Credit Where It’s Due

Scott noted earlier this morning that the White House is taking credit for the rescue of Captain Phillips. That’s OK with me; in fact, I hope Obama gets some credit, as it may embolden him in future crises where military force may be necessary. However, based on what we know so far, it doesn’t appear that the rescue owed much, if anything, to the White House.

Here is how the Democrats’ house organ described the President’s role:

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.

So the Defense Department sought Obama’s permission to use force against the pirates, and Obama either declined or failed to respond. When the President finally agreed, it was under the most restrictive conditions possible: force could be used only if the captain’s life was “in imminent danger.”

I should hope so! It is inconceivable that a President would order the commander on the scene to stand idly by if a hostage’s life was “in imminent danger.” What is still unclear, based on early accounts, is whether that condition was actually satisfied. The commanding officer has said that one of the pirates was seen pointing a weapon at Phillips, which satisfied the “imminent danger” standard and caused him to order the snipers to fire.

Perhaps so; I’m happy to take him at his word. (But was Phillips in view? I thought he was tied up, out of sight at the bottom of the boat. No doubt this will be cleared up in time.) But it appears that what triggered the rescue was that all three pirates stuck their heads into view at once, and the commanding officer took advantage of the opportunity by ordering the snipers to fire.

Whether the “imminent danger” standard was satisfied or not, its real effect (and, I suspect, its real purpose) was to give cover to our fledgling President’s rear end. If the affair had turned out badly–as could easily have happened, had the snipers been less accurate–the White House could either have distanced itself from the commander by saying he exceeded his authority, or taken the position that there was no choice but to act because the captain was in “imminent danger.”

In fact, the White House gave the most cautious authorization for the use of force that it possibly could have. Obama–like, more significantly, Captain Phillips–was saved by the willingness of the on-scene commander to stick his neck out and the skill of the Navy’s snipers.


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