Musings on Pirate Strategies

According to Greg Scoblete at RealClearWorld, the lesson Commentary‘s Jennifer Rubin seems to have taken from the saga of snipers and pirates is that the United States should invade Somalia.

Thomas Jefferson understood you can not defeat pirates by chasing them one by one around a vast sea. We must either in concert with our allies or unilaterally, if need be, devise a strategy to take the fight to the pirates and re-establish some semblance of order…

If preventing future attacks means eradicating pirates’ safe havens then we may be on the right track. But if the ploy here is to play cat-and-mouse on the high seas and treat pirates as individual criminals we’re in for a long and likely inconclusive outcome.

Well, I don’t think looking to a 200-year dead president for advice on combating modern piracy and statelessness is the best idea, but I also don’t think Rubin is necessarily prescribing invasion here. She’s right that “eradicating safe havens” will be an important step, though I’d rather eradicate the problem of piracy than the entire city of Eyl, say. For that matter, what Rubin suggests — going ashore to pursue the pirates, which has become a pretty trendy policy recommendation — has already been permitted by a Security Council resolution. This is definitely a helpful tool, and the fact that such a provocative step has a UN seal of legitimacy is significant. But navies would still be wise to use this authorization carefully, as precipitous excursions could have a strong likelihood of destabilizing Somalia further and galvanizing all sorts of landlubbing “pirates,” which nobody wants.

I think treating pirates as “criminals” — and in fact taking seriously the grievances of at least the original fishermen-cum-vigilante-pirates (namely, the illegal fishing and toxic dumping that engendered the whole viable life-as-pirate thing) — is in fact the appropriate thing to do. Certainly better than just killing them summarily and arbitrarily. If Capt. Phillips’ life was indeed in danger, then undertaking sniper attacks was probably the best course of action in such a tense situation. But consider how badly the plan could have gone wrong. I find no small hypocrisy in those who exuberantly cheer the SEALs and the unconquerable might of the U.S. military over this success, but who would have, without a doubt, be excoriating Obama for recklessness if the whole affair had gone awry. An anti-piracy strategy that succeeds or fails based on a couple inches of snipers’ bullets seems very dangerous and ineffective.

The need for the United States to act “unilaterally, if need be” to tackle the piracy issue does not make any sense. This is something that affects every country that sends a ship through or around the Gulf of Aden. It only makes sense to pool these countries’ collective resources and wisdom and address the problem together. Going solo on this one will just endanger the lives of real and potential hostages, undermine the efficacy of the whole project, and unduly antagonize the strange bedfellows of allies (read: NATO, EU, Russia, China, etc.) that piracy has brought together.

And one final note, re: what to call the pirates. Annie Lowery at FP (and Mike Allen at Politico, apparently) suggest calling them “maritime terrorists,” to prevent the romanticization that marauding swashbucklers (okay, I’m guilty, too — very guilty) conjures up. I agree, but I also agree with Yglesias, that “maritime terrorists” conjures up something far more sinister, of a larger scale, than what these criminals are essentially doing, which is robbing and kidnapping (at gunpoint). Combined with the international legal distinctions between piracy and terrorism, calling the pirates terrorists would only unnecessarily expand the blanket “war on terror” concept, at a time when the term is, thankfully, being dropped in favor of a more nuanced approach.

That said, I don’t see much reason to take seriously the pirates’ bluster about retaliating against American ships. First of all — yeah right. And second of all, for the very reason that “pirates” is not really a helpful term, there is no monolithic bloc of pirates. From my understanding, the guys (and sometimes kids, I’d imagine) undertaking all these hijackings are not all coordinated actors. And that’s another advantage that a unified international coalition has over these bandits.

Oh, and Robert Farley is right — Victor Davis Hanson is crazy.

UPDATE: Greg at RealClearWorld responds, rightly pointing out that, while it’s all well and good to say that we need to make development and state-building in Somalia priorities of our anti-piracy efforts, it’s another thing entirely to actually propose those kind of initiatives, then gather up the political will to see them through.

(image from flickr user TMWolf under a Creative Commons license)