While the Pentagon is directing the military response, President Obama is getting personally involved in one of his first major national crises.
As U.S. Navy vessel continued to track a handful of Somali pirates in a lifeboat on Saturday, the president received several updates, both written and over the phone. A White House interagency group on piracy met throughout the day as the president's aides monitored the military response.
"If he handles this poorly and we wind up not only losing a captain but seeming to give in to terrorism, there will be the possibility of a narrative that people and critics can tell about how he is supposedly weak in protecting the country's security," Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with The Brookings Institution, told ABC News.
The administration's piracy group has two goals: tackling the immediate standoff and then preventing it from happening again off coast of Somalia, a lawless state that's a prime spot for pirates.
"This whole broad set of issues of how you try to address Somalia is actually a quite challenging set of questions," O'Hanlon said. "Now, what our policy has been for many years is essentially neglect."
That could mean U.S. military vessels patrolling the waters off the Somali coast, among other options to protect trade ships.
"We're going to have to figure out some way to protect them," O'Hanlon said. "I think it's unconscionable that we continue with this same policy. I think that part will have to change. But Somalia itself is another matter."
But first, administration officials say, the president is focused on rescuing Capt. Richard Phillips, the first American taken by pirates since 1804.
"This probably more parallels a hostage in a bank robbery gone wrong than a military operation, so I'm sure they're going to try to negotiate and work this out," Dick Couch, a former Navy SEAL and CIA maritime specialist, told ABC News.
An American military rescue effort would likely mean Navy SEALs approaching the boat at night, underwater. But an assault on desperate pirates is a last resort.
"The last thing they want to do is put those terrorists in a position where they have no options left other than to take this man's life," Couch said.
With the pirates' lifeboat now just 20 miles from the Somali shore, the Navy could soon find it has no other option.