Dead Pirates, Good Politics

After his glad-handing European love fest, the Somali pirate standoff was just what Barack Obama needed. Clearly this guy is willing to shoot to kill.

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After his make-nice tour of Europe and the unfortunate Saudi bow, Somali pirates may have been exactly what Barack Obama needed. There is nothing like a little lethal sniper action to shut down questions about whether you’re decisive enough.

It is not the basis for a broad foreign policy, but the willingness to kill bad guys still has a strange political currency with the American electorate. Nobody is saying that is why Obama did it—at least I’m not—but a continued stalemate would have produced unhelpful consequences.

Faced with a bunch of chatter on the right that he had made the U.S. look weak by being so ardently conciliatory and occasionally apologizing for past U.S. behavior during his recent trip to Europe, the pirate incident allowed Obama to show that he is not some gun-shy Hamlet afflicted by paralyzing internal conflicts. Clearly he is willing to shoot, and shoot to kill, when necessary. That is not a bad reputation to have when the basis of your foreign policy is premised on cooperation, coordination and a willingness to compromise. Shake hands, but keep the snipers close by.

Despite all his happy talk about engagement and respect and America not throwing its weight around, it is now clear that this is a guy who will take you out if that’s what he decides needs to happen—whether you’re a pirate or Rick Waggoner. But true to his No-Drama name, the president was quiet all weekend; no swagger, no promises of retaliation.

Just three shots in the dark. Game over.

The White House will deny any concern that the pirate caper was at all politically helpful. For their part, the president’s critics who disagree with his foreign policy approach will continue to question whether he presents the right image to the world, talking so much about working together with others.

But the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips will likely comfort the American people who want in their president both the ability to listen and the willingness to act.

Michael Goodwin, writing in the New York Daily News on Sunday, raised some concerns in a column headlined, “Is Barack tough enough to lead the world? Early signs are mixed.” There was nothing mixed or ambiguous about the lethal rounds that felled the pirates.

But Goodwin worried about Obama’s strategy while in Europe: “…One early result of Obama's Kumbaya approach remains the nagging question about his bottom line,” he wrote. “Will he act in what he believes is America's interest, even if no one follows? Or will he subject every action in every crisis to the litmus test of whether there is a consensus?”

The Navy SEAL sharpshooters are likely not enough of an answer for Goodwin and those who share his thinking, but maybe the question is a moot one. The White House reports that the president is coordinating his response to the piracy issue with other countries and with shipping industry officials to make vessels less vulnerable to future attacks. That probably sounds like weakness to some. The pirates, for example, say they will retaliate against Americans, but now they have to consider the consequences.