The U.S. economy is showing only glimmers of life and two costly wars remain in the balance, but 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.
For Obama, the benefits were instantly clear: an American life saved and a major victory notched against an increasingly worrisome scourge of the seas off the Horn of Africa.
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.
The rescue appeared to vindicate Obama’s muted but determined handling of the incident. What won’t be known for some time is whether Obama will benefit politically.
When Obama campaigns for re-election, he may take Bush’s approach of turning any such incident into evidence of his leadership acumen. On the other hand, Obama didn’t go before the cameras Sunday to trumpet the success, instead releasing a written statement that saluted the bravery of the military and Phillips but claimed no credit for himself.
Also, this crisis, while topping the news now, may fade into distant memory by the time voters get a chance to take any new measure of Obama and his party.
Still, it goes 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.
The sniper operation Sunday, with pirate guns aimed at Phillips, was a daring, high-stakes gambit, and it could have easily gone awry. If it had, the fallout would have probably landed hardest on Obama.
Indeed, the last Democratic president to unleash American military might against Somalis suffered miserably from the failure of that operation. Portrayed in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down," a U.S. peacekeeping mission ordered by President Bill Clinton ended with a humiliating withdrawal of troops after a deadly clash in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.
The outcome this time was vastly different.
Since the standoff began last Tuesday, Obama made no public, in-person remarks on the topic, even declining to answer when questions were shouted at him during a press availability.
He didn’t call in his Cabinet for a high-profile command meeting. He let military and top administration officials do the talking, but even they kept saber rattling out of the equation.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said Obama’s silence should not be interpreted to mean that he wasn’t deeply involved. The president’s public posture was calculated to not raise the temperature on the situation or give the hostage-takers anything to exploit.
"Let’s not confuse a public role with being on top of the situation," Emanuel said. "If you’d interjected yourself, you would make the discussions that were happening more difficult."
So what Obama did was receive regular briefings, sometimes as often as half a dozen times a day. He weighed in with two critical decisions allowing the military to take action to save Phillips’ life. And he laid the groundwork for a federal criminal law enforcement response.
White House officials said the Justice Department is already reviewing evidence to determine whether to file criminal charges against the captured Somali pirate. The U.S. is treating the matter as a criminal case because officials have found no direct ties between East African pirates and terror groups.
Obama doesn’t like labels for himself or catch phrases for policy. So it’s notable that in an administration that has virtually banned the phrase "war on terror," no one called the pirates "terrorists."
Jennifer Loven has covered the White House for The Associated Press since 2002.