The Presidential Monkey's Paw

Since the Easter rescue of Maersk Alabama captain Richard Phillips a lot of electrons have been expended proclaiming what it means, and to a lesser extent what it doesn’t mean. While we should all be happy at the release of Captain Phillips, we should be chary of this episode, its management, and the implications.

This was yet another demonstration of the capability of American military.

This goes without saying, though to read media accounts one would think SEALs, and their counterparts in the other services, suddenly came into existence around January 21, 2009. It boggles one’s mind that we can be eight years into a series of conflicts that have relied heavily on special operations forces and this can be portrayed as something more than it is. This type of mission is what we’ve paid SEALs to do for the past 50 years. They did it flawlessly.

Overlooked in this is the key role played by the commander of the USS Bainbridge who, without the assistance of the White House or FBI hostage negotiators, convinced the pirates to let him take their boat in tow and then winched the distance from some 200 feet down to 80 feet.

There is credit due here and it is due to the planning staff who put SEALs within 80 feet of their target, on time with all their equipment, and to the sailors on the scene who made the operation happen.

This was not a national security crisis.

The attempted piracy of the Maersk Alabama went wrong at every turn for the would-be pirates. The crew resisted. One of the pirates was wounded and captured. The remainder beat a hasty retreat from the ship in one of the ship’s own lifeboats. It has more in common with Dog Day Afternoon than it does with the Iranian hostage crisis.

Had nothing been done, Captain Phillips would have been released after Maersk paid a ransom. In other words, this could have been a fairly normal event off the coast of Somalia. None of this advocates paying ransom or condones piracy but the fact remains that Somali pirates, unlike those who haunt the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, have been the virtual Officer Friendlys of felons. Their captives are treated well and the crew and vessel released promptly when cash changes hands. It would be surprising if the shipping companies in the region considered this in a different manner than they see insurance premiums: the cost of doing business.

This characterization of this event, in this instance with MSNBC as an exemplar, as a national security test and triumph:

The U.S. economy is showing only glimmers of life and two costly wars remain in the balance, but President Barack Obama’s “no drama” handling of the Indian Ocean hostage crisis proved a big win for his administration in one of its first critical national security tests.

is nothing short of goofy. Clearly it is what the White House would have us believe but there is nothing here that comports with the readily discernible facts (previously discussed at RedState).

This was not handled well.

There is every evidence that this episode was needlessly escalated to by the Obama administration to create a easy to win national security crisis. The dispatch of the FBI negotiators needlessly involved law enforcement in what was a maritime security operation and added little to the capabilities already available through CENTOM and AFRICOM. The FBI hostage negotiators seem to have done little beyond meeting with Somali tribal elders — who never contacted the pirates — but they were effective stage props if one is trying to send a “we’re doing everything in our power” message to the public.

We can only hope that this puffery, again provided by MSNBC, is just that:

Obama’s two quiet backstage decisions to authorize the Defense Department to take necessary action if Capt. Richard Phillips’ life was in imminent danger gave a Navy commander the go-ahead to order snipers to fire on the pirates holding the cargo ship captain at gunpoint.

It is pretty inconceivable, given the Navy’s history of skirmishing with Somali pirates, that Obama’s decision to involve himself in this was any more than cheap theatrics (previously noted at RedState). One hopes, that he wasn’t involved in this beyond the briefings one would expect him to receive because the idea that the TOTUS is willing to get so far down in the weeds he is involved in whacking the nautical equivalent of a 7-11 stick-up gang is terrifying. Hostage rescues, just as complicated, have been carried out in Iraq over the past four years (here | here | here) without the White House personally kicking in the door (previously discussed at RedState).

If the MSNBC report is not based on after-game bloviating by Gibbs, Emanuel, and others to try to make their man look, well, manly it bodes ill for what will happen when his first crisis occurs.

The Obama Administration seems to think they have tossed off the Carter analogies by their handling of this incident (previously discussed at RedState). I think history will demonstrate that the lesson Obama has taught potential enemies is that any action they take can command the attention of the TOTUS.

This was a watershed.

Systems, everywhere, are based on rules. The rules may be simple or complex but they are prevent misunderstandings between participants in the system. This is as true of Somali pirates as it is of the UN.

