Navy Shoots, Obama Scores
The juxtaposition of two headlines this morning at memeorandum was rather amusing:
As it turns out, Michael Shear‘s “An Early Military Victory for Obama” and Shailagh Murray‘s “Obama’s Chief of Staff Grants Access, Gets Results” are unrelated stories combined through the vagaries of automated selection algorithms. Indeed, the inside headline on the latter is actually “Give-and-Take With Emanuel Advances President’s Agenda – Lawmakers Respond to Improved Access to White House” (the other is the page title that will be found by search engines and aggregators).
Still, the pairing is apt. President Obama did what any president would have done: authorized the Navy to use deadly force (i.e., kill people) if they deemed Maersk Alabama captain Richard Phillips to be in mortal danger. They did and they did. (To paraphrase Maverick, “I had the shot. There was danger, so I took it.”)
So, what’s the headline? “When You Mess With the Best, You Die Like the Rest”? No, it’s “An Early Military VIctory for Obama.”
[T]he result — a dramatic and successful rescue operation by U.S. Special Operations forces — left Obama with an early victory that could help build confidence in his ability to direct military actions abroad.
His strategic acumen was demonstrated thusly:
[A]fter a National Security Council telephone update, Obama granted U.S. forces what aides called “the authority to use appropriate force to save the life of the captain.” On Saturday at 9:20 a.m., Obama went further, giving authority to an “additional set of U.S. forces to engage in potential emergency actions.”
A top military official, Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of the Fifth Fleet, explained that Obama issued a standing order that the military was to act if the captain’s life was in immediate danger. “Our authorities came directly from the president,” he said. “And the number one authority for incidents if we were going to respond was if the captain’s life was in immediate danger. And that is the situation in which our sailors acted.”
Obama to Navy: “Do your job.”
Nonetheless, it may help to quell criticism leveled at Obama that he came to office as a Democratic antiwar candidate who could prove unwilling or unable to harness military might when necessary.
Granted, reading the comment thread on Dave Schuler’s post about the freeing of Phillips, there are people who harbored this doubt. But has there been a president in American history who hesitated to authorize force in a situation like this? Jimmy Carter authorized the ill-fated Desert One rescue of the Iranian hostages. Bill Clinton ordered the Somali warlord-hunting mission that led to the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. Both caught flak for the failure of those missions. But of course Obama was going to authorize action — at the discretion of the professionals on the scene — to save the life fo the captain. To have done otherwise would have been morally unconscionable and politically suicidal. I can’t imagine it ever crossed his mind to say No.
UPDATE: Brendan Nyhan obseves,
I’m sure the Obama White House did not require much persuasion to leak word of the President’s role in approving the successful anti-pirate operation off the coast of Somalia, but I’m going to guess they won’t be so quick to take credit the first time some military operation goes bad. As the administration will soon learn, the president is largely a prisoner of circumstance when it comes to external events like this. The flip side of taking credit for good news is that you’re more likely to be held responsible for bad news.
Quite right. Then again, he’d likely be held responsible, anyway.
To be fair, President Obama made the right call, giving his commanders the authority to act swiftly–and decisively–to end the hostage standoff, when the opportunity presented itself. But the successful rescue of Captain Phillips was hardly a triumph of executive decision-making from the White House situation room. Instead, the real credit should go to the field-grade officer who accurately assessed the situation and gave the order to fire–and to the SEALs who took out their targets with customary efficiency.
UPDATE 3: Andrew Exum‘s feeling vindicated.