Hillary Clinton said there would days -- and nights -- like this.
For the second time in four days and with less than three months in office, President BarackObama has received the "3 a.m. phone call" that Clinton warned about. In their bitter presidentialcontest, 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 fromstateless 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 hebattles a scourge of stateless brigands and terrorists operating with near impunity across anincreasingly interconnected globe. His response to the early crises are being watched for signals ofhow he confronts enemies who operate outside the old rule book of international relations.
Through the day Wednesday, Obama and his White House were mainly silent on the pirates,leaving the talking to military officials more closely involved in whatever operations might beplanned. 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 securityadviser, who noted the administration had "watched with alarm the increasing threat of piracy." Inthe early morning hours Wednesday, shortly after he landed home from Iraq after an exhaustingweeklong trek across Europe and the Middle East, he got word that a U.S.-flagged cargo ship was inthe hands of Somali pirates. The seafaring hostage takers were holding a 20-member crew, allAmericans. Historians said it was the first time in 200 years pirates had taken control of anAmerican-flagged vessel.
As Air Force One was jetting west to Washington, Obama was still digesting the outcome of histravels, which included the first of the dreaded "3 a.m. calls." That came when he was awakenedearly Sunday in his quarters in Prague with news that North Korea, in defiance of the worldcommunity, 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 the3 a.m. campaign line, was traveling with the president. She worked the phones, and Obama issuedthe 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 toconfront Kim Jong Il and his nuclear ambitions -- mainly through threats of deeper sanctions andfurther isolation.
Not so with the pirates operating out of lawless Somalia. The world's navies have proved animpotent force against the attackers' furtive quick-strike tactics. The International Maritime Bureausays 260 crew on 14 hijacked ships are being held off the coast of Somalia, including the MaerskAlabama.
"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 NavyCmdr. Kirk Lippold, who was in charge of the USS Cole destroyer when it was attacked by suicidebombers in 2000.
Lippold said the administration deserves praise for recommending more combat ships andunmanned aerial vehicles to help interdict this type of threat, but he also said the Navy "simplyneeds more ships and at a quicker rate than we are currently building or plan to build." Short offlooding the waters with fighting ships, the only course of attack would seem to be special operationsassaults on the ground in Somalia. But Obama is sure to remember the outcome -- Black HawkDown -- when the last young Democratic president, Hillary Clinton's husband Bill, sent U.S. forcesashore in that lawless land.
Just a year ago, then-Sen. Clinton aired a brutal television ad that portrayed her as the leadervoters would want on the phone when a crisis occurred at 3 a.m. "while your children are safe andasleep." Obama fired back with an ad of his own that said, "In a dangerous world, it's judgment thatmatters." Now nobody knows that better than Obama.