."
Now that the operation has succeeded, there will be no negative fallout. But the positive impact is likely to fade quickly. "In six months," Zelizer says, "Obama's reputation will be shaped far more by his conduct of the war in Afghanistan and his policies toward Europe and Russia."
Presidents have had mixed results in dealing with hostage situations and other potentially violent incidents abroad. For instance, President Jimmy Carter's failed mission to rescue U.S. hostages from Iran in 1980 badly damaged his reputation as an effective commander in chief and hurt America's image as a military power. President Bill Clinton's embarrassing withdrawal of a shipload of U.S. troops from the coast of Haiti in 1993 after the vessel was threatened by an armed mob gathered at the dock in Port-au-Prince was also a serious blemish. But presidents can recover. Clinton won re-election; Carter, dealing with a much tougher and longer-term problem, didn't.
On the positive side, Thomas Jefferson ordered U.S. warships to the Mediterranean in 1801 to stop Barbary pirates from capturing American and European ships and demanding ransom. His show of force succeeded, at least temporarily.
In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt sent the Navy to threaten Sherif Ahmed er Raisuli, a Moroccan known as the last of the Barbary pirates, after Raisuli kidnapped a wealthy Greek-American named Ion Perdicarus and his stepson near Tangier. Roosevelt told the Republican National Convention in Chicago that June, "This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead." Memorable words, to be sure, but the ultimatum wasn't what ended the showdown. That happened when France intervened and brokered a deal.
In 1975, Cambodia seized an unarmed U.S. cargo ship, the Mayaguez, in disputed waters in the Gulf of Siam. President Gerald Ford ordered a military strike to free the 39 crew members. All of them were rescued, but there were many casualties among the attacking marines. One U.S. official conceded privately that the operation was "jingoism," but it worked—and, he said, "nobody challenges success." Yet it wasn't enough to save Ford's presidency. He lost the election in 1976.
President Obama is now enjoying the afterglow from the U.S. military's display of prowess off the coast of Somalia. But he shouldn't rest easy. Pirate leaders say they will take vengeance on the United States, and on Tuesday thugs tried unsuccessfully to board another American freighter carrying food aid to Kenya, the Liberty Sun. It's clear that the story of this president and the pirates isn't over.