It was a heck of a good news cycle for the White House: a new puppy meeting the first family and three pirates meeting their maker.
The Somali pirates got shot — no word if they actually had time to say, “Argh, matey!” before the Navy SEALs took them out — and Barack Obama got the credit.
The stories that followed the dramatic rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips off the coast of Somalia were the kind the White House staff dreams about. The Washington Post ran the headline: “An Early Military Victory for Obama.”
Military victory? Well, why not? We could use one. And the Navy SEALs pulled off an incredible feat: Even though the SEAL snipers were firing from only about 25 yards away, they were firing from a ship bouncing on the waves. And the pirates were also bouncing on the waves. And one of the pirates was holding an AK-47 so close to the head of Phillips that the rifle was almost touching him. It was extraordinary shooting by the SEALs.
But because presidents get the blame whether they deserve it or not, they get the credit, too, whether they deserve it or not. The Associated Press went with the headline: “Analysis: Obama Beats First National Security Test.” The story said Obama’s “no drama” handling of the crisis “proved a big win for his administration in its first critical national security test.”
I am not sure whether this was Obama’s first critical test or whether our national security was really at stake, but the story said that Obama went “some way toward dispelling the notion that a liberal Democrat with a known distaste for war — Obama campaigned on his consistent opposition to the Iraq invasion — doesn’t have the chops to call on U.S. military power.”
Actually, the “liberal Democrat with a known distaste for war” in the Oval Office has been calling for U.S. military power in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan pretty consistently since the day he took office — and his use of drone missile attacks in Pakistan is far more controversial and far more a test of his resolve than killing three pirates on the high seas.
In any case, even as dramatic as it was, Obama’s pirate adventure probably will be quickly forgotten. Oh, yes, it will. Anybody remember the Hainan Island incident? It happened during George W. Bush’s first 100 days in office. On April 1, 2001, a Chinese jet fighter rammed a U.S. military surveillance plane, forcing it to make an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan. The 24 U.S. crew members were held hostage for 10 days and released only after the Bush administration issued a letter of regret for entering China’s airspace.
We got the crew back unharmed and eventually even got the plane back (in pieces), but we had to pay China $34,000 for the food and lodging of the hostages. But then China is a little tougher to deal with than pirates. (Today, the Chinese wouldn’t even bother to ram the plane. They would just start selling U.S. Treasury bills until we promised never to invade their airspace again.)
But what do we do in the future? President Obama said Monday that to halt the rise of piracy off the coast of Africa, “we’re going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, we have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise and we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.”
It’s the second one that’s going to be the most difficult. How do we “confront” future acts of piracy? Our Navy cannot patrol the entire area.
The obvious answer would be to arm our merchant vessels that sail in high-risk waters and train our merchant sailors in the use of those arms. The cost probably would be passed on to the consumers of the goods being carried by those cargo ships.
Would you be willing pay a nickel more per flatscreen to kill pirates?
I would. Send them to Davy Jones’ Locker! Argh!
Roger Simon is POLITICO’s chief political columnist.