Stand aside, U.S. Airways Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, America has a new hero. He is sea captain Richard Phillips, skipper of the hijacked cargo ship Maersk Alabama, who offered himself as a hostage to the marauding pirates as a good faith gesture to save the rest of his crew. That act pushed “Sully” Sullenberger off the front pages and the nation’s TV screens, even though he clearly saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew when he famously crash landed his Airbus in the Hudson River shortly after takeoff.

Sill unnamed are the dozens of Navy SEALS who parachuted into the sea Saturday, and the SEAL sharpshooters who killed three of the pirates when it appeared that one of them was about to shoot Captain Phillips in the back. A fourth pirate had surrendered to crewmen aboard the USS Bainbridge, where the SEALs were positioned with night vision sniper weapons.

Thus ended a jittery five-day standoff between Somali pirates and a flotilla of U.S. Navy warships backed up by gun ship helicopters, patrol bombers, and flying drones photographing the pirates’ every move. Phillips was pronounced in good shape after an examination by Navy medical doctors, although he apparently was beaten by his captors after he jumped from their small craft and attempted to swim to safety.

While the accolades for Phillips, his crew, and the successful rescue teams are pouring in, the aftermath of the pirate attack has opened several new avenues of concern. Pirate leaders in Somalia and elsewhere have raised the stakes in any future highjackings. Leaders of these lawless gangs have threatened to execute any future hostages taken during highjackings. In addition, there are 228 foreign nationals aboard 13 ships still held by the pirates. While the hostages have reportedly been treated well, including daily gourmet meals, it is now feared that the pirates could direct their anger toward those in custody. One pirate leader, Jamac Hebeb, told the Associated Press by telephone, “From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them.”

President Obama has apparently passed one of his earliest military crisis tests with honors. The president provided his authorization to take necessary actions, while at the same time giving considerable discretion to U.S. forces to act as necessary to save Captain Phillips’ life. Aides to the president told The Washington Post that Obama was briefed at least 17 times before giving U.S. forces “the authority to use appropriate force to save the life of the captain.”

President Obama must certainly have been thinking of the consequences of a failed military operation. President Jimmy Carter’s authorization of a rescue attempt of 52 hostages being held by Iran resulted in a defaulted mission when two helicopters went down in the desert, killing eight soldiers. Somalia previously reared its indecent head in 1993 when eight American soldiers, killed in the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter, had their bodies mutilated and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The dismembering was filmed and shown on television throughout the world. Then-president Bill Clinton did not respond to the outrage with a military response, but instead contacted the United Nations with an offer to negotiate. Some say the present state of anarchy and political nihilism in Somalia is a direct result of that 1993 debacle. Mark Bowen, the author of Black Hawk Down, writes, “Somalia would be a vastly different place today if the U.S. and the U.N. had not backed away in horror from the shocking display in Mogadishu.”

Will the events of the past few days on the high seas improve or worsen the piracy problem? What began as illegal fishing off the coast of Somalia several years ago, has intensified into a sophisticated epidemic of buccaneering in which millions of dollars in ransom have been collected after the seizure luxury yachts, fully laden cargo ships, and the largest ship ever seized, the Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker.

While President Barack Obama has had few public comments during the recent piracy crisis, he is known to have authorized the use of deadly force, if necessary, during the rescue operation. While Obama’s pledge to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still commands center stage, The Washington Post notes, “While Obama’s adversaries are unlikely to be mollified by his performance during this hostage drama, it may help to quell criticism leveled at Obama that he came to office as a Democratic antiwar candidate who could prove unwilling or unable to harness military might when necessary.”


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