A Democratic Tough Guy—Who Knew?

Obama shows he understands the limits of diplomacy.


The successful return of Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama—a small but significant overseas victory on the Obama watch—highlights some interesting contrasts in the president's approaches to foreign policy over the past several days.

In reaction to the launch of a North Korean missile, the Obama administration ardently pursued the support of other world leaders in renouncing the government in Pyongyang, hoping that a coalition of disdain would force North Korea to think about its future behavior. It didn't work, as far as we can tell. The president also sought NATO support for the increased American commitment to the war in Afghanistan, with less than impressive results. Neither of those diplomatic efforts rallied our allies to the American position, which left Obama and the U.S. looking forlorn and ineffective.

North Koreans seemed to have suffered no negative consequences for their missile launch, though it was a clear violation of international law. And their success in defying Obama and the rest of the world seems to have encouraged Iran in its quest to acquire nuclear weapons technology. These are troubling signs for an American president who has spent so much of his time overseas building bridges based on diplomacy, international cooperation and humility for past American ills.

And in the minds of many, the underwhelming European reaction to Obama's entreaties for economic and military cooperation during his recent trip was a sign of disrespect.

But in dealing with the Maersk Alabama crisis, a different Obama emerged. At the president’s directive, the U.S. military was able to tactically resolve a crisis that threatened American lives. Will this approach toward a small band of pirates off of the Horn of Africa serve as a message to other organizations that seek to inflict harm on Americans?

The answer is yes. And good for Obama for sending it so decisively.

Democratic presidents are not often regarded as the strongest or craftiest actors in dealing with violent threats abroad. Jimmy Carter's handling of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of the late 1970s and Bill Clinton’s bumbling efforts in Haiti early in his first term are perfect examples of what happens when the left wing of the American government depends too heavily on diplomacy or are too reluctant to use military force.

However, the Somali pirate crisis and the way it ended (with no loss of American life and with the execution of seaward terrorists) shows a different side of President Obama—a side that many of his critics may choose to underestimate.

Obama, it seems, has a little of Bernie Mac's don’t-mess-with-me-man streak in him, and we should not be all that surprised. A man capable of fighting through the mudslinging of the Democratic primary as a relatively unknown candidate to become president must have some sort of fight in him; the question is whether and how he chooses to use it.

Obama, so far, is taking his foreign policy cues from the Great Seal of the United States—and the derivative presidential seal—on which the eagle carries an olive branch in one claw and arrows, weapons of war, in the other.