Obama Ducks a Cutlass

By Dan Froomkin
1:15 PM ET, 04/13/2009

I see an emerging consensus about the political impact of the military operation that successfully freed an American ship captain held hostage off the coast of Somalia yesterday.

At best, it's a small but significant victory for President Obama, who apparently was actively involved in monitoring the situation and coolly authorized the use of force. But had things gone the other way, it would have been an enormous PR disaster from which Obama would have had a hard time recovering.

How it is possible that the same incident can have such a small upside, and such a huge downside? That's a lot to be riding on the twitch of a Navy SEAL's finger.

But I think it's an accurate reflection of the state of our political discourse -- one no longer dominated by the right-wing message machine, but still vulnerable to hyperventilation about things that are, in the greater scheme of things, relatively trivial.

Seen from the White House, this was definitely a good moment for Obama. Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama's 'no drama' handling of the Indian Ocean hostage crisis proved a big win for his administration in its first critical national security test.

"Obama's quiet backstage decision to authorize the Defense Department to take necessary action if Capt. Richard Phillips' life was in imminent danger gave a Navy commander the go-ahead to order snipers to fire on the pirates holding the cargo ship captain at gunpoint....

"Obama's handling of the crisis showed a president who was comfortable in relying on the U.S. military, much as his predecessor, George W. Bush, did.

"But it also showed a new commander in chief who was willing to use all the tools at his disposal, bringing in federal law enforcement officials to handle the judicial elements of the crisis."

But as Joe Klein blogs for Time: "One can easily imagine all the different ways the rescue of Captain Phillips might have been screwed up--and the political firestorm that would have resulted....

"[I]t could easily have gone wrong, through no fault of the President and the SEALs--a gust of wind, whatever...and then the Administration would have had to waste all sorts of energy on damage control, fending off the second-guessers--Republicans and, all too often, people like me--and perhaps overreacting to the pirate 'threat' as a result. Presidencies are, sadly, built or crippled on such quirks of fate."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post that the incident posed "political risks to a young commander in chief who had yet to prove himself to his generals or his public."

The result "left Obama with an early victory that could help build confidence in his ability to direct military actions abroad," Shear writes. But: "The operation pales in scope and complexity to the wars underway in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Obama's adversaries are unlikely to be mollified by his performance in a four-day hostage drama."

Chris Cillizza writes for The Washington Post: "It's a public relations disaster dodged -- one of many Obama will have to avoid as he seeks to retain political momentum and keep his agenda on track."

Former Bush White House official Peter Feaver asks in his Washington Post discussion group: "Now what? What steps will Obama's national security team take to deal with the pirate problem? No serious observer believes that this single tactical victory -- as impressive and desirable as it was -- makes more than a slight dent in the bigger pirate problem. In the narrowest of terms, it may even increase the short-term risk to the other international hostages held by Somali pirates."

And Kevin Drum blogs for Mother Jones that, while giving Obama a lot of credit for the rescue is a bit ridiculous, "[t]he right-wing criticism of Obama during the incident had gotten so over-the-top that you'd have thought Obama was about ready to invite the Somali pirates over for tea. That was ridiculous. So if this shuts them up for a few moments, it will be a well-deserved few moments of silence for Obama."

Lara Jakes and Pauline Jelinek write for the Associated Press this morning: "President Barack pledged Monday that the U.S. would seek to halt the increasing threat of piracy off the Horn of Africa.

"Obama also praised the military's successful efforts to rescue merchant Capt. Richard Phillips, who had been held hostage there for several days by pirates.

"'His safety has been our principle concern,' the president said in his first remarks in public on the five-day standoff that ended Sunday with Phillips' release....

"In a sharp warning to increasingly brazen pirates operating off the coast of lawless Somalia, Obama said: 'I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and to achieve that goal, 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,' the president said."

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