Saturday, January 7, 2012

Confusion on the Interwebs

Last night, I tweeted about the US Navy rescue of a bunch of Iranian sailors from Somali pirates.  I marveled at the timing--after a week of brinksmanship and hostilities, it seemed like an astounding coincidence that these pirates would be operating within six miles of a US carrier group.  Even more amazing, CJ Chivers, the NYT combat journalist and Tyler Hicks, his photojournalist colleague, happened to be on board the carrier, the USS Stennis.

My marveling was seen as criticism, which was not my intent.  I was surprised that the US government was able to engage deftly not just in a rescue but in the public diplomacy spin as well, complete with quotes from the rescued sailors thanking God for the US Navy:
“It is like you were sent by God,” said Mr. Rehman, huddled under a blanket in this vessel’s stern. “Every night we prayed for God to rescue us. And now you are here."
I did ponder about the timing--that this vessel has been captured by pirates about forty days ago, so why now?  The story does a good job of noting that boarding an Iranian vessel to look for pirates in the middle of tense relations with Iran is problematic in the extreme, and that the USN reacted when they got a distress call.  So, it could have just been happenstance.

But two things stand out: the carrier was only six miles away and CJ Chivers was on it.  US Navy officers marveled at the stupidity of the pirates, and, indeed, they seemed to be amateurs in this dangerous enterprise.  More strikingly, Chivers got heaps of cooperation from the US Navy to be in the right place at the right time.

To be clear, the US, NATO and partners (this anti-piracy effort is currently led by a Pakistani admiral) have been confronting pirates and rescuing people for at least the past couple of years: remember when Obama gave the SEALs the authority to shoot the pirates holding the one American captain in 2009? What happened yesterday is not that out of the range of normality--interdicting pirates, carefully deploying US naval superiority in a way that minimizes casualties and maximizes the chance for success.

So, I am not saying that there was some secret conspiracy to create an incident.  What I am saying is that the USN was prepared to act in such a situation,  acted well when the opportunity arose (where there previous opportunities that were nearly as, well, opportune?), marshaling not just naval assets (helicopters, multiple ships), Marines, and so on, but also the media to demonstrate to Iran and the region that the US Navy can do very good things for everyone, in addition to be a thorn in the side of Iran.  The timing was very fortunate.  I am just always surprised when the US does public diplomacy well, given how badly the US has been at such stuff in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  And few times the US seems to have done the hero thing so well--Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman--we learn that there was more/less to it.  So, I have learned to be a bit suspicious.  However, having Chivers on the scene raises the credibility of the account even as it seems incredibly fortuitous.  Chivers did excellent reporting on the Libyan civil war, among his many adventures.  Thus, I do believe the accounts here are accurate, but do ponder whether there might have been other chances to rescue these folks that would have been less opportune--no independent media nearby to capture the event.

I think the truly wonderful coincidence that was almost certainly completely coincidental is that the captain of the ship that intervened, the USS Kidd, is a woman.  Very cool.  Again, I admire how professionally this rescue took place.

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