“Leon. Good job tonight. Good job tonight.”
It was the first hint that – far from Washington and the political spectacle of the president delivering his annual State of the Union speech – a daring military drama had unfolded.
As President Barack Obama glad-handed his way through Congress, he stopped and spoke briefly to his Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. The ‘good job’ comment set of a flurry of speculation but Mr. Obama made no mention of it in his speech.
Unknown to most in the Capital and a nation watching on television, a team of U.S. Navy Seals – the same Special Forces group that had killed Osama bin Laden last spring – had attacked a Somali pirate hideout, freeing two aid workers held hostage three months ago.
The helicopter raid rescued Jessica Buchanan, 32, and American and Poul Hagen, 60, a Dane. Somali reports said nine Somali captors were killed in a fierce firefight. There were no American causalities.
“The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens and to bring their captors to justice,” Mr. Obama said later in a statement released by the White House. U.S. Special Forces have a base in the tiny east African nation of Djibouti.
Mr. Obama began and ended his speech extolling the U.S. military but otherwise gave little attention to foreign affairs.
He barely mentioned the ongoing war in Afghanistan nor badly frayed relations with nuclear-armed Pakistan.
On Iran, he drew a rousing cheer for his reiteration that he was willing to go to war – if necessary – to keep Tehran’s Islamic theocracy from getting nuclear weapons. “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal,’ he said.
But the commander in chief sounded almost wistful as he compared the armed forces of the world’s sole remaining superpower with the gridlock and partisan in-fighting in Washington.
“At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations,” he said of the military.
“They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together,” the president said. He might have added, they follow orders.
In an election-year speech laying out positions that will likely form the basis for Mr. Obama’s campaign to win a second term, the president challenged Congress to get over the bickering that has paralyzed it. But he held out little hope.
“I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right now: Nothing will get done this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken,” he said.
“Can you blame them for feeling a little cynical?”
At the end of his hour-long speech, Mr. Obama returned to evoking the military, pointedly suggesting Congress should follow the example of those in uniform.
“Which brings me back to where I began. Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn from the service of our troops.”
The president, who never served in the military, said one of his “proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden.”
He said the highly-trained Special Forces put aside differences of colour and race and religion and partisan politics to get the job done. “All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves.”