As we’ve noted above, to date the Somalis have been extremely un-bloodthirsty pirates. Perhaps that lack of fearfulness has perversely created more piracy (shipping companies can be sure of getting their people and ships back unharmed and therefore they pay ransom, the alacrity with which they pay ransom encourages more entrants into the industry, and so on). One thing we can be sure of is that between the killing of the three pirates by US snipers and the takedown of a hijacked French yacht by French naval commandos that also netted three dead, one a friendly, will do little to deter piracy and a lot to increase its marginal costs.

The rules of the game have just changed inalterably for the Somali pirates, for the maritime powers in the region, and for the crews of merchantmen plying the waters there.


You pay for security no matter where you travel in the world. In the developed world, taxes and fees pay for police, courts, a coast guard, etc., that goes a long way towards ensuring you can travel without being kidnapped and held for ransom.

Unfortunately, there are lots of dangerous places in the world and for a variety of reasons American nationals, among others, have to travel there to do business. If you’re in the former Soviet Union it may behoove you to hire a couple of former Spetsnaz members to look out for you. In parts of Latin America you may end up contributing to a political militia or guerrilla organization to make sure nothing untoward happens to you.

Piracy, as practiced by Somalis, is sort of the same thing. In the past, the cost of an occasional ransom was the price one paid for shipping cargo through the Gulf of Aden. The cost is still there but it will be paid differently.

Shipping companies now have the option of employing some form of security on their vessels to defend against piracy — or they can leave them undefended and try to return to the status quo ante. Crews may have to be enlarged to increase the capability of the ships to watch for pirates when they are in dangerous waters. They may have to accept costly delays in shipping if they are forced to travel in escorted convoys. They can pay protection money up front rather than risk ransom, probably what we’ll see as the preferred solution to both pirates and shippers.

Pirates may be forced to operate in larger and more heavily armed ships placing at risk ships that were previously safe. They may decide that holding hostages is just too inconvenient and simply kill the crews and sell the cargo. They may disperse, or sell, the crew to other power centers in the interior of Somalia making their release much more expensive, dangerous, and time consuming.

The maritime powers may have to devote more surface combatants to patrol, they may have to devote more surveillance assets, they could organize convoys in and out of the Persian Gulf, and someone may have to undertake the task of cleaning out the pirate bases and make piracy an unacceptably expensive endeavor. The maritime powers could return to treating pirates as hostis humani generis and increase the cost of engaging in the activity.

We don’t know what actions they will take but they will not be able to return to the previous way of doing business.

These are all costs as surely as the occasional ransom.

This is US Defense policy working as advertised.

The Obama administration can woof all it wishes via its coterie of lickspittles (here | here about the neglect of the Bush Administration giving rise to piracy based in Somalia. The fact is that beginning when Les Aspin created the first post Soviet defense policy in 1992, the United States military has been resourced for a win-hold-win strategy. In other words, the US military is expected to win one regional war while fighting a holding action in a second regional war and then winning that second war when the first war is concluded. If you had any doubts about how Iraq and Afghanistan have ended up like they are, you can give credit to the win-hold-win strategy working as advertised.

Piracy in Somalia is not a maritime security issue; it is a failed state issue. You cannot address the piracy originating in Somalia without addressing the underlying problems. This, as anyone alive back in 1992/1993 would have noted, has the ability to embroil you in a third regional war.

Given that we had two wars underway, I think most of us would agree that piracy was a problem that could be ignored at small cost. In fact, both Obama and Biden passionately ignored the subject when they were in the Senate and they weren’t necessarily wrong for doing so.

This is what was accomplished.

Three pirates, as it turns out teenagers who did not have ammunition were killed in the aftermath of a piracy gone wrong.

An American merchant captain was released unharmed.

There is no greater international consensus on how to deal with piracy in the Gulf of Aden, or anywhere else for that matter, that there was last year.

The new rule set seems to mitigate towards bloody rather than bloodless interactions between the crews of merchant ships and pirates.

The next time an American is seized by pirates he won’t be held in a lifeboat tethered to an American destroyer.

In the 1902 short story, The Monkey’s Paw, by W. W. Jacobs, a family is given a monkey’s paw that has the the power to grant the bearer three wishes. The wishes are granted but in ways that one probably consider to be suboptimal. President Obama has essentially had his wish for a national security crisis granted, at least in his eyes and the eyes of his sycophants. And, at least in the estimation of those same people, he has been granted his second wish, he has successfully solved that crisis. He still has one wish left.