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Putting Out Foreign Policy Fires

Background and analysis by CBS News State Department reporter Charles Wolfson.

Asked about dealing with the root causes of Somalia's piracy problem this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said "you've got to put out the fire before you can rebuild the house. And right now, we have a fire raging." No kidding.

Although Somali pirates ultimately failed in their attempt to seize the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama and its crew, they did hold its captain for several days before Navy SEALs killed the pirates and rescued him, bringing a happy ending to what could have been a very ugly chapter in the modern history of American diplomacy and pirates. A second U.S.-flagged ship, the Liberty Sun, was able to avoid an attempt by pirates to board it. Meanwhile the pirates whom Clinton described as "criminals" and "armed gangs on the sea" continued to threaten other ships in the area.

Clinton announced several steps which ranged from sending an envoy to a Somalia-related meeting in Europe next week to tracking and freezing pirate assets to working more closely with shipping and insurance companies.

The secretary of state noted "we may be dealing with a 17th century crime, but we need to bring 21st century solutions to bear."

For good measure Clinton might have added the Obama administration was also trying to put out fires related to North Korea's nuclear program and Mexico's ongoing war against drug cartels - and that's just this week.

Reacting to the U.N. Security Council's reprimand of its most recent missile test, North Korea said it would expel international inspectors of the IAEA as well as four American technical experts who were in the country to monitor the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Pyongyang also said it would not return to the so-called Six Party Talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula and would restart its nuclear reactor. Whether these steps were part of negotiating strategy or a true signal of North Korea's intentions was, as usual, not easy to interpret.

Administration officials played it low key, calling these moves a "backward step" and noting there had been "ups and downs" before in negotiations with Pyongyang. That seemed to imply Washington saw the moves as just another signal of a downturn in the diplomacy and perhaps a test of the Obama administration's attitudes toward North Korea. Washington got some support from Beijing whose Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, maintained a call for "consensus" and repeated Washington's view by being "far-sighted in paying attention to the big picture, together striving to advance the six-party talks process."

President Obama's first trip south of the border starts in Mexico City where he'll continue his administration's effort to cooperate more with Mexico in its war against drug cartels, an ongoing battle which has claimed thousands of lives in the past year alone. The U.S. is being asked to do more to stop the flow of assault weapons and cash which fuel the cartels' ability to fight law enforcement and there is always the question of what Washington can or will do to reduce the demand for drugs here at home.

The administration named Alan Bersin as a "border czar" to work with Mexico and coordinate solutions to the problems on this side of the border. Whether the Obama administration can put out this fire or merely manage to keep it to a low simmer will depend not just on good intentions but also on whether it wants to exercise political muscle. A key test of that will be how hard it tries to keep assault weapons from being purchased here for use in Mexico.

From Mexico Mr. Obama heads to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad to attend a meeting of the heads of government from every state in the hemisphere - except for Cuba. This is the fifth Summit of the Americas and the President is expected to hear Washington blamed for the region's economic downturn and for its continued policy of keeping a trade embargo in place against Cuba.

President Obama has signaled his response, in an op-ed appearing in a number of newspapers across the region ahead of the summit, admitting Washington's attention to the region has often waned. "We have too easily been distracted by other priorities," he said, and committing his administration "to the promise of a new day." On Cuba, Mr. Obama has already taken steps to ease the travel of Cuban-Americans to Havana although he has not yet taken on the politically more difficult task of ending the trade embargo.

Leaders in the region have heard promises from Washington before. Many, many times.

Long after Mr. Obama and Secretary Clinton return from the Caribbean these leaders will be the keenest of observers, waiting to find out if there will be sustained follow up from Washington this time or whether the current fires related to Somali pirates and North Korea's pouting leadership once again distracts attention from the hemisphere's problems.

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