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What Obama Did Or Didn't Do


There's a wide variety of discussion on whether Obama did "good" in making the call that freed Capt. Phillips. There are two points I'd like to make in is tactical, and one is political.

Tactically, there's a pretty clear explanation of why Obama didn't greenlight action until Saturday.

Because that's when the SEALS showed up.
The operation to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips involved dozens of Navy SEALs, who parachuted from an aircraft into the scene near dark Saturday, landing in the ocean. The SEALs were part of a group of Special Operations forces involved in the effort, according to military officials.

The SEALs set up operations on the USS Bainbridge, which had been communicating with the four pirates via radio and had used smaller boats to make deliveries of food and water to their lifeboat.
Now why it is that we'd send ships out into that kind of environment without SEALS or Recon Marines on board, I'm not too sure (maybe because we don't have enough of them).

But it kinda does make sense not to start a fight until the resources you need are in place.

Now the politics of this are kind of depressing.

Because what it suggest is that there are people whose position is - simply - that Obama can do no right (or no wrong).

There's a word for people who take those kinds of positions.


Now it's perfectly respectable to agree or disagree with a lot of what Obama does. But when people suspend their independent judgment in favor of blind position-taking, we ought to call 'em like we see 'em.




Hmm, back to that bastion of conservative kookery, the New York Times:

"The Defense Department twice sought Mr. Obama’s permission to use force to rescue Captain Phillips, most recently on Friday night, senior defense officials said. On Saturday morning, the president agreed, they said, if it appeared that the captain’s life was in imminent danger."

Why twice? And why the condition?

Starting a fight without resources in place would be dumb. But you sure can authorize one in advance, and you can do it with the only condition being the effectiveness of the operation.

That would, indeed, be praiseworthy. Wouldn't matter who it was in charge. Heck, I'd have nice things to say about the Chinese communists or Vladimir Putin if they did that to Somali pirates, never mind just Obama.

That is not what is reported to have happened here. Unless the NYT quote is wrong - which is surely possible, but requires evidence - "salesmen" would describe my view of people willing to ignore the obvious questions.

Why twice, and why the condition?

Well, because the front-line players weren't there yet (which is pretty much what my post says...).

And I'll suggest it's for public consumption...because his life was in "imminent danger" pretty much any time one of them pointed a gun at the guy - which was pretty much of the time.

So there's a three-part green light: Do you have confidence in the shooters? Do you have the shot? And are they pointing a gun at him?

When all conditions are met, go.

That's pretty much what happened.

Without a lot of collateral information around the "when in imminent danger" - without context - you just can't possibly draw the conclusions you're making.


When all conditions are met, go.

One of the conditions being having a go ahead from the President, which apparently wasn't there in the beginning. And the President making tactical decisions from a distance, as you imply, would be obsessive micromanagement.

I don't know exactly what happened, and I don't really care; I just like the result. But your defense of whatever it was the President did strikes me as a bit of sophistry.

Care to expand that claim, chuck?


Come on... the boat was drifting at sea with US Navy ships in the immediate area. If the pirates suddenly decided to commit suicide by killing their hostage... well they could have done that at any moment of the standoff.

I'm not Obama's hugest fan to date, but please explain to me how things could have gone much differently in a responsible manner? If you take the countervailing logic to the ultimate conclusion military forces should have instantly intervened under any circumstances without even examining the situation, since the Captains life was in just as much danger on minute 1 as in the final hour of the standoff.

Keep in mind that success is a pretty damn piece of data.

Oh, and we might keep in mind that by all accounts negotiations broke down because the US (ie- Obama) position was that the pirates wouldn't walk away free much less with the hostage under any circumstance. Their only out was unconditional surrender.

Hardly namby-pamby from where i'm sitting. If Obama had pushed anything less I would be all over him, but he did the right thing. I applaud him for it.

I have another defense for President Obama.

It takes time to train in office a new leader at any level. If a major of marines or an infantry general doesn't perform well, on average, till he's killed a certain number of troops, get used to it. Early bobbles are part of the cost of generational change, which is a necessity.

Luckily this incident ended well. And whether the American President performed well or not doesn't matter.

Criticism, if there is to be any, should wait for the next incident, or to be generous and reasonable the third one of a similar type. Then we can see what if anything the new leader is learning.

If the problem is important, which I don't think this is, and if the new leader started by reacting badly, which I don't think is proven, and if your leader is showing no sign of learning anything after the second or the third go round, which we don't know yet, then you've got a problem.

I'd have said the same thing if John McCain and Sarah Palin had won the election, and John McCain had keeled over while taking his oath of office. There will be bobbles while the new leader does some on the job training. But it doesn't matter.

Tactically, there's a pretty clear explanation of why Obama didn't greenlight action until Saturday.

Because that's when the SEALS showed up.

What, are they flying standby? In the end, Obama made the right decision, but he was fortunate the pirates had the same leisurely pace he did. Now, I suppose it's possible that every SEAL team in the area was occupied due to a ferocious wave of covert activity Obama began to push as soon as he took office. Are there any more plausible explanations for why one of America's premier rapid reaction forces took as long to get to the coast of Somalia as it would take me flying commercial from Florida?

The NYTimes story, quoted by Joe, is disturbing and A.L.'s (implied?) assertion that Obama overruled the military on two occasions because he required SEAL teams to take out the pirates raises more questions than answers.

It raises the notion that Obama was overseeing operational command of the enterprise, when he should not have been. He's not there; he doesn't have first-hand knowledge of the opportunities and limitations. Do we need to replay the tape of Carter's excessive control of the Iranian hostage rescue? Also, the pirates should not be given the world stage of a stand-off with the President.

Why did it take so long for a SEAL team to arrive if their presence was essential? Do ships charged with pirate control have no effective military capabilities to confront them?

The more likely explanation is that Obama overruled Bainbridge's ROE to give negotiations more time (over the military's first objection) and blocked sending a SEAL team until negotiations had been exhausted (over the military's second objection).

Are we now inventing scenarios out of whole cloth? We have no idea what the details were.

Again, I ask, should the navy have immediately taken action knowing there would be a high probability of the Captain being killed early on? In order that we can all feel good about Obama looking tough?

Everything went perfectly. How can you argue with success? Those couple extra days put the hostage in no more danger than he was already in, gave negotiation a chance to work, brought the correct weapon system to bear, and ultimately executed a flawless operation.

Talk about second guessing!

Mark B: If Obama ordered the US Bainbridge to dump all of its weapons into the waters as a show of good faith to the pirates, and somehow Captain Phillips was still rescued safely, I would still argue with success.

Its personal disturbing that Obama rejected the counsel of the people with the experience and responsibility to take care of these kind of things. Armed Liberal's scenario that he did so to allow SEALS to deploy increases the discomfort. I don't want to hear that the President wanted the night vision goggles to be re-inspected, or NOAA to be consulted on pitch and roll. I don't want the President of either party to be involved in operational decisions, short of those which might be considered acts of war.

Oh, puh-leese, people.

Here's a pretty logical conversation (one that I'd certainly have if in his seat):

"What does it take to be 100% sure a rescue will work?"

"Sorry sir, there is no 100%."

"OK, what gives the best odds?"

"Well, a SEAL team, rather than the Marines on the ship, would improve the odds..."

"OK, once they get there, let's see. Until then is there anything we can do that has a high probability of success?"

"Not really."

"OK, then."

C'mon people, you're making up reasons to criticize him without any of the facts in place to really have a clue about whether he acted well or not. That's exactly the behavior I'm criticizing in my post, and that I really think is beneath you all.

He gets a decent clap because it came out well; if more information comes out that he did badly or did well, we'll modify our views.

Until then, decide if you can put aside the partisan spectacles...


Uh, Marc, not that I'm necessarily on the other side of this issue, but I do have to point that you are inventing entire conversations to defend Obama, "without any of the fact in place"...

I'm personally more concerned about a long-term, sustainable approach to the piracy problem. Tying up a substantial fraction of naval forces in the region isn't it.

Though I believe our ships still have yardarms, though to hang antennae and sensors, not sails. They sometimes had another use. Just sayin'.

Well, I would hope the conversation would be more along the lines of "CENTCOM, your objectives are to rescue the hostage, peacefully if possible, with force if not. Don't let him get taken ashore, and take immediate action if his life is in imminent danger. You're the pros, do what you need to do."

Any further input from Obama would not be useful. I'm inclined to believe that is what happened, and everything we've been told after that has been official spin.

The only reason Obama’s behavior is in any way interesting (or germane) is the babble of the right-wing talking heads, calling him a wimp and ridiculing his approach. They bet. They lost.

Since I defended Obama from the criticism he received last week for appearing aloof and unengaged from the hostage crisis (as he should be), its hard for me to wrap my thick head around the notion that I'm now a partisan whore for maintaining that same position.

And the imaginary conversation offers a false dichotomy. In a domestic hostage situation, you can engage in various levels of commitment. The initial responder may be directed by his commanding officer to take only minimal, absolutely safe, actions to free the hostage. A state police officer with advanced weapons training may be directed to take more risky action, including shoot-to-kill, but save the most difficult efforts for the SWAT team on its way. You do this because the situation is not static, you cannot count on the objective rationality of the hostage-taker, and time may not always be on your side. The people on site are in the best position to make these calls.

I would hope that Phil's got the right of it, which would be an appropriate delegation of both authority and responsibility.

I'll be watching for something similar at the operational and ROE levels, since it's pretty obvious that it's the US that will have to take initiative if this is to be reduced back to petty annoyance from running sore level.

Thanks for the latest talking points, AJL. You can report your mission accomplished.

Look- there is a difference between the commander's on the ground (sea) authority to order action to defend the hostages life if the situation reached a moment of crisis, and giving the go-ahead to launch a rescue operation.

We have no reason to think the Navy had been told not to use force under any circumstance- that would be a story. It sounds to me exactly like Phil Smith suggests- time is on our side so don't do anything to provoke them. When their time ran out and a sniper team arrived, that order was loosened to attempt a rescue operation if the navy judged it necessary and possible.

There is nothing odd or unusual here. This was a hostage situation with international implications. Of course the CIC should be involved if necessary. For all we know he was taking advice re: the seal team directly from the Joint Chiefs or other military advisers. For all we know the navy commander was asking for guidance (i wouldn't blame him).

Tim, I'm just trying to demonstrate Occam's razor here...

I agree that we need a longer-term solution to the piracy issues that doesn't tie up one of our carrier groups...

...but we've got this core problem which is that we somehow believe we can solve the problem while only harming certified bad guys. There's this interesting intellectual crossroads that we seem to have taken that I need to understand better.


When I apply Occam's Razor, it doesn't tell me that Obama did anything wrong. It doesn't tell me he did anything right, either.

What it looks like to me is this: The Navy commander, who did not receive orders from the C in C but rather some tepid guidelines, saw a chance to resolve the situation and found a way to stretch his authority to cover what he had to do.

We have no reason to think the Navy had been told not to use force under any circumstance- that would be a story.

I think we do have some suggestion that is true:

"I now have multiple confirmations saying that the initial set of rules that Obama put on the Navy forbid any active attempts to rescue the hostage and only after they requested he reinstate their authority to act if the hostage was in imminent danger did he do so."

Uncle Jimbo

He had previously reasoned this must be the case here:

"The legal standard for the use of deadly force is a legitimate fear for your life or the lives of others. That same standard is infused into all military rules of engagement (ROE) I have seen. The commander of the Bainbridge had the authority to kill the pirates at any time he felt the lives of US citizens were in imminent danger. What President Obama did was to confirm that authority. There is some question as to whether his initial orders restricted the ability of the military to intervene while the negotiations were going on. This comes from the fact that no action was taken when Phillips jumped off the lifeboat and attempted to escape. It is unknown whether there were actually restrictions placed."

This doesn't quite jibe completely with the NYTimes story which indicates two rejections of authority, but the picture they paint raises similar questions.

Wielding Occam's Razor would seem to require there to be some rough consensus about facts and motivations, in which the 'simplicity' of a proposed solution is self-evident. I don't see any such consensus here - the salient differences being a range of opinions of Obama's capabilities and intent from 'competent and forthright' to 'out of his depth and compromised'. In that setting, the Razor is simply an argument from authority in disguise. Best to wait for the leaks, er, facts to show up in the NYT.

I do agree with your last para. We've gotten entirely too nice to deal with reality - well - realistically. Deterrence has a place. Debrief the surviving pirate, string him up, then go in and sink every vessel at his port of origin, with no compensation. Then let the word get around that it's how things are going to be henceforth. It would at least be nice to have a conversation about a cost/benefit analysis of how that approach would stack up against having our and other navy's assets steaming in circles.

Tim, I think the costs of any individual act of piracy are too small for concerted action by the U.S., particularly on the opposite side of the word. It's only at some level that the gross effect is destabilizing or when the piracy combines with some form of political terrorism. This is one of the reasons I'm annoyed by elevating the President, whatever his party, to the role of Chief of Pirate Police. I fear we are encouraging people not simply motivated by treasure to acts that offer a forum with the President.

Would it be proper for the president to be involved in a decision to shoot down a hijacked plane? Like it or not, its inevitable. The buck stops and all that.

What we need to think about in the grand scheme is that we are going to have to deal with this problem like it or not. Nobody else will. Once Americans are taken into captivity or killed (and that seems all but certain the way things are going), American popular sentiment won't stand for allowing the piracy to continue. So we'd better figure out what we intend to do and if possible get hopping on it.

I've long advised going after the mother-ships, and in order to really do that you have to essentially blockade the Somalian coast-line. It seems like a chore but compared to hopelessly patrolling millions of square kilometers of ocean indefinitely, its really the only viable solution short of either raiding on land or demolishing from the air, both of which or much worse options.

We're kind of reinventing the wheel here imo. Any previous generation of sea-farers would be scratching their heads at our confusion.

Tim, I'm just trying to demonstrate Occam's razor here...

Yeah, by making up fantasies about what you would have done. That's BS, a reverse strawman argument if you will. That's why I labeled your original defense a sophistry. You don't know the details, none of us do.

It wouldn't bother me so much if this was the first time, but your postings supporting Obama all seem to follow that pattern: personal fantasies substituting for actual knowledge. And it isn't just you, there are others out in the blogosphere who seem to substitute their own personal fantasies for any knowable reality when it comes to Obama. I find it disturbing.

...and found a way to stretch his authority to cover what he had to do.

That was also my first guess. I mean, really, imminent danger? I think it was more like, "An opportunity that can't be refused."

Marc Danziger:

I agree that we need a longer-term solution to the piracy issues that doesn't tie up one of our carrier groups...

Who needs a solution the most? America? Or the same free riders who will attack America as violent and arrogant if it acts rationally (in a tactical sense) and solves their problem for them?

In finding and implementing this solution to the problems of other people who are not even friendly to America, should America consult their opinions and interests? Why is the war going to go well if it has to be fought in a way that pleases those who would like to see America knocked down a peg?

If the problem is American, and the solution has to be found within boundaries set by the preferences of people who would be displeased by harsh and successful American action, is engagement the way to go? Tribute for friendly locals? (You'll know which ones to pay: they'll have their hands out and smirks on their faces.) Nation-building, in another Islamic Hell?




This is not America's problem, and the American President should not be judged on his engagement with it.

Once Americans are taken into captivity or killed...American popular sentiment won't stand for allowing the piracy to continue.

Sure it will. Hezbollah held American captives for years. North Korea is holding Americans captive right now. Thousands of Americans were killed in Iraq, and the country elected the man who promised to run away. American popular sentiment may not stand for admitting the piracy will continue, but all Obama needs to do is give a speech and quote John Paul Jones, "I have not yet begun to fight," even if he really means "and tomorrow's not looking good either - how about never? Does never work for you?"

you're making up reasons to criticize him without any of the facts in place to really have a clue about whether he acted well or not....He gets a decent clap because it came out well
Likewise, kudos to Obama for the Cleveland Cavaliers' 39-1 home record, not that I have any reason to believe Obama contributed to that either.

"Sure it will. Hezbollah held American captives for years. North Korea is holding Americans captive right now."

I think Americans react differently to people who are doing dangerous things in dangerous places and get kidnapped than to American's sailing the open ocean and getting abducted. And lets not forget a hostage crisis brought down a president. We saw how the entire nation stopped to watch this stand-off.

"Likewise, kudos to Obama for the Cleveland Cavaliers' 39-1 home record, not that I have any reason to believe Obama contributed to that either."

Obama wouldn't have shouldered the blame for the losses. Like it or not, when a president gets the blame deserved or not, he's going to collect the praise, deserved or not.

But lets be realistic, if Obama had told the navy not to fire under any circumstances and the pirates had gotten to land with the hostage somehow, would Obama be to blame? Well duh. So saying he had no role in the outcome is wrong.

I think Americans react differently to people who are doing dangerous things in dangerous places and get kidnapped than to American's sailing the open ocean and getting abducted.

That's true, and I'm sure it mitigated the sympathy for the Beirut hostages, but wouldn't sailing in pirate-infested waters count as "doing dangerous things in dangerous places"?

Like it or not, when a president gets the blame deserved or not, he's going to collect the praise, deserved or not.

I managed to find a few links to the 2005 story about the rescue of 4 Christian Peacemaker hostages by US and British forces in Iraq, but I couldn't find any that described it as "a major victory" for the President as the AP said about this pirate incident, or offered more restrained words of praise, or so much as a polite golf clap.

Your last point is the soft bigotry of low expectations, isn't it? Good job not screwing up, Mr President! We love you!

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