If every Obama-era negotiation is as cleareyed and unsentimental as that over the fate of Capt. Richard Phillips, the nation's interests will be well-served.
President Barack Obama approved negotiations with the Somali pirates holding Phillips, but authorized force should Phillips appear to be in imminent danger. When one of the pirates pointed his AK-47 at Phillips' back, snipers aboard the nearby USS Bainbridge took out the three pirates with three shots not a bullet wasted.
Suddenly, the headline The New York Times had run about the spectacle of the days-long standoff between a few pirates in a lifeboat and U.S. ships of war didn't seem so apt: "Standoff With Pirates Shows U.S. Power Has Limits."
Pirates couldn't conduct their business without safe havens on land. Those bases are inherently more vulnerable than the pirate operations at sea, in an area encompassing as much as 2.5 million square miles. Who could raid the land bases, on the model of Thomas Jefferson's assault on the Barbary pirate bases in 1805, and seriously crimp this curse on international shipping? Only the United States will have the capability or the will.
For Obama, events of the past two weeks should have been a crash course in the indispensability of American power. In Europe, he pleaded for more help in the Afghan War a fight involving the interests of the entire West and got close to nothing. In the Indian Ocean, he was confronted with the consequences of a festering problem that will have no answer absent rigorous American leadership.
This suggests one way to look at U.S. power: as a global public service. In his book "The Case for Goliath," the scholar Michael Mandelbaum writes of how the U.S. provides the "reassurance" that keeps a damper on dangerous regional rivalries and the "enforcement" that broadly assures the security necessary for global commerce.
"The purpose of each is to foster confidence, the confidence that normal, desirable political and economic activity will proceed uninterrupted," Mandelbaum writes. "Because they guarantee what is normal and therefore not usually considered worthy of note, the two roles are not visible and for that reason not appreciated. They are taken for granted. They are being successfully carried out if and when nothing noteworthy happens."
The underpinning of these global goods is the U.S. military as it happens, the only major function of government that the Obama administration thinks should experience austerity in an era of unbridled spending. In unveiling his priorities for the future of the defense budget, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates talked of "matching virtue to necessity." What "necessity"? Gates is the skeleton at the feast, the only Cabinet member whose budgetary problem isn't figuring out how to spend money fast enough.
Within his constraints, Gates wants reasonably enough to emphasize counterinsurgency. But the most important tool of counterinsurgency is manpower, and Gates is not proposing an increase in the size of the Army and Marines beyond what President George W. Bush proposed. We will continue to strain our ground forces and lean heavily on the National Guard and the Reserves.
Emphasizing counterinsurgency within a reduced budget means cheating other priorities and hoping that the next big conflict looks like today's irregular ground wars. Gates took a whack out of naval procurement; the fleet is already under 300 ships and will get smaller. Gates approved of littoral combat ships that can operate close to shore in situations like the one we face in Somalia, but proposes acquiring the ships at the current, slow pace.
When the operating theory in Washington is that deficit spending on every possible priority is conducive to economic growth, there's no justification for slamming the brakes on the defense budget. The world hasn't gotten any less dangerous, a fact to which Capt. Phillips can attest. If we ever tip below the level of capability necessary to enforce a rough global order, we and the world will regret it.