In the daring rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali kidnappers, the Obama administration has sent a strong message to those who seek to hold other Americans hostage on the high seas: Pirates beware. The party is over.
The New York Daily News reported as early as Thursday that Navy had been itching to whack the pirates who have increasingly harassed ships and their cargo off the coast of Somalia, but were waiting for President Obama to give the order.
The nod finally came as the seas and the negotiations to free Capt. Phillips grew rougher and Frank Castellano, the commanding officer of USS Bainbridge, became convinced that the captain's life was in imminent danger.
Details continue to emerge. According to Navy officials, NAVY Seal snipers on the fantail of the destroyer Bainbridge, about 25 to 30 yards away from the 18-foot-long lifeboat where Capt. Phillips was being held, opened fire on the pirates when it seemed that one of them was preparing to shoot the captain. Initial reports suggest that the Seals took aim after two of the pirates poked their heads out from the lifeboat's rear hatch, exposing them to clear shots. The third was apparently seen through a window in the bow, pointing his weapon at Capt. Phillips.
The end result: three dead Somali pirates, one in U.S. custody, and freedom for Capt. Phillips — the Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger of the seas. His cool-headed courage will now be the stuff of legends. President Obama, having maintained a diplomatic silence on the incident until he emerged from Easter church services to receive the good news, called his brave conduct "a model for all Americans."
Piracy has plagued American politics and foreign policy almost since the country's founding. America's first foray in the Middle East, in fact, was spurred by Barbary pirates, as Michael Oren tells us in his book on America's involvement in the Middle East, "Power, Faith, and Fantasy." But that venture had not ended well. Seeking to rescue Americans taken hostage by Barbary pirates, John Lamb, a Connecticut businessman who had once traded mules in the Mediterranean but had no diplomatic experience, arrived in Algiers in
1785 with authorization from Congress to bribe the reigning potentate, Hassan Dey. But instead of releasing the hostages, the Dey demanded additional ransom that included a portrait of George Washington, whom he professed to admire.
Oren writes that this fiasco did not stop the United States from paying bribes to secure treaties with other Barbary states. But such ignominious episodes eventually prompted Thomas Jefferson, who had helped negotiate a $20,000 "gift" to the king of Morocco, to argue that his fellow Americans preferred "confrontation with Barbary to blackmail." Ultimately, Mr. Oren observes, Jefferson used the humiliation of continuing Barbary seizures of American cargo and citizens to persuade a reluctant Congress to finance the nation's first Navy.
Today's pirates are the result of a failing state in Somalia and success. Two hundred years ago, pirates would let ships pass if a country paid a bribe. Today their modern counterparts have extorted as much as $100 million in ransoms, which means that piracy has now become Somalia's fastest growing industry.
Earlier this week, Robert Oakley, who was special envoy to Somalia in the 1990s, told the Daily News that U.S. special operations forces had drafted detailed plans to attack piracy groups where they live on land, but this, too, had to await orders from the Obama administration.
Now that Capt. Phillips is safe, it's time for the Obama administration to implement a broader strategy for countering piracy on the high seas.