WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton said there would be days — and nights — like this.
For the second time in four days and with less than three months in office, President Barack Obama has received the "3 a.m. phone call" that Clinton warned about. In their bitter presidential contest, Clinton suggested that her young rival was not ready for a national security crisis.
His tests are coming early: first from the borderline rogue government in North Korea, then from stateless bandits preying on shipping lanes off the East African coast.
Those calls presaged what surely will be many more middle-of-the-night wake-ups for Obama as he battles a scourge of stateless brigands and terrorists operating with near impunity across an increasingly interconnected globe. His response to the early crises are being watched for signals of how he confronts enemies who operate outside the old rule book of international relations.
Through the day Wednesday, the White House was mostly silent on the pirates, leaving the talking to military officials more closely involved in whatever operations might be planned. Obama was updated on the incident throughout the day, first in his daily security briefing and then in updates from the White House Situation Room. The president himself made no public comment.
The nearest U.S. Navy ship reportedly was at least 12 hours away when the Maersk Alabama was seized. And that spoke to the difficulty of the problem.
"The president is following the situation closely," said Denis McDonough, a top Obama security adviser, who noted the administration had "watched with alarm the increasing threat of piracy."
Upon returning from his first European trip Wednesday — at about 3 a.m. — he got word that a U.S.-flagged cargo ship was in the hands of Somali pirates. The seafaring hostage takers were holding a 20-member crew, all Americans. Historians said it was the first time in 200 years pirates had taken control of an American-flagged vessel.
As Air Force One was jetting west to Washington, Obama was still digesting the outcome of his travels, which included the first of the dreaded "3 a.m. calls." That came when he was awakened early Sunday in his quarters in Prague with news that North Korea, in defiance of the world community, had launched a missile in what was believed to be the test of a nuclear delivery vehicle.
The U.S. was expecting that news and Clinton, now Obama's top diplomat who no longer hawks the 3 a.m. campaign line, was traveling with the president. She worked the phones, and Obama issued the expected words of condemnation. Calls went out for the U.N. Security Council to convene.
As troubling as the North Korean launch was, there was an international framework in place to confront Kim Jong Il and his nuclear ambitions — mainly through threats of deeper sanctions and further isolation.
Not so with the pirates operating out of lawless Somalia. The world's navies have proved an impotent force against the attackers' furtive quick-strike tactics. The International Maritime Bureau says 260 crew on 14 hijacked ships are being held off the coast of Somalia, including the Maersk Alabama.
"Although the United States and other nations are working in a loose coalition to prevent piracy, the dwindling number of ships in our Navy amplifies the impact of this menace," said retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who was in charge of the USS Cole destroyer when it was attacked by suicide bombers in 2000.
Lippold said the administration deserves praise for recommending more combat ships and unmanned aerial vehicles to help interdict this type of threat, but he also said the Navy "simply needs more ships and at a quicker rate than we are currently building or plan to build."
Short of flooding the waters with fighting ships, the only course of attack would seem to be special operations assaults on the ground in Somalia. But Obama is sure to remember the outcome — Black Hawk Down — when the last young Democratic president, Hillary Clinton's husband, Bill, sent U.S. forces ashore in that lawless land.
Just a year ago, then-Sen. Clinton aired a brutal television ad that portrayed her as the leader voters would want on the phone when a crisis occurred at 3 a.m. "while your children are safe and asleep."
Obama fired back with an ad of his own that said, "In a dangerous world, it's judgment that matters."
Now nobody knows that better than Obama.
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