November 22, 2008

How To Deal With Pirates

Michael Oren has an essay in the WSJ that discusses how to deal with pirates. Oren provides a historical context in which he addresses what a young U.S. did then and offers a suggestion for the current situation as well.

If you read the essay you'll see that somethings never really change. Here is a brief excerpt.

The choice was excruciating. No longer protected by the British navy and lacking any gunboats of its own, the U.S. had no ready military option. Nor did it have international support. Jefferson's attempt to create an international coalition together with European states was summarily rejected. Defenseless and internationally isolated, most Americans were opposed to devoting their scarce resources to building a navy and instead favored following the age-old European
custom of bribing the pirates -- the euphemism was "tribute" -- in exchange for safe passage. "Would to Heaven we had a navy to reform these enemies to mankind or crush them into non-existence," an exasperated George Washington confided to his old comrade-in-arms, the Marquis de Lafayette.

Washington's frustration could well be echoed today in the face of escalating assaults by pirates from Somalia. Over 90 such attacks have occurred this year alone -- a three-fold increase since 2007 -- resulting in the capture of 14 ships and 250 of their crew members. Among their prizes, the pirates have seized a Ukrainian freighter crammed with Soviet-made battle tanks and, most recently, the tanker Sirius Star with $100 million worth of Saudi crude in its holds. These shipments are now being held off the Somali coast where the pirates are bargaining for their return.

Superficially, at least, there are many differences between the Somali pirates and their Barbary predecessors. The Somali bandits have no declared state sponsors and no avowed religious pretext. Their targets are no longer principally American ships but flags of all nations, including those of Arab states. And they are more interested in ransoming cargoes of arms and oil than hapless sailors. Yet, no less than in the 18th century, 21st-century piracy threatens international trade and confronts the U.S. with complex questions.

Should the U.S. Navy, for example, actively combat the pirates, emulating the Indian warship that destroyed a Somali speedboat earlier this week? Can the U.S., which is already overstretched militarily in two conflicts, afford to assume responsibility for another open-ended operation in the same area? Or should America follow the example now being set by Saudi Arabia and various Asian states which, according to United Nations statistics, have paid $25 million to $30 million in ransoms to the pirates this year alone?

Crossposted here.

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