The Navy SEAL raid that rescued an American woman in Somalia is heartening. But who is really being rescued in these very occasional high-profile media events?

Everyone but the emotionally dead had to feel joy at the news that a pretty young blonde American had been rescued from her Somali pirate kidnappers. Equally thrilling was to learn that the rescue had been a pinpoint operation by our courageous Navy SEALS, who managed to snatch the maiden, and kill nine  kidnappers while losing none of their own team.

That welcome bit of uplifting news came as our president shared with us the ongoing struggle that is the State of the Union.

Despite the continued difficulties many of us face in terms of daily survival, it was heartening to know that the country was still strong enough to venture and achieve such a mission in the most dangerous parts of the world.

It was stirring. It was downright inspirational.


Remember “Wag the Dog”? The 1997 hit comedy featured a spin doctor and Hollywood producer who, in order to distract the public from a presidential sex scandal, convince the public of a non-existent war. The tail wagging the dog. The art of power through distraction.

In light of the continuation of this sort of spectacle into the Obama era, I’d like to propose a new term for our time: “Wag the seal.”

For this is the second time—and presumably not the last—that Obama has gotten a lift from those daring fellows. And in both cases, close scrutiny raises the question of just who is being had.

Each produced a magnificently advantageous moment for a president sweating a tough and uncertain re-election. But Obama was hardly the only winner. Another beneficiary is surely the Pentagon, which is under severe pressure to restrain itself and cut its size and costs, and could use a favorable performance. Though the US military seems incapable of “winning” the complex and mind-bendingly expensive foreign adventures it launches almost like clockwork, it does seem able to execute small, limited operations that please the public.

And of course there is the retinue that profits from all this, the “one percent” who derive substantial profits from the permanent war economy. Not to mention the oil and mineral companies and all other foreign exploitation, er, exploration industries, whose continued high profits are largely dependent on the continued projection of American strength throughout the world.

Finally, as always, there is the media. For it is at root about good story-telling. And was there ever a better story than a pretty maiden rescued by dashing and clean-cut lads from drooling savages?


They tell us that the Somali mission was executed by the same Navy SEALs unit that carried out the biggest coup of the Obama administration if not the past decade: taking down the man who was America’s  most reviled, and perhaps feared, symbol of danger: Osama bin Laden.

Most people, reliant on the coverage of major news organizations, rest content that America justly and efficiently dispatched bin Laden. Only those with keen antennae—or those who read accounts questioning the contradictory, irrational and unnecessarily opaque explanations of exactly what happened, realize that something was wrong with that operation. Something more was going on. What exactly it was—whether that helicopter that crashed did not really manage to disgorge its SEAL occupants unscathed, whether the man who we are told was hurriedly dumped into the ocean before proper public verification of his identity was definitely the man who terrorized the world, whether the people living in that house in Abbottabad were unavoidable casualties or executed by design—these things we still do not know.

But one thing is clear: that raid did wonders for Obama and the military. No one dare call Obama a wimp.


When you look carefully at the Somali rescue, you see similarly troubling patterns of manipulation, and the pursuit of propaganda victories cloaked as legitimate policy.

Consider the circumstances: an American citizen, albeit one with seemingly the most admirable intentions, was kidnapped along with a foreign colleague while leaving a charity mission in a region with heavy pirate activity. The US began monitoring her situation, and when, we are told, signs indicated that her health was dangerously deteriorating, the authorities launched their operation.

What are the criteria for such operations? At any given time, some Americans may be being held by kidnapers in various parts of the world. As far as we know, most do not benefit from the attention of the US military. In fact, we don’t even know how many are being held because the numbers are kept under wraps—try asking the FBI. In any case, another American was kidnapped in Somalia recently, and his kidnappers have adopted dramatic measures to make sure that another raid is not attempted.

The stated reason for the timing of the rescue of 32-year-old American Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted, her 60-year-old Danish colleague, was that Buchanan’s health had declined precipitously. Yet concern for the health of Americans is not a settled notion at all. In fact, the majority of Republican candidates for the presidency, the same ones who cheered the rescue, oppose guaranteeing the most basic health needs of all American children.

That Buchanan was in captivity for some time, and that her release came at a propitious moment when Obama was under the maximum media spotlight, cannot be dismissed. Neither can the central role of Obama’s discredited counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, whose shifting narratives of the bin Laden raid remain unresolved and have lowered faith in Obama’s veracity among some Americans. It is important to note Brennan’s close relationship with the Saudi royal family, whose survival depends on keeping sea lanes open near the Horn of Africa where the Somali pirates ply the waters.

So, though as humans we cheer the good result of this particular adventure, we must concede that this is not really about health or even saving lives. It is about “sending a message.” But does the message really get sent to those who would harm Americans? There is little evidence that armed intervention is a deterrent. Indeed, the kidnappers of the other American being held in Somalia seem to have upped their threats of violence since the raid.

No, the message is being sent to us. It is no coincidence that these kinds of affairs always involve the most, pardon the expression, black and white of elements. How often do you hear about a person of color who is being held hostage, has gone missing, or was killed. Or of someone obese, or physically unattractive? Think back over the tabloid stories that have sustained the media for months at a time and riveted the American people. Jessica Lynch. Pat Tillman. Natalee Holloway and Robyn Gardner. When are the villains more nuanced, run-of-the-mill criminals without distinguishing stories? Pirates indeed. It’s almost as if the same fictional producer in Wag the Dog now shuttles permanently between Hollywood and the White House.



  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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