Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 April 2009

America is Back!

Was any civilized person not thrilled by the dramatic rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, the hostage of Somali pirates who gave himself up to save his crew and ship?

Is any American surprised? The idea that four pirates with small arms could hold off the U.S. Navy was ridiculous from the start. Once the Navy approached, the pirates must have thought that any harm to Captain Phillips would be their ticket to instant death. Surrender was their only chance for live escape, but greed, pride or simple stubbornness held sway.

One Somali, with hand gashed in his gang’s attempt to take the Maersk Alabama, surrendered for medical treatment and arrest. Navy snipers killed the other three, no doubt at the same instant, and freed Captain Phillips from his bonds.

What lessons does this operation teach? First, it was carefully planned and flawlessly executed. That’s what we might expect of the Navy Seals, an elite unit of the world’s most disciplined and well-trained military forces.

Second, we used force, as we should, only as a last resort. The successful military rescue followed days of negotiation with the pirates and their tribal elders on the Somali mainland. It came only after repeated attempts to resolve the crisis by talking failed.

Third, the episode showcased both the caution and the steel in our President. He reportedly approved the use of force only after two requests, and only on condition that the Captain’s life be in imminent danger.

As a realist of uncommon intelligence, the President must have known he was trusting the operation to the judgment and professionalism of Navy commanders and Seals on the spot. Captain Phillips’ life was in danger from the moment he bravely offered himself as a hostage. Whether that danger was “imminent” was a matter for military judgment, not to be second guessed. The only real limitation in the President’s order was that saving Captain Phillips’ life be the goal of any military operation—a goal that every sailor no doubt shared.

So the President gave the order to act, with the only limitation that made sense, after exhausting every peaceful alternative. His delay not only gave negotiation a chance. It also gave time for careful planning, during which expert Seal snipers were air-dropped into the theater. Every step of the operation was thoughtful, carefully planned, and carefully sequenced. And in the end, the President left the judgment and the execution to our military professionals. Isn’t that how it should be?

It is sad that pirates doubted America’s strength and determination. It is sadder still that so many here and abroad doubted the President’s toughness when pushed. And it is sad that the world’s feckless private sector allowed so many ships to be taken and so much ransom to be paid without ever taking the simpler (and much cheaper!) expedient of providing arms or armed guards for ships passing by the Somali pirates’ den.

But no matter. America is back. Caution, self-restraint, good planning, and precision in military operations are back. After years of costly and embarrassing private-sector blundering, the whole world can see how only government—American and French—can beat back armed thugs and make the world safe for peaceful commerce again. Maybe folks here at home will begin to understand that government can do other things well, too.


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