Somalia: Getting in Front of the Story

03/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's been 194 years since Commodore Steven Decatur forced the Barbary pirates to sign a treaty guaranteeing that they would no longer attack American ships. Now, almost 200 years later, it looks like we may have to pay tribute again, and somebody's going to be blamed for it. Cruise ships and oil tankers are already paying off Somali pirates for safe passage into the Red Sea, and the next ship they get may be one of ours. If that happens, it will be the fault of George W. Bush, but unless Barack Obama gets out in front of the story before it occurs, he's likely to be blamed for it.

Remember how the Bush administration tried, and partially succeeded, at blaming 9/11 on Bill Clinton -- it's all a matter of spin. Get your talking heads on television before the other guy does, slant the story your way, and maybe the American public will let you off the hook.

President Bush has managed to dodge the Somalia problem for eight years. From 2000-2006, while Islamic fundamentalist Arab groups were slowly seizing control of Somalia, he did nothing. Then, in 2006, when it became apparent that they were about to take over the country, he arranged for our Ethiopian surrogates to send just enough troops into Somalia to prevent total disaster. The Islamists continued to dominate much of the country, but, thanks to Ethiopian troops, Mogadishu, the country's capital, and Baidoa, its most important port, remained under the control of a moderate interim government.

Last month, after our Presidential election but before the Inauguration, Bush told the Ethiopians it was okay for them to go home, and, if you've been reading this space over the last two weeks you know what's happened since. As of now, it seems as if Al-Shabab, a group linked by some to Al-Qaeda, and on the US terrorist list, is likely to take over. Somebody's going to be blamed for it, and it won't be pretty. Those of you who remember "who lost China?" will expect, as I do, a considerable uproar over "who lost Somalia", and the Right will accuse Obama of weakness, if not treachery.

At this point, it's time for the Obama press machine to get out in front of the story; empower Robert Gibbs to brief the Washington press corps, get his side of the story out first, and make sure the world realizes that it's one more mess the Bush administration left on the White House doorstep. If America ever has to pay tribute to Somali pirates, the President will never be forgiven. So, it's better to warn America about what may happen, than to apologize for letting it happen. President Bush never found his Steven Decatur, President Obama should find one. That's how you get out in front of a story.