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Opinion: Columnists

Not one SEAL's blood for oil if U.S. interests aren't at stake

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Opinion,Columnists,Jed Babbin,Barack Obama,Libya,Magazine

The news reports read like the script of a cheesy movie. A ship sits at anchor one Sunday night off Cyprus. It holds a cargo that just has to be recovered to support a vital U.S. ally. Navy SEALs approach silently over the water, climb the hull, and take over the ship without firing a shot.

Then, in the movies — as in real life — the SEALs begin searching for the critical cargo and find what they came for.

In the reality of ship seizures by our special forces, there’s always a something to find. That’s because, in somewhat delicate terms, there’s always something — or someone — on the ship that makes seizing it worthwhile. It’s a dangerous business, even if the forces are the best of the best. The proof of that is in the fact that men are sometimes killed in training for them.

In short, assets such as the SEALs are never sent in unless there is a high-value target that has to be seized. Until Sunday night, these operations were never authorized unless the target was either a significant threat to our national security or a significant value to it. There is no justification for risking the lives of our special forces in any other kind of mission.

When the news reports began to come in on Sunday night's seizure of the North Korean-flagged tanker “Morning Glory,” it immediately raised the question of what the critical cargo was. When checking with special operations sources, I expected to get a response along the lines of the best that any newsman can hope for. Something on the order of, “We can't tell you who or what it was, but it's really cool that we got it before the bad guys did.”

But on Tuesday afternoon, the response was very different. According to a well-placed special operations source, there was nothing on the tanker but oil. This was an operation, according to an Associated Press report, that President Obama approved personally. That report also said American sailors from the USS Stout, acting like an 18th century prize crew, were sailing the ship back to Libya.

The president ordered a Navy SEAL platoon to risk their lives when there was no target significant to national security to be captured. He evidently did it only in response to the request of the pseudo-government of Libya. That was confirmed by our new Ambassador to Libya Deborah K. Jones, who wrote on her Twitter page that America was "glad we were able to respond positively to Libya's request for help in preventing illegal sale of its oil on stateless ship."

There is a bond of trust that has to exist between a president and the troops, not just the special operators. Each and every one of them understands that they may be killed in the line of duty, and that awful burden falls disproportionately on the special forces these days. Every one of those folks I’ve spoken to has the same philosophy: “spend my life if you must, but don’t waste it.” If they can’t believe a president won’t waste their lives, they cannot — and should not — trust him.

This instance of the president violating the bond of trust is severe enough that a congressional investigation should begin forthwith. Why did Obama risk the lives of our SEALs for a few barrels of Libyan oil? We should demand to know. If Congress wants to earn its keep for once, it should begin an investigation that would start by subpoenaing Jones to ask just what she told the president that could possibly justify ordering SEALs to act like mercenaries for Libya.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research.
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