Nice to see the situation with Captain Phillips of the Maersk Alabama has been resolved. I thought there were a couple of interesting tidbits about the story.
First, it still takes a while for naval forces to get into position. The Bainbridge, a destroyer, got to the area pretty quickly, but really couldn't do much - not even when Phillips jumped into the water from the lifeboat where he was being held and got shot at for it. The issue is that Destroyers do not generally carry much in the way of troops. That had to wait for the arrival of the Boxer, an amphibious ship, and a contingent of SEALs that was likely either on the Boxer or could be flown to it from Iraq or wherever.
Second, the rules of engagement sounded pretty restrictive. Basically the SEALs weren't allowed to fire unless the hostage's life was in "imminent danger". As a result the SEALs couldn't shoot until Phillips jumped into the water again and the pirates pointed an AK-47 towards his back, and even that was stretching the rules. The fact that the SEAL sniper then managed to take out the three pirates on the lifeboat without Phillips actually getting shot is pretty impressive. It probably helped that the lifeboat was at this point under tow by the Bainbridge, which wasn't the case before the SEALs arrived....
What to do next? I'd favor returning the one remaining live pirate to shore to spread the message not to mess with American ships, except that hasn't worked so great for the French. In the longer run - but not a lot longer - we should probably take out the pirate bases, as Jefferson did with the Barbary pirates. I bet that wouldn't draw any Security Council vetos.
Links to stories on Maersk Alabama and on the French hostage rescue.
From later reports, it now sounds like Phillips actually didn't get into the water that second time. In fact, reading between the lines, it sounds to me like the SEALs stretched the rules of engagement a bit:
"I see the pirates are all standing by open windows in that hot lifeboat."
"Hostage in imminent danger?"
"There's a pirate next to him. Well, nearby. With a gun! Pointed more or less in his direction, even."
"Definitely imminent danger. On three... one, two..."
So, yeah, I do think the (ostensible?) rules of engagement were rather silly. Though, to be fair, I do give Obama credit for ruling out release of the pirates as part of a deal; that would have been an easy compromise to make, and a bad one.
I would note that those rules of engagement are fine in truly military actions, where there's a very strong interest in not provoking a confrontation. It's just that this was not exactly a military action.
Edit: I also note that I seem to have been wrong about the number of snipers. I guess I forgot to account for the fact that the boat was under tow at comparatively close range, so they could use regular sniper rifles rather than the long range .50 caliber ones on which fewer people are qualified.
Edited at 2009-04-15 05:07 am (UTC)
I've now talked to George. He said SEALs were already on the Bainbridge the first time Captain Phillips jumped in the water and tried to escape, but were not allowed to shoot, even when the pirates started shooting at Phillips. His information is that the president wanted the FBI to handle things through negotiation, even though the FBI's first reaction was "isn't this what we have SEALs for?" The second time around, the captain of the Bainbridge, who had local operational authority, had done some additional research on maritime law and, I suspect, on our standing rules of engagement.
I was somewhat surprised that George thought it was okay to pass this along. I'm worried that frustration is already building in the military and intelligence communities. The personnel losses last time that happened were a big part of why were were blindsided by 9/11.