Obama's Pirate Coup

The president is receiving high praise for the rescue. Historian Julian Zelizer says that a thrilling episode from Gerald Ford’s presidency proves the good feelings may not last long.

Some Democrats are hopeful that Barack Obama’s calm demeanor and the Navy SEALs’ crack performance in rescuing Capt. Richard Phillips from Somali pirates will undermine persistent Republican claims that this president will be weak on national security. Just last month, former Vice President Dick Cheney portentously warned that Obama was opening the country to terrorist attacks.

For Democrats, this isolated hostage rescue is being viewed as a step in the broader effort to rebuild the party’s image after decades of suffering from a national-security disadvantage to Republicans. The rebuilding effort began in the run-up to the election of 1992 when some Democrats criticized President George H.W. Bush's handling of post-war operations following Operation Desert Storm.

President Ford received glowing praise in the aftermath of the rescue. “It shows we’ve still got balls in this country,” boasted Sen. Barry Goldwater.

President Clinton was haunted by another episode in Somalia, when, in 1993, guerrillas shot down two Black Hawk helicopters carrying U.S. troops. Somali fighters killed 18 U.S. soldiers and dragged one of their corpses through the streets—a horrific incident—intended to humiliate the superpower. The failed mission would severely constrain President Clinton’s early efforts to strengthen the public image of the Democrats on national security, even though several polls showed he finally lifted the Democrats beyond their post-Vietnam and post- Black Hawk Down legacy. Then, after the September 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush exploited terror as a political issue to put the Democrats on the defensive.

Should Democrats be clamoring about the political benefits that will come from the rescue of Captain Phillips? It would be a mistake if the administration allowed this early success to overshadow the much more pressing need to outline its strategic agenda on national-security policy and, in particular, to spell out a persuasive mission in Afghanistan. These are the questions that will determine President Obama's success.

While many commentators have recalled Thomas Jefferson and his battles with the Barbary pirates (“the shores of Tripoli”), a more instructive comparison to the latest encounter might be drawn from President Gerald Ford’s handling of the Mayaguez incident that started on May 12, 1975. Only a few weeks after South Vietnam had fallen to communism, the Cambodians took over a United States merchant ship called the Mayaguez. The 39 members of the merchant marine crew on board were taken captive in an act that Ford called “piracy.”

To confront the new government of the Khmer Rouge, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urged President Ford to respond with an aggressive and forceful military rescue in order to demonstrate that the nation—as well as the president—was still willing to use force when threatened even after the humiliating withdrawal of Vietnam. “At some point,” Kissinger told the National Security Council, “the United States must draw the line. This is not our idea of the best such situation. It is not our choice. But we must act upon it now, and act firmly.”

The U.S. launched a military response that combined a rescue effort with attacks on Cambodians, who released the 39 men being held captive, although 41 marines were killed in the operation—the last names on the Vietnam Memorial. President Ford received glowing praise in the aftermath of the rescue. His approval ratings jumped. “It shows we’ve still got balls in this country,” boasted Sen. Barry Goldwater. The media depicted him as a skillful and decisive leader and claimed that he had restored the image of the nation abroad. Recalling the incident in his memoirs, Ford wrote, “The gloomy national mood began to fade.”

But the impact of the incident did not very last long. The following year, Ford found himself in a tough primary fight, almost losing the Republican nomination. While Ford had shown resolve in the Mayaguez incident, Ronald Reagan challenged Ford from the right. Reagan argued that Ford was also failing the nation because of détente with the Soviet Union. Although Ford finally won the nomination, his contest with Reagan was extremely close and the damage from the primary helped Jimmy Carter gain the White House.

Failure in a strategic mission can have disastrous consequences for the political standing of a president. But success in a mission of this size may only bring limited and evanescent political benefits. As Gerald Ford discovered, forceful and sustained attacks on the national-security performance of a president can overshadow dramatic rescue efforts.

The important test for the political standing of Democrats will come when President Obama starts to outline a broader vision for how he plans to respond to national-security threats abroad and at home—an issue so far that has received much less attention than the economy—and his decisions about whether, how much, and how long he will escalate America’s involvement in Afghanistan. On these matters, we have not yet heard enough.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book, Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security–From World War II to the War on Terrorism, will be published this fall by Basic Books.