Saturday, April 18, 2009

Barry and the pirates

Leon, somewhere in Libya right now there’s a janitor working the night shift at the Libyan Intelligence Headquarters. He’s going about his job 'cause he has no idea that in about an hour he’s gonna die in a massive explosion. He’s just going about his job 'cause he has no idea that an hour ago I gave an order to have him killed. You just saw me do the least presidential thing I do.

— From “The American President,” screenplay by Aaron Sorkin

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Intellectually, we know it’s true, of course, but emotionally it still stuns us a little when we see it actually happen: for all the pomp and majesty of his office, despite his ability to impart small-d democratic benevolence and values around the globe, the President of the United States of America has a frighteningly awesome power to get people killed.

We saw this play out over the last week, in one of the too-often repeated acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia, after Richard Phillips, the captain of the 17,000-ton container ship Maersk Alabama, was kidnapped by four Somali pirates who held him in one of the Alabama’s lifeboats. As the drama played out over three days, it captured the world’s attention, and that of President Obama, and that of the United States Navy, which sent the destroyer USS Bainbridge to the region to rescue the captain and bring the situation to a close.

Shortly after tying up with the drifting lifeboat to stop its drift toward the Somali coastline, the Bainbridge dispatched three Navy snipers to its deck. There, in the dark and on the deck of a rolling ship, said snipers calmly aimed high-powered rifles at the lifeboat, fired and killed three of the pirates with apparently simultaneous shots to the head. (The fourth pirate was captured by the Navy after jumping off the lifeboat earlier.)

Numerous news reports made the point of mentioning that President Obama “personally approved” the operation, and the administration gained generally high marks for the surgical performance of a mission that could have gone horribly wrong.

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But for this president, an entirely necessary demonstration of presidential authority may have had an especially barbed resonance attached.

There’s no escaping the fact that the Navy snipers, doing the job they were trained to do, nonetheless killed three Somalis who were apparently only teenagers, three people who took a desperately criminal path to acquiring food, self-respect and economic self-sufficiency. Three young black men executed by the United States, on the authority of the black man who runs the United States.

Yes, there’s no getting around the fact that when Barack Obama took the oath of office 89 days ago, he swore to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution — and by extension, to do the same for his country and the people living under the Constitution.

Word is bond: “We must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, be prepared to interdict acts of piracy, and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes,” the president said on April 13.

But for this first African American president, even if he never said as much, there’s bound to have been at least one hot flare of deep regret at having to effectively execute three Africans, people whose lives had barely begun. People with a common ancestral heritage. The authorization of sudden and impersonal death shouldn’t be an easy, rote thing to do, even when legally justified; we can be sure it was not for President Obama, as vulnerable and empathic and human as any of his 43 predecessors, and more so than some of them.

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Leave it to conservative malcontents of the moment to put an ugly spin on things. GOP voice box Rush Limbuagh took crassness to a whole new level on Tuesday, when the former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast offered the following analysis on his talk-radio show:

“You know what we have learned about the Somali pirates, the merchant marine organizers that were wiped out at the order of Barack Obama, you know what we learned about them? They were teenagers. The Somali pirates, the merchant marine organizers who took a U.S. merchant captain hostage for five days were inexperienced youths, the defense secretary, Robert Gates, said yesterday, adding that the hijackers were between 17 and 19 years old. Now, just imagine the hue and cry had a Republican president ordered the shooting of black teenagers on the high seas. …”

Thus, by playing a race card of his own invention, Jabba the Rush racialized the issue of protecting American citizens abroad; laughably rebranded the Somali pirates as “merchant marine organizers”; and actually dared to align the killing of these freelance buccaneers with the killing of African Americans here at home.

“If only President Obama had known that the three Somali community organizers were actually young black Muslim teenagers, I’m sure he wouldn’t have given the order to shoot,” Limbaugh said. “That’s the correct way to look at it. If only Obama had known.”

Rush the Hutt’s perverted calculus of course fails to pass the muster of reality at many levels. The U.S. military isn’t in the habit of checking IDs before conducting a military operation; nor do they vet the targets of such operations for their race or socioeconomic status. When necessary, U.S. armed forces are an equal opportunity destroyer. Often, tragically so.

It’s a tribute to Obama’s deliberate style of conducting its business that this event was resolved in an orderly fashion, and conducted with such deft surgical use of military resources that, to this point, conservative thought leaders and the reflexively-opposed Republicans in Congress haven’t had that much to say negatively about the rescue of Phillips.

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In his first emergency international crisis occasioning the use of armed force to save American lives, President Obama has an unqualified success, if a tragic one. The rescue of Captain Phillips shows that Obama means to chart a new course in America’s relationship with the world, even as he intends to continue the defense of American interests — like American citizens — with force, if required.

This grim, low-key triumph puts the lie to statements by obstreperous, duplicitous French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said privately that Obama was “weak” and “inexperienced.” France had a similar hostage rescue situation days before the Maersk Alabama was seized, one that ended with the death of one of the hostages.

But this wasn’t a Bring It On moment for Obama; while the mission was accomplished, you won’t be a banner screaming those words on the USS Bainbridge. The Obama administration has shown itself to be that rarity, something we haven’t had in the White House in far too long: a team that respects the use of force, uses it reluctantly, and uses it precisely, with a response tailored to the threat.

Of all the three o’ clock mornings he’s had since Jan. 20 (and count on it, he’s had at least a few), Obama no doubt had a singular one on Easter Sunday, that special date in the Christian calendar. By the time he and the First Family had finished attending church, it was all over. The crisis was done, American interests had been defended, emergency food relief meant for Africa’s impoverished got to its destination … and somewhere in Somalia three families mourned three lives they would never see again.

It may have been the least presidential thing a president does. In other equally compelling ways, it’s also the most presidential thing a president is forced to do.
Image credits: Phillips aboard USS Bainbridge: U.S. Navy. Somali pirate: Spec. 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky, U.S. Navy. Limbaugh: Still from video of "The Rush Limbaugh Show." Obama: White House photo by Chuck Kennedy.

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