Americans judge a president by how he handles the sudden challenges from far away

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Presidents have had mixed results in dealing with hostage situations and other potentially violent incidents abroad. For instance, President Jimmy Carter's failed mission to rescue U.S. hostages from Iran in 1980 badly damaged his reputation as an effective commander in chief and hurt America's image as a military power. President Bill Clinton's embarrassing withdrawal of a shipload of U.S. troops from the coast of Haiti in 1993 after the vessel was threatened by an armed mob gathered at the dock in Port-au-Prince was also a serious blemish. But presidents can recover. Clinton won re-election; Carter, dealing with a much tougher and longer-term problem, didn't.

On the positive side, Thomas Jefferson ordered U.S. warships to the Mediterranean in 1801 to stop Barbary pirates from capturing American and European ships and demanding ransom. His show of force succeeded, at least temporarily.

In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt sent the Navy to threaten Sherif Ahmed er Raisuli, a Moroccan known as the last of the Barbary pirates, after Raisuli kidnapped a wealthy Greek-American named Ion Perdicarus and his stepson near Tangier. Roosevelt told the Republican National Convention in Chicago that June, "This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead." Memorable words, to be sure, but the ultimatum wasn't what ended the showdown. That happened when France intervened and brokered a deal.

In 1975, Cambodia seized an unarmed U.S. cargo ship, the Mayaguez, in disputed waters in the Gulf of Siam. President Gerald Ford ordered a military strike to free the 39 crew members. All of them were rescued, but there were many casualties among the attacking marines. One U.S. official conceded privately that the operation was "jingoism," but it worked—and, he said, "nobody challenges success." Yet it wasn't enough to save Ford's presidency. He lost the election in 1976.

President Obama is now enjoying the afterglow from the U.S. military's display of prowess off the coast of Somalia. But he shouldn't rest easy. Pirate leaders say they will take vengeance on the United States, and on Tuesday thugs tried unsuccessfully to board another American freighter carrying food aid to Kenya, the Liberty Sun. It's clear that the story of this president and the pirates isn't over.

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