Battling the Pirates

The daring rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from the Somali pirates who abducted him after failing to successfully steal his ship heartened the hearts of all Americans on Easter morning. But, the rescue does not solve the long-term problem of what to do about these pirates who have taken some one hundred ships previously and made the bad mistake this time of choosing an American vessel.

One suggestion, in an op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post, comes from Fred Ilke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Kill the Pirates" is the title of the piece. That is one approach to the problem. Ilke points out that Somalia could easily become a hot bed for terrorism, that it is already more or less a failed state, and that "terrorists are far more brutal than pirates and can easily force pirates – petty thieves in comparison – to share their ransom money."


The problem with Ilke’s argument is, of course, that the introduction of massive American force is the surest way to drive the pirates into the arms of the terrorists. Ilke fails to explain why the pirates have not already joined forces with Al-Qaeda and it is, simply, that they are as he suggests "petty thieves." They are interested not in restoring the Caliphate or promoting Wahabism but in making cash and indulging the pleasures of the flesh. The paradise they seek is on this earth.

The problem of the pirates is similar to the problem in Darfur. The ideal solution would be for the African nations to band together and defeat the threats to civilization that plague the continent. But, they can’t or won’t. Too many African countries are corrupt, technically or morally or both, to allow them to support international scrutiny. And, the Chinese government can be counted on with its veto at the UN Security Council to further the argument for non-interference in the internal affairs of countries. And, the one way to make the situation in Darfur worse instantly is to introduce U.S. troops. Al-Qaeda would arrive the next day. I suspect the same would happen with the pirates.

This is not a time for military bluster. The pirates over-stepped when they attacked an American ship and three of them paid with their lives for their mistake. Let that fact sink in with their comrades. Perhaps, this American success will embolden other nations to more forcefully confront the piracy off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden. But, if the past eight years taught us anything, it is to resist those who cry uncritically for employing American military might as the best solution to an international problem. America’s very big hammer has not yet turned all the world’s problems into nails, and in this case, we would more likely hit our own thumb than sink a nail into piracy’s coffin.

There is one other aspect to yesterday’s rescue. It was further proof, if further proof were needed, that President Barack Obama is lucky. He was lucky to draw a primary opponent who had Mark Penn as a strategist. He was lucky to draw a general election opponent who was at odds with the base of his own party. He was lucky that the economic meltdown was manifested on his predecessor’s watch. And, yesterday, an operation that coule easily have turned out badly ended up as the kind of feel-good moment Americans cherish. Napoleon used to examine the resumes of those who were to be promoted in his army, and always asked the same question: "But is he lucky?" In the complex world in which we live, like the chaos of the field at Austerlitz, the best of plans can go astray and the most skilled of men can see those skills defeated by bad luck. Obama is lucky. For all our sake’s let’s hope his luck holds.


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9 years 11 months ago
I agree that boots on the ground is not the solution - however going after the pirates on the high seas might be (with the occassional land raid). More importantly, the President must make it clear that no money from either U.S. aid or the bailout should find its way into a pirate ransom. If you cut off the spigot, the pirates may rethink their business plan.
9 years 11 months ago
I find it very disturbing that you call this tragedy a "feel-good moment". Your expresion brings in mind the feel-good moments when the crowds cheered the lynching of black guys (surely they were supposed justly hung!). Or more back in history there were feel-good moments in the Roman arenas when gladiators got chopped up. But we know how these feel-good moments ended up... Killing of the three so-called pirates is not a major victory for the US. It is just a real tragedy. I am just amazed how somedy can se it differently. I recommend to read this article of Johann Hari: "You are being lied to about pirates" (Independent, UK)
9 years 11 months ago
Merely to add a bit of history, the U.S. Marines got their start as leathernecks when they were sent to stop the piratical attacks of the Moroccans. They succeeded. It is the basis of "the shores of Tripoli" line in the Marine hymn. The U.S. did not go on to conquer Africa. The Marines simply swatted a mosquito and went home.
9 years 11 months ago
President Obama was brilliant in his selection of a highly competent, organized, focused and strategic primary/general election campaign team. Had he chosen lesser talent, he might not have won. He and his team were brilliant in their 50-state strategy and highly inclusive call to action at the genuine grass roots level, breaking all records for the amount of contributions and the number of volunteers. Had he focused only on the then "blue" states, he might not have won. He has been brilliant in his handling of an inherited financial crisis, discarding the failed ideology that created the crisis and already seeing very early indicators of a recovery. And, he was brilliant when he decided to entrust the recent attempted piracy and hostage crisis to trained experts in hostage negotiation and Navy SEALS instead of to "blow 'em out of the water" ideologues. All sounds a lot more like proactive smarts than reactive luck to me.
9 years 11 months ago
Who has a feel good moment? Hank Paulson and company just pirated one trillion dollars from the US taxpayers and Bush and co spent a trillion destroying parts of the world to no good purpose. These guys got away. The oldest trick in the book is treachery - to pretend to help or negotiate and then to murder the other side. Look at General Joab's murder of Abner in the Old Testament Hebrew Bible. Killing 3 guys from the African coast who probably don't have a first grade education or a potatoe to eat is hardly something to feel good about. Especially when the parasites of this society have wasted two trillion dollars that could have helped build the world, not destroy it!
9 years 11 months ago
Mr. Winters: The solution to the piracy problem is the establishment of an international fleet to patrol the waters around Somalia. That's what navies and coast guards are for. Once the deterrent force begins operating the pirates will not summon the courage to seize defenseless vessels. All you need is to deter, not to shoot. Once the pirates the enforcement is underway, they will slink back into their lairs. By the way, it's Fred Ikle. As to whether Obama is lucky, that's not a very useful argument. All presidents face surprises and opportunities to exercise leadership, from which they learn how to be president. It's what they do with the reality they face that matters and influences future decisions.


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