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At Sea Contingency Operation

April 13, 2009

The good news this Easter (leaving the Good News to other places) is that Captain Phillips of the Maersk Alabama got rescued and is sound and safe. And while the entire incident made us hold our breath for days, it is of even greater importance in the bigger picture. Here is your first act-now-or-never international crisis, Monsieur Obama. The acute danger of North Korea and Iran is played down by the Obama administration. But the attack of the Alabama was an attack on American civilians (who were shipping humanitarian aid to the African continent, no less) that cannot be ‘nuanced’ away. (On the other hand, you wouldn’t be surprised if they tried, considering that the White House denies that Obama bowed to the King of Saudi Arabia.)

You can argue that the pirates off the coast of Somalia really are a threat to the ‘international community’ and that therefore the US should try a multilateral approach to the problem and will probably succeed. You can also make the ‘economic’ argument and say that piracy is not at a level that demands forceful intervention because commerce isn’t ruined by it (yet) and that commercial ships can take other routes or hire guards (who are unarmed and abandon the ship and its crew when pirates attack.) But there is an obvious broader implication to the Maersk Alabama incident that outweighs such reasoning and calls for a serious crackdown on the pirate problem.

The US is presided by a young and unexperienced man who, so far, has gone out of his way to present himself as the ‘talk first and talk later’ politician. The not-so-friendly parts of the ‘international community’ are watching very closely how the new kid on the block reacts to threats and attacks against his country. And consider that the last act of piracy against a US-flagged ship was nearly 150 years ago. Captain Phillips and his crew are now out of the line of fire. The Somali pirates swear ‘retaliation’ for their dead men. What will Obama do? Will he consult with the UN and take a week  to phrase a strongly-worded letter of reprimand? Will he send it by airmail or – since the message will be immune to the threat of piracy – ship it by sea?

President Obama lauded Captain Phillips as a courageous “model for all Americans.” And he is. (He’s also a model for certain Frenchmen.) But the French Cowboy fears that Monsieur Obama himself lacks the kind of courage he is praising here. It is reported that Captain Phillips jumped off the pirates’ lifeboat and swam towards the USS Bainbridge that was already standing by. Without any orders to use force when necessary yet, the US Navy watched on, unable to reach Monsieur Phillips before the pirates did who pulled him back on board. The presidential permission to use military force came afterwards (after the DoD asked for it twice). And, as we all know, ultimately force was used when a pirate gestured with an AK-47 that he was going to kill Phillips and le capitaine was saved.

Here is an American citizen who summons the courage to first offer himself as a hostage in order to save his crew and then to attempt an escape from the pirates in the shadow of a US destroyer. But his president hasn’t yet made a decision on how to proceed on the matter, so he gets recaptured and it takes two more days until he is freed thanks to the quick thinking of a Navy commander who at that time, finally, had the permission to act. You can argue that in the end no American citizen died and all went well. But the French Cowboy would like to point out the worrisome pattern that has emerged in Monsieur Obama’s way of making decisions ever since his presidential bit: he delays important decisions, not acknowledging that staying passive is a decision, too.

And while we’re all thankful that this hostage crisis – in contrast to the one involving French hostages – ended with only bad guys’ blood being spilled, what President Obama does next is still of utmost importance. Here is Obama’s chance to act tough against unequivocally bad enemies and to signal to any anti-American troublemaker that even President Barrack ‘America the Arrogant’ Obama won’t tolerate attacks on his country’s citizens. So, here is hope that Obama will take Captain Phillips as a role model, grow a spine and stand up for the safety of those he is accountable for.

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