By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009
It was one of the earliest tests of the new American president -- a small military operation off the coast of a Third World nation. But as President Bill Clinton found out in October 1993, even minor failures can have long-lasting consequences.
Clinton's efforts to land a small contingent of troops in Haiti were rebuffed, for the world to see, by a few hundred gun-toting Haitians. As the USS Harlan County retreated, so did the president's reputation.
For President Obama, last week's confrontation with Somali pirates posed similar political risks to a young commander in chief who had yet to prove himself to his generals or his public.
But the result -- a dramatic and successful rescue operation by U.S. Special Operations forces -- left Obama with an early victory that could help build confidence in his ability to direct military actions abroad.
Throughout the past four days, White House officials played down Obama's role in the hostage drama. Until yesterday, he made no public statements about the pirates.
In fact, aides said yesterday, Obama had been briefed 17 times since he returned from his trip abroad, including several times from the White House Situation Room. And without giving too many details, senior White House officials made it clear that Obama had provided the authority for the rescue.
"The president's focus was on saving and protecting the life of the captain," one adviser said. Friday evening, after a National Security Council telephone update, Obama granted U.S. forces what aides called "the authority to use appropriate force to save the life of the captain." On Saturday at 9:20 a.m., Obama went further, giving authority to an "additional set of U.S. forces to engage in potential emergency actions."
A top military official, Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of the Fifth Fleet, explained that Obama issued a standing order that the military was to act if the captain's life was in immediate danger.
"Our authorities came directly from the president," he said. "And the number one authority for incidents if we were going to respond was if the captain's life was in immediate danger. And that is the situation in which our sailors acted."
After the rescue ended, White House officials immediately offered expanded information about Obama's role, though the president simply released a statement praising the troops and expressing pride in the captain's bravery.
The operation pales in scope and complexity to the wars underway in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Obama's adversaries are unlikely to be mollified by his performance in a four-day hostage drama.
Nonetheless, 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.
And as Obama's Democratic predecessors can attest, a victory -- no matter how small -- is better than a failure.
Clinton's decision to send the USS Harlan County to Haiti loaded with troops was seen as a half-measure taken by a president spooked by the earlier downing of a Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia.
After the Harlan's failure to get ashore, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in a column that year that the incident "makes the administration look feckless and the country look weak."
Thirteen years earlier, Democratic President Jimmy Carter authorized a military rescue of the 52 hostages being held by Iranians in Tehran. The 1980 attempt, called Operation Eagle Claw, ended when two helicopters crashed in the desert, killing eight servicemen.
The incident was a permanent blemish on Carter's reputation.
Had yesterday's rescue at sea gone badly, the political damage for Obama might have been severe. But aides said the outcome should be seen as a success.
"This is the latest indication that the national security team is working well together," a senior White House official said last night. "These folks have spent a lot of time together, including with the president, in the first couple months, and they have a good working relationship. "