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William Bradley

William Bradley

Posted: April 13, 2009 04:41 PM

Obama's Crisis Management: Of Pirates and Missiles



President Barack Obama made his first public statement, very measured considering the successful outcome, about the Somali pirate crisis only today after the rescue of American freighter captain Richard Phillips.

Barack Obama's management of two flashpoint crises -- both relatively minor but caught up in the now typical hysteria of our media culture -- gives us some good clues about his crisis management style.

The just concluded hostage crisis off the coast of Somalia and the launch early this month of a new North Korean missile showed Obama in "no drama" mode, determined to avoid distraction and continue with his core messaging strategy.

Obama actually took a lower profile public role with the more consequential of the two crises, the Somali pirate hostage crisis, than he did with the North Korean missile launch. But he seems to have spent more time behind the scenes on the crisis on which he spent the least amount of time before the cameras.


American freighter captain Richard Phillips just after his dramatic Sunday rescue from Somali pirates by the US Navy.

I'm told that Obama didn't want to add to the inherent drama of American freighter captain Richard Phillips in a lifeboat with four Somali pirates with public pronouncements during the standoff. In part because the insertion of his public statements would would work against the overall strategy of wearing down and disheartening the pirates, bobbing on the waves of the Indian Ocean in an out-of-gas lifeboat. And in part because the operation could have gone sideways, with dramatically bad results.

That would have been especially true if Obama had paid any attention to his critics on the far right, who in their usual hysterical fashion agitated for a swift raid on the lifeboat. Ironically, the French did much the same thing on Friday, sending commandos onto a hijacked yacht. They killed all the pirates, but lost a French hostage in the bargain. Phillips, in close quarters on a much smaller lifeboat, could easily have been killed had the boat been raided early on in the stand-off, when the pirates were less tired and more pumped up on the excitement of their mission and the drama of confronting the US Navy.


Early on in the stand-off, Phillips briefly escaped his Somali pirate captors.

Obama and his advisors and military commanders took a different, though no less lethal, tack than the French, who have now staged three raids on ships hijacked by the Somali pirates.

It was reminiscent of Obama's approach in the Democratic primaries, in which he relied on "the math" of the situation.

In that case, Obama inexorably rolled up an insurmountable delegate advantage, sweeping smaller states and blocking the Clinton campaign's ability to come back with a few high-profile late primary victories.

In this case, Obama used the resources of the US military and government to shut down the pirates' options and make them more vulnerable.

With advice from FBI hostage negotiators, the commander of the nearest Navy ship, USS Bainbridge, Commander Frank Castellana, set in motion a plan to string the pirates along and wear them down, establishing rapport while denying their goals. Ransom for the hostage, which would set a dangerous precedent, was denied, as was safe passage for the pirates. When other pirates sought to link up with the lifeboat with their captured vessels, with other hostages aboard, the Navy blocked them.


The American crew of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship successfully fended off their hijackers. But that was only the beginning of the drama.

Meanwhile, choosing from a set of options, Obama ordered the insertion of a group of Navy Seal (Sea Air Land) commandos aboard the the destroyer Bainbridge. Out of sight of the pirates, the Seals executed a parachute jump into the ocean and made their way to the Bainbridge. There, with sophisticated sniper rifles, they surreptitiously took up position.

On Friday, Obama gave the order for the pirates to be killed if Phillips was judged by the captain of the Bainbridge to be in terminal danger from his armed captors. Which, of course, could be seen as being true at any point.


The Discovery Channel recounts how Navy Seal snipers operate.

When the drifting lifeboat, which got very hot during the day and very cold at night, ran into choppy water, the pirates agreed to be taken in tow by the Navy destroyer. One pirate used his injury as an excuse to be taken aboard the Bainbridge. Meanwhile, the Bainbridge shortened the two line to less than 100 yards. The expert Seal snipers, with their sophisticated weaponry, ended the stand-off with a headshot for each of the pirates. The pirates who remained aboard the lifeboat with Phillips never knew the Seals were there.


North Korea vowed to test a new long-range missile and place a satellite in orbit. The test occurred, but the mission failed.

Obama gave more attention in his public statements, though less in private discussion, to the North Korean missile launch during that crisis.

That's probably because North Korea, unlike the Somali pirates, is a nation-state. And because North Korea has a pretty well-established pattern of trying to get attention and validation through various missile launches and brandishings of nuclear reactors. In a sense, it was all part of an established kabuki.

The launch actually failed in its mission of putting a North Korean satellite in to orbit. While the first stage of the rocket was successful, launching it over an agitated Japan, failure occurred somewhere in the second or third stages.

Some over on the American right said that Obama should have stopped the North Korean launch. Obama had ordered US Navy destroyers with anti-missile capability into the area, but did not order the shoot-down. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the missile should have been stopped, if not shot down, perhaps by special operations forces. He was quite vague, actually, perhaps because what he was saying didn't make much sense.

Since the missile could have been shot down, it wasn't necessary to actually do so. And North Korea - which the Bush/Cheney Administration removed from the list of threatening rogue nations after going through this sort of thing on several previous occasions - has a habit of making a spectacle of itself in order to publicize one of its few industries which actually has some success, and to try to get international aid. What it will ultimately get is some new sanctions, which will probably be ineffectual.

Both crises revealed a lot about how Obama approaches crises in the form of issues he has not previously selected to focus on.

Long-term solutions with regard to Somalia and North Korea? That's another matter.


You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.