- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Conservatives have a point when they criticize President Obama and his fellow Democrats for not calling the mission in Iraq a “success” or a “victory.” But if they are right about that - and they are - they cannot now withhold praise from Mr. Obama for the flawless rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips from the hands of terrorists masquerading as pirates. (More about the misuse of nomenclature in a moment.)

One can be sure that had things gone badly and Capt. Phillips had been killed, or if the president had gone to the United Nations for a resolution condemning the kidnapping, or if the ransom was paid and the terrorists escaped, conservatives would have been all over the president, claiming they were right when they said during the campaign (as did Hillary Rodham Clinton) that Mr. Obama is too inexperienced to be in charge of America’s national security.

Will conservatives now hide behind the excuse that it was the Navy SEALs, the FBI and the bravery of Capt. Phillips that were solely responsible for the success of the mission and that the president played only a supporting role, at best? One could make the same argument about Iraq; that the troops and not former President George W. Bush should receive sole credit for toppling Saddam Hussein and planting the first seeds of democracy there.

We have become so polarized in America that one side cannot bring itself to praise any job done well by the other. In fact, the idea of “sides” further divides us in ways that are not beneficial to the country. Polls will now be taken that will probably show a rise in public confidence about Mr. Obama’s ability to handle our national defense. Would someone argue if he had failed and his numbers declined that somehow an improvement in Republican poll numbers would make us safer? The last I checked, terrorists were equal opportunity killers.

The hijacking of the merchant ship and the kidnapping of Capt. Phillips are two more pieces in the much larger combat operation against terrorists (or as the administration has suggested calling it, “overseas contingency operation”). What comes next is equally important.

The United States should start calling these “pirates” by their true name. They are Islamic terrorists who make millions in ransom from ship hijackings and kidnappings. They don’t buy fancy cars and big houses like members of some drug cartels. Instead, they use the money to finance terrorism across the world. Our notion of pirates is of a “Peg-Leg Pete”-type with an eye patch, a parrot on his shoulder and a cup of rum in his hand; more of a character than a killer. That’s not the profile of Somali pirates.

There is word from some of the terrorists that they plan revenge. On Monday, a few of them fired mortars at the Mogadishu Airport just as Rep. Donald M. Payne’s plane was taking off. Mr. Payne, New Jersey Democrat, the highest-level U.S. official to visit Somalia in years, was in Somalia to meet with the country’s prime minister and other Somali officials to discuss ways to combat the growing pirate-terrorist problem.

The Obama administration reportedly will help Somalia form its own coast guard so it can defend itself from terrorists and lessen their threat to merchant ships. This, as well as a plan to put marshals on the vessels to deter future ship seizures, is a good start - but why wait for these goals to be accomplished? Right now Somali terrorists are believed to hold more than 200 hostages from other nations. If they won’t agree to release these people now, how about a little military intervention? Let us demonstrate in no uncertain terms that America is not to be trifled with.

There was a time when few would dare harm an American for fear of retaliation. In recent years, that fear has subsided and now some terrorists may think they’ll get a free ride with Mr. Obama and his party, which is too often seen as preferring dithering to decisiveness, hand-wringing to neck-wringing, U.N. resolutions to American resolve and purposeful action.

The best thing the president could do for the country - and himself - is to prove he is not a milksop. And if the president takes on the terrorists, he should have the full support of all Americans, conservatives included. We can argue about the left’s hypocrisy later. When it comes to combating terrorists, we are all in this together.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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