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Commentary: Obama made right call on rescue

  • Story Highlights
  • Ed Rollins: Toughest decisions a president makes relate to the military
  • President must set "rules of engagement" for American military action, he says
  • He says Obama was right to enable the rescue of freighter captain
  • Rollins: Rescue sends message that you will pay if you harm Americans
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By Ed Rollins
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, was political director for President Ronald Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Ed Rollins says President Obama was right to authorize the rescue attempt for a freighter captain held by pirates.

Ed Rollins says President Obama was right to authorize the rescue attempt for a freighter captain held by pirates.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A president makes many decisions, but none is more important than those he makes as commander in chief. Committing young men and women to war zones where their lives are at risk is a decision that can't be easily reversed, and the consequences can be fatal.

The second type of difficult decision a president faces is setting the rules of engagement; allowing American troops to do their job even if that means taking the life of the enemy.

Ronald Reagan, a president I served, was beloved by the American military. He rebuilt a military crippled by the nightmare of Vietnam. After the humiliating evacuation from that costly war, we had planes that couldn't fly and ships that couldn't sail due to missing parts and deferred maintenance.

Equally upsetting, we had underpaid sailors, soldiers and Marines, many who were on food stamps and many more using and selling recreational drugs to escape their demoralized state of mind. That changed, beginning in 1981, and today we have the most professional and competent military in the world. But every bit as important as more pay and better equipment was that our military knew that President Reagan was in their corner and was going to let them do their job.

That was epitomized by an incident on August 18, 1981, when two United States F-14s, flying off the carrier USS Nimitz, shot down two Soviet-made Su-22 fighters of the Libyan air force during naval maneuvers off the coast of Libya.

The "madman" leader of Libya, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, had declared that any U.S. plane that came within 200 miles of the coast of Libya, "The Line of Death," would be shot down. International law said a country's border was only 12 miles off the coast. Before the exercises began, in international waters, the Navy asked the president in the Oval Office what the rules of engagement were.

"Our pilots are free to shoot back at anyone who fired at them," Reagan answered. "What about 'hot pursuit,' " a Navy admiral asked. "Suppose the Libyan planes shoot at ours and then flee back into Libyan territory. Do you authorize us to follow them?"

"You can follow them back into their own damn hangars if you have to!" Reagan responded.

Within hours, that story had joyfully spread throughout the Pentagon, and the military knew it had a leader who would back them up.

President Obama's authorization of Saturday's hostage rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, and the justified killing of three Somali pirates by Navy SEAL sharpshooters, took real courage and was certainly the right decision.

Anything less, and his administration would have been second-guessed and the military high command would have been left to wonder what kind of man was leading our nation and our military. A brave American hero's life was at stake, and the president and the Navy made the right decisions. There are, and will be, many things our new president and I will disagree on. But so far, I applaud what he has done regarding our armed services.

His first decision -- to keep Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- was the best he could make. Gates is one of the finest public servants this country has ever had, and his service to Democratic and Republican presidents has been outstanding.

He was the first person to start at the entry level in the CIA and rise from the ranks to be the director. He served two tours of duty in the White House on the national security team and is a Russia and China expert.

When he took over the Defense Department from the insufferable Donald Rumsfeld, the former Eagle Scout and Texas A&M University president quickly restored morale among the generals and the troops. He rebuilt confidence among the congressional leaders that had been lost during the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shortly after his appointment as the 22nd secretary of defense, he removed the secretary of the Army and the Army surgeon general over the Walter Reed Army Medical Center neglect scandal.

He later removed the secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force chief of staff over errors in the shipment of nuclear weapons. And he shook the entire military structure when he did not recommend the chairman of the Joint Chiefs for a second term. Accountability was the message sent from top to bottom at the Pentagon. He has also carefully guided the new president through a withdrawal plan for Iraq and an enhanced program to deploy more troops to Afghanistan.

I am not a defense expert and never served in the military. But the secretary's new defense budget seems reasonable, well thought through and, most of all, will serve the men and women in combat today in two combat zones. It also deals with the real threats facing our country today and in the near future: terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

Adding strength to Obama's war council is his national security adviser, retired four-star Gen. James Jones, a 40-year veteran, former commandant of the Marine Corps, and winner of a Silver Star and the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the United States' highest peacetime defense award.

Jones, a Vietnam War platoon and company commander, also was commander of the United States European Command and the supreme allied commander Europe. He is a tough, smart and no-nonsense leader. You don't get four stars on your shoulders in the Marine Corps unless you "can walk on water."

Another major voice who will be responsible for our veterans when they return home is Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, a former four-star general and chief of staff of the Army. Shinseki was the man who correctly told Congress that Rumsfeld had not committed sufficient troops for the post-war occupation of Iraq. He too is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War and also the war in Bosnia.

The bottom line is the president has a first-rate team of advisers and he followed their counsel in this hostage crisis. There will be many more tests to come for the president and his team, but the message from this event is that if you harm or capture an American anywhere in the world, you will pay a heavy price.

As one American, I can just say, "Thank you Mr. President!"

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.

All About Ronald ReaganBarack ObamaRobert Gates

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