By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
I think we are all grateful that Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Line has been rescued after being held for five days by a group of pirates in a lifeboat off the coast of Africa. But I think the praise being heaped on President Obama for his handling of the situation is approaching excessive.
"President Obama has survived the first dramatic crisis of his administration with colors flying," H.D.S. Greenway opined in the Boston Globe. "All the world was watching to see how a new, untested president would react to one of the most elemental tests of any president: how to handle the public kidnapping of an American citizen being held for ransom."
Juan Zarate, a former Bush national security adviser, told National Public Radio, "This puts President Obama in a great position." And writing here at U.S.News and World Report, Kenneth T. Walsh said, "Obama's decision to authorize the 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."
William Bradley, writing in the Huffington Post, compared Obama's management of the crisis to the political acumen he showed on his way to the White House, calling the take-down of the pirates holding Phillips "reminiscent of Obama's approach in the Democratic primaries, in which he relied on 'the math' of the situation."
"In that case," Bradley wrote, "Obama inexorably rolled up an insurmountable delegate advantage, sweeping smaller states and blocking the Clinton campaign's ability to come back with a few high-profile late primary victories. In this case, Obama used the resources of the US military and government to shut down the pirates' options and make them more vulnerable."
For my money, most of the credit for Phillips rescue goes to the U.S. Navy Seals who carried out the operation, not the White House. Sure, give the White House credit for smooth management of the crisis over five days but, let's face it, piracy on the high seas is a problem we figured out how to handle in the 17th century. And it's not at all clear they learned anything from Phillips's rescue. As the Associated Press wrote Tuesday, "Undeterred by U.S. and French hostage rescues that killed seven bandits, Somali pirates brazenly hijacked three more ships in the Gulf of Aden."
It's true that Obama, by virtue of the fact he is president, gets to bask in the glory of the rescue. Had the situation ended differently, as Zarate points out, Obama would have gotten the blame. "There was high visibility, and it clearly was a test of American ability and power," he said. "If it had gone badly, it could have been, fairly or not, debilitating for the president."
The Obama administration has promised to study the issue and to come up with a plan for dealing with the Somali-based pirates. But there's a larger point to all this: As a friend pointed out to me just this morning, "How is that Obama deserves credit for the precision and accuracy of the snipers who took out the pirates, whose training was developed over a period of years during the Bush administration, but he deserves no blame for the current economy on the grounds that all factors yielding the current economy occurred during the Bush years? It can't be both."
Indeed it can't.
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