President Obama passed his first mini foreign-affairs crisis test — the hijacking of the American-owned Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping of its American skipper, Richard Phillips. The president authorized the military commanders on the scene aboard the destroyer USS Bainbridge to respond appropriately and with force if necessary; they did, and the U.S. citizen held hostage was saved. In deferring to the assessment by the on-site Navy officials, Obama exhibited a valuable understanding of the chain of command; and he appears to have resisted the often-fatal urge to micro-manage a crisis or to delay in the hope the situation will improve over time.
Of course, one mini-crisis does not define a presidency, and how the still-new president responds to the inevitable future military crises will determine his legacy and our safety as a nation. Early reactions from the Somalis indicate that the brand of piracy they practice will likely increase in violence and ruthlessness in the wake of this successful action against them.
Our government needs to come up with a more comprehensive, strategic plan with which to confront piracy; and we’d best do it sooner rather than later. Responding to such attacks piecemeal — whatever the batting averages — will not serve us in the long term.
First , the United States should make clear to our allies, adversaries and ourselves that piracy targeting or directly affecting American citizens or ships, are not and will not be viewed as simply criminal acts involving the taking of hostages. While it might serve as a useful feint to send FBI hostage negotiators to the scene , relying on such tactics plays into the hands of the hijackers; worse, it emboldens future hijackers.
Second, we should make equally clear that the avowed motivation of the hijackers — whether overtly political or to gain monetary reward — is irrelevant; all will be viewed as terrorists.
Third — and this will be difficult for many of the U.N. sympathizers within the administration and who occupy positions of leadership in Republican and Democrat caucuses in the Congress — let it be known that our country will not rely on the U.N. or other international organizations to protect our ships and citizens, or in developing and executing appropriate responses. The U.N. in particular is not only a paper tiger when it comes to dealing with such matters, but the bloviating and diplomatic maneuvering by that organization makes matters worse by allowing the terrorists to buy time and build sympathy. Even if our government cannot resist the urge to participate in such negotiations or to pay lip service to U.N. “resolutions,” these should never form the basis for decisions.
Fourth, our global naval strategy, including the type and placement of Navy vessels across the Seven Seas, must be based on recognition that non-state actors will continue to pose as much of a threat on a day-to-day basis, as do more traditional nation states. Defense Secretary Gates is recommending changes in military procurement to reflect this reality. It would behoove Congress to support this process.
Fifth, develop and use sound intelligence to identify the bases from which the pirates operate, where their funding comes from, and if their strings are being pulled from afar. More important, if such intelligence identifies them, have the backbone to take action.
Finally, the laws and regulations governing the presence and use of armaments by civilian, U.S.-owned commercial shipping vessels must be revamped, modernized and liberalized. While our laws allow for the temporary “export” of firearms by civilians for such things as protective details in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is less clear, based on past State Department practice, that they allow for export by shipping companies to protect our maritime assets against piracy. Also, our government must work to ensure that foreign governments not be permitted to take action against U.S. vessels that have defensive arms on board when they enter foreign ports. Events of recent months and days clearly support the urgency of these initiatives.