Obama Wins First Pirate Battle. More To Come? Many foreign affairs experts give President Obama high marks for his handling of the Somali pirate hostage situation. But some warn that by authorizing the use of military force, the president may have undermined anti-terrorism efforts in Africa.
NPR logo Obama Wins First Pirate Battle. More To Come?

Obama Wins First Pirate Battle. More To Come?

Just days before last fall's presidential contest, then-Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden told supporters that if elected, Barack Obama would be tested by an international crisis in the first six months of his presidency.

But a hostage situation involving an American cargo ship captain and armed Somali pirates near the Horn of Africa? "I'm not sure this is what he had in mind," says Jeffrey Legro, an international relations specialist at the University of Virginia's Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics.

Nonetheless, the stakes were high for the new president, as images beamed around the world showed the 509-foot-long U.S. Navy destroyer Bainbridge anchored, seemingly helpless, near a bobbing fiberglass lifeboat carrying a few pirates and hostage Capt. Richard Phillips.

And the standoff's dramatic outcome — three pirates killed Sunday by Navy snipers, Phillips safely rescued — gave Obama what most, though not all, foreign affairs experts characterized as a clear win.

"This puts President Obama in a great position," says Juan Zarate, who served as deputy national security adviser for terrorism during the last four years of the Bush administration.

"There was high visibility, and it clearly was a test of American ability and power," Zarate said. "If it had gone badly, it could have been, fairly or not, debilitating for the president."

Risky Test Of American Power

History books are filled with stories of presidents and hostage situations gone tragically awry. There's Jimmy Carter's ill-fated 1980 attempt to rescue 52 hostages held in Iran, and the military's failed effort during the Clinton administration to extract the crew of a Black Hawk helicopter downed in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

The standoff that played out in recent days off the coast of Africa was a classic "asymmetric crisis" — one during which the might of a country is challenged by a lesser enemy, Zarate says. In this case, it was American power against a handful of pirates with little to lose.

The longer a situation like that continues, the more it degrades the sense of American power — and that can weaken a president, says Zarate, who also worked on the piracy issue while with the Bush administration.

Zarate was among those who have hailed Obama for remaining behind the scenes as the crisis played out, repeatedly ducking opportunities to speak out publicly about the situation. A timeline released Sunday by the White House showed that the president was briefed frequently and twice gave the military the authority to use deadly force.

If Obama had made himself part of the public process, many foreign experts asserted Monday, he would have raised the political value of the hostage — and of potential future hostages.

"The president demonstrated a willingness to allow the military, the FBI and other professionals to do their jobs, and he did not insert himself in a situation that would have amplified [Phillips'] value" to the pirates, Zarate says. That also might have mitigated the fallout if the mission was unsuccessful.

More Violence To Come?

Bronwyn Bruton, an expert on Somalia at the Council on Foreign Relations, says she does not regard Sunday's outcome as a success. She suggests that the killing of the pirates, popular in their home country, will escalate piracy and the violence that may be associated with it.

More important, she says, it has the potential to undermine the Obama administration's anti-terrorism efforts in Africa. That's a high price to pay, Bruton says, considering that the value of the cargo carried by hijacked ships amounts to a minuscule fraction of the value of all high seas commerce in that area.

"The Somalis are very, very angry right now," Bruton says, "and there's a strong anti-American sentiment and an increasing radicalization of the public."

"This will work against us in the bigger picture," she says. However, she acknowledges that Obama had little choice but to proceed the way he did, given how the situation unfolded.

David Patrick Houghton, who has written extensively about former President Carter's effort to rescue American hostages in Iran, says that Sunday's operation was "pretty amazing — not to say lucky, since there is always a big element of luck in these types of operations."

The Carter administration faced a host of intelligence-gathering and logistical difficulties in planning its operation — difficulties not present in the Horn of Africa.

"In this case, the location of the hostage was obvious, and a U.S. destroyer could be dispatched directly into the situation," says Houghton, who teaches at the University of Central Florida. "And the hostage-takers were foolish enough to put themselves in plain sight of our snipers."

Washington Mulls Over Approaches To Piracy

History suggests that Obama will emerge from the past few days with increased stature. Polls show that a president's approval rating will typically rise after a rescue operation, no matter the outcome, Houghton says. Carter, for example, saw his approval rating spike to 61 percent from 32 percent after the failed effort to release the hostages. In the longer term, however, his ratings tumbled — in no small part because of the Iran debacle.

Legro of the University of Virginia adds, "These are the things that stick with presidents, that allow them to build standing and clout," particularly now, during a time when Americans are anxious about chaos around the world.

Obama said Monday that he is resolved to "halt the rise of piracy in that region."

"We're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks," he said. "We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise."

And they surely will arise again.

No doubt the Obama administration, though touting its high seas success, is still debating how to balance the comparatively small economic cost of piracy with the president's anti-terrorism agenda and the need to battle for the hearts and minds in the failed state of Somalia and among its Islamic leaders.

"If the battle against piracy is not a battle we're going to win, is it worth fighting?" Bruton asked.