April 14, 2009 | National Review Online

John Wayne to the Rescue

The pirate siege ends well, but it's only a beginning.

‘We have this strong bias toward individual action.” It was 1995, and Barack Obama was diagnosing the American character. His conclusion was not a happy one: too much self-reliance, too much self-determination, too much self-confidence.

“You know,” he continued, “we idolize the John Wayne hero who comes in to correct things with both guns blazing. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient.” The aspiring young Chicago politician insisted that we needed to temper the American spirit with a socialistic inclination: “We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations.”

On Easter Sunday 14 years later, Pres. Barack Obama called up John Wayne.

The latest episode in the ongoing saga of the Somali pirates had a happy ending for Americans because of the blazing guns of a John Wayne hero, the United States Navy. Sharpshooters from the Navy SEALs freed another American hero, Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama. Captain Phillips had been held for five days by four Somali pirates, a gang drawn from factions that have been terrorizing commercial ships along that wretched country’s coastline and in the nearby Gulf of Aden for years. Phillips risked his life by offering himself as a hostage in exchange for the safety of his 20-strong crew. Their American-flagged cargo carrier was besieged while attempting to deliver humanitarian aid for Muslims in East Africa. Three of the Muslim terrorists were killed, and one apprehended.

Though it’s not de rigueur to make such an observation, “Muslim terrorists” is the right way to put it. The “terrorist” part is easy enough. Piracy is conduct so heinous it has been regarded for centuries as a violation of civilized norms; pirates may be excluded from civilization’s legal carapace. The same is true of international terrorism. Because terrorists flout the laws and customs of civilized warfare, they may be denied both the privileges of honorable combatants and the legal sanctuary of criminal defendants. Leftist academics carped throughout the Bush years that denying terrorists defendant status was to create a “legal black hole,” betraying our commitment to the rule of law. It is the terrorist, however, who turns his back on civilization. The black hole is of his own making. It betrays the law’s humane goals to hold that the law, not the terrorist, must yield.

Pointing out that the pirates are Muslims also makes eminent sense. Our chief security challenge the past two decades has been radical Islam, and much of the problem threads through East Africa. Al-Qaeda was involved in training the Somali jihadists who battled U.S. forces in the bloody “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993. Somalia remains a failed state, with such jihadist elements as the Islamic Courts Union fighting for control. In the wake of Somalia’s collapse, terror cells sprouted throughout the region, American embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and American naval vessels were targeted in the Gulf of Aden until, finally, the U.S.S. Cole was struck and nearly sunk in 2000.

This is the environment in which piracy has revived and grown to be more than a $100 million business. Information tying pirates to specific jihadist organizations is scarce, and some militants — such as the Islamic Courts Union — have purported to ban piracy as an offense against Islam. Still, there have been reports (like this one from the Voice of America’s Alisha Ryu) of an understanding between pirate bands and al-Qaeda–affiliated factions: an entente that permits and protects the piracy as long as a goodly chunk of the booty finds its way to the jihadists. It would be foolish to make policy on the assumption that piracy and terror are severable, or to ignore the fact that the pirates and terrorists are co-religionists. The Islamic Courts Union claimed credit for curbing piracy in 2006. Piracy is resurgent now, and that can only be because radical Islam is benefiting from it.

President Obama, on his recent tour of Europe and Turkey, took pains to argue that America is not at war with Islam and that it is committed to engaging the world’s problems in partnership with, rather than contempt for, our allies. His arguments are strawmen: The U.S. has never been at war with the Islamic religion — though we have rightly been alarmed at the Muslim world’s general unwillingness and inability to ostracize the hostile fundamentalism we would like to think is radical. And we have always sought to work collaboratively with our allies — their frequent failure to take a principled stand against evil says more about their cravenness than about our “arrogance.”

Obama’s posturing put the pieces in place for a disaster. When an American-flagged ship was besieged, the president might have been paralyzed by his solicitude for the Islamic world and his commitment against unilateral action. He might have subordinated the safety of Americans to the bridge-building he has dubiously claimed to be central to our security. As commander-in-chief, he could have handcuffed the Navy. But he didn’t. Whatever his predilections, Obama unleashed John Wayne when that’s what was needed. For that we should be pleased and acknowledge a job well done.

But this happy ending is only a happy beginning. Piracy and the Islamic radicalism with which it is entwined remain scourges. That will not cease to be the case as long as they are given safe haven. We can obsess over “collective action,” and “building collective institutions and organizations.” We can talk about the “international community coming together” to confront this “criminal activity.” These “crimes,” though, are part of a war. The other side sees it that way, regardless of whether we still do. Wars don’t end until someone wins. And this one will have to be won by American leadership and American will. It won’t take a village. It’ll take John Wayne.

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