Barack Obama doesn't have much time to bask in the success of the Navy's rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama. The pirates vow to inflict brutal vengeance, all to put the fear of Allah into the civilized seafaring nations of the West.
The pirates may be on to something. The early evidence suggests that the president is not necessarily pleased with the implications of the Navy's spectacular feat of small arms.
"We must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks," the president said Monday.
This is the recipe for delay and dawdling that adds up to timidity in the face of taunting. Any call to the Europeans will, as usual, be a wrong number. A pirate with a sharp knife could behead an entire crew before the president could get a speech programmed into his teleprompter and the diplomats at the United Nations, or whoever Mr. Obama might imagine are our willing "partners," could agree on a resolution urging the pirates to be nice.
The U.N. is already on the case. The Security Council adopted a resolution in December alleging that - are we ready for this? - piracy on the high seas is not nice. If that wasn't enough to frighten a pirate into submission, the vote was ... unanimous! Not only that, the U.N. measure led to the formation of an "action group" of representatives of 28 nations - count 'em, 28 - to coordinate hard-hitting diplomatic, tough legal and harsh military efforts. This was meant to provoke paralyzing fear and uncontrollable trembling in the pirate lair in Somalia, but the boarding of the Maersk Alabama by undaunted brigands followed. Only three well-aimed shots by Navy marksmen ended the confrontation at hand.
Now comes the hard part. The pirates, who have a good thing going, will be tempted to think that Mr. Obama's unaccustomed toughness is a one-time deal, that the usual forces of wimpery at the highest levels of government will soon reassert primacy and further military action will not be kosher. The pirates are counting on the diplomatic option that Mr. Obama is so fond of to miscarry the day. The pirates, illiterate and uneducated, may not know what "diplomats" are, but they are often shrewd judges of men and easily recognize weakness and irresolution when they see it.
U.S. military planners are said to be drawing up an order of battle to take out the pirates' base, presumably in the Somali port of Eyl. Military planners have contingency plans for a lot of things - things like an invasion of Scotland, an assault of Higgins boats on Nova Scotia, a sweep of the brothels of Juarez - that are never going to happen, and a scheme to demolish Eyl and slay the pirates, however well-plotted, must be approved by an enthusiastic president willing to brave the sneers and the scolding of the milk legs in the chanceries of Europe. Most of the security experts agree that the task of eradicating wholesale piracy would be easier if seafaring nations could get their act together, but most agree that it's not likely to happen.
"As long as governments don't come together and defeat it, it goes on like the plague," says Charles Heyman, a one-time British army officer and defense specialist on maritime risks. "People have to be very, very tough on this."
Being "very, very tough" is a lot to ask from a president who frequently says the way to peace and serenity is to curry the good opinion of those who want to kill us, even from a president who gets high marks for his willingness to defer to the professionals in the rescue of Capt. Phillips. But he's already getting advice from the usual suspects at the State Department who urge, as usual, the soft approach in dealing with hard enemies. Their prescription is more groceries for the pirates, not more Navy marksmen.
Any land-based operation would probably be assigned to the U.S. African Command, which sounds a lot more exciting than it is. Africom, as the Pentagon calls it, has no military units. But it does have a lot of bureaucrats from the Departments of State, Treasury and even Health and Human Services (the latter to help pirates applying for Medicaid benefits) at Africom headquarters in Djibouti.
The alternative to "being very, very tough" is to encourage the anarchy on the high seas that was the norm two centuries ago. Mr. Obama has presidential guidance in the precedent established by Thomas Jefferson, who dispatched a naval squadron to clean out the North African bases of the Barbary pirates extorting ransoms from American merchant ships off the coast of Libya. The Somali pirates are even now waiting for his answer.