The recent news that the captain of the Maersk Alabama, Richard Phillips, who was captured and held hostage for several days by Somali pirates, has finally been released and is now safe in friendly hands comes as welcome in a climate of near-universal bad and depressing news. My relief, however, was short-lived upon hearing President Obama’s “vow to fight piracy”, which Obama said would include adding more Navy gunships to the area and possibly a military strike on the pirates’ land bases.
President Obama’s hawkish response to liquidating Somali pirates is unfortunately a continuation of previous administrations’ mistakes. When President Bush Sr., and later President Clinton, intervened militarily in Somalia in the early 1990’s, the result was tragic; U.S. helicopters were shot down and a U.S. Marine was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
Later, in 2006, President Bush gave the green light (as well as weapons and aid) to Ethiopia in their invasion of Somalia, where thousands were killed and Somalia was further destabilized. Somalians, (as well most countries that feel the sting of U.S. foreign policy) unlike Americans, do not have a short memory, and U.S. meddling in Eastern Africa is seared into their memories.
Obama would do well to not seek a military solution to problems plaguing the dangerous corners of the Indian Ocean. U.S. military intervention, our favorite form of diplomacy, has created “blowback,” or the unintended consequences of war, and its symptoms are growing. The eastern coast of Somalia has been riddled with nuclear and toxic waste that was dumped there illegally by several European firms, and its shores our daily violated by illegal fishing. Combine these factors in a nearly lawless country fresh off of an Ethiopian invasion supported by the U.S., and the puzzle starts to fit.
This is not a defense of these Somali pirates, but simply an examination of why they do what they do; when murders are investigated, finding the motive is a crucial aspect. International piracy, like 9/11, is not an act of war that can be solved with crushing military force. Firing cruise missiles into Somalia will not stop piracy; you can’t stop the Mob by bombing Sicily. What Congress can and should do is issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal, international search warrants, authorizing private tankers to manage their own security. For example, they could be armed, instead of the current laws that don’t allow these vessels to resist or fight back. How many pirates would hijack gigantic vessels with lifeboats if every passenger were armed?
This would not make the problem go away, because terrorism and piracy will always exist, but it would allow these ships to be safer and more secure, and better able to handle these problems on their own. After all, what would be the response of Somalians to a good ol’ fashioned American bombing? Look northeast, at the ancient churches, infrastructure, and whