Censored at AOL: Obama's Shifting Role in Pirate Drama

Author’s note:  The following was originally posted at AOL’s Political Machine blog, but was removed by the editors.  The editorial basis cited for rejecting the piece was that the editors could not determine the actual critique of the Obama Administration contained within; and did not agree with the conclusions presented.

President Barack Obama was said to be closely monitoring events surrounding the kidnapping of an American merchant shipping captain by pirates off the coast of Somalia. But the president did not take an active role in decision making regarding the negotiations or military preparations. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the president’s involvement in managing the crisis would stay at that level for the foreseeable future.

“The president has followed the situation closely and has gotten updates throughout the day yesterday and today. And obviously his main concern is for the safety of the captain and the rest of the crew on the ship. And he will continue to receive those updates. At this point, he’s staying apprised of the situation.”

That was the report as of Friday, before last weekend’s dramatic events on the high seas.

But with word of the successful rescue of Captain Phillips on Easter Sunday, the Administration’s story changed. Now, President Obama is painted as a hands-on decision maker, approving of the use of force in Phillips’ rescue.

George Stephanopolous reports that a “senior U.S. official” says the president approved of U.S. special forces action against the pirates “in extremis.” Essentially, that means that the military was limited to acting only in the event that Captain Phillips’ life was in immediate danger. U.S. Navy snipers took that opportunity yesterday, taking out three pirates only after it became clear that they had raised weapons to Phillips’ back.

That fact should not diminish the skill and decisiveness of the Navy sharpshooters who performed their duties splendidly yesterday. But it does shed some light on the Obama Administration’s method of operations. Late last week, when it did not want it to appear that the president was acting like a cowboy, the Administration was content to say that Obama was taking a low key approach to the pirate hostage drama, leaving the decision making to others and perhaps hedging against a bad result. But once news of Phillips’ rescue reached the United States, the Administration was quick to try and claim at least a share of the credit for the president. It is not quite shameless exploitation – presidents always get more credit, and blame, than they likely deserve for events that happen under their watch – but it is playing politics.

As a legislator, President Obama had the luxury of taking both sides of an issue to position himself politically. But as president, especially in matters of national security, the president does not have that luxury, and he cannot seek it. Perhaps with more experience, President Obama will be able to chart a course and be willing to accept the consequences of his decisions, good and bad. But in the events of the last week off the coast of Africa, President Obama showed himself to be not yet ready to act decisively before knowing how the political winds will blow.