Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Commentary: A Coolheaded Commander in Chief

By Emil M. Thomas

President Obama continues to amaze and astound during his first 100 days. If enacting his $800 billion recovery plan, reorganizing General Motors, dazzling Europe at the G-20 Conference and pioneering a new policy toward Cuba were not enough, he has also experienced success in his first military operation.

The interruption of vital sea routes off the Horn of Africa by Somali pirates has both tormented and embarrassed major powers in recent years. The unwillingness and inability of nations to guard their ships in the Gulf of Aden have caused these dangerous adventurers to grow bolder. Finally, they did what was to be expected, they attacked an American vessel—the Norfolk-based Maersk Alabama—and took Captain Richard Philips hostage.

On Easter Sunday, Navy Seals conducted a daring rescue as the precision night-shooting of snipers killed the 3 pirates holding Captain Philips in a boat being towed behind the Alabama. The fourth pirate is now in U.S. custody. The Seals were following President Obama’s order to shoot to kill if it appeared that Captain Philips’ life was in danger.

In a news conference following the operation, Mr. Obama was as cool as a cucumber. His primary agenda in reporting the mission’s success was to congratulate the bravery and effectiveness of the Navy Seals, to express his gladness that the Captain and crew are now safe, and to state his determination to work with our international partners to address the issue of piracy off of the Horn of Africa. This is a major change from the last administration. There was no vitriol, no cowboy-like posturing, and no snatching of credit or glory from the courage and professionalism of the Special Forces who pulled it off. Unlike the last president’s landing on a carrier with a “Mission Accomplished” sign blatantly blazoned on the ship as a backdrop for his blandishments, President Obama moved on to address the economic problems that are now besetting America. His coolheaded handling of the matter is exactly what the world needs at this hour.
Consider what could have happened. He could have wrapped himself in the flag, denounced piracy, and dared any such adventurers to attack another American ship at the penalty of meeting the same fate. He could have increased his stature with conservative Americans by doing so, proving that he could defend American interests with military force when necessary and project our power wherever it is disrespected. The macho thing to do would have been to pump up this accomplishment and use it to intimidate others who have adverse designs on U.S. interests. But if he had responded in that manner, the temporary brownie points would have come at a terrible international cost. First of all, he would have given Third Word nations a flashback of American blustering and bullying in recent years. Secondly, he would appear to be a sole actor and maverick who was less interested in leading our allies than pursuing his own solutions regardless of what our global partners feel. Finally, he would have sent the wrong signal to Africa. Remember, his father was from Kenya, an East African nation. Africans are delighted to see rogues dealt with on their continent, and are not disappointed at all that a few pirates from the failed state of Somalia have received their comeuppance. But no one is made comfortable when rogues are defeated by yet more roguish braggadocio.

In truth, the success was something to welcome, but nothing to gloat over. The remaining captured pirate may be all of 16 years of age—a tragic manifestation of the chaos that is Somalia. America’s support of Ethiopia, a Christian nation whose army recently pummeled Somalia into submission, already makes the U.S. a resented force in the region. Remember, Somalia still has numerous militias with radical Islamicist dimensions, and there is no need to hit what is already a hornet’s nest with a stick. America has not fully recovered from President Clinton’s infamous withdrawal from Somalia in 1993.

As a black President who is the son of an African, he must utilize his position to bring a new relationship with Africa; one that is qualitatively different than anything that has gone before. Africans do not by any means expect him to be soft on outrageous attacks by pirates, or on the corruption that is all too rampant on the continent. However, his approach must be characterized by a respect of Africa born of love, and action that is rooted in international standards of justice. His circumspect yet firm demeanor after the rescue of the Captain of the Maersk Alabama meets these criteria. The only thing that would have threatened a new rapport with Africa would be denunciatory comments or unilateral threats. But Barack is simply to cool, too intelligent for that.

By the way, I flew to New York City to preach in Brooklyn on Good Friday. While waiting to board the 8:00 p.m. USAIR Shuttle from D.C. on Thursday evening, I noticed that there was an unusual amount of police activity at the gate. When I spotted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seated in First Class as I entered the plane, I thought to myself, “I’m so glad she is flying USAIR with me and not Air Force One.” I believe that the new head passenger of America’s most prestigious aircraft has just the kind of cool we need to lead America—and the world—today.

Contact Pastor Emil M. Thomas, of Destiny Church in College Park, Maryland at prince_makonnen@hotmail.com

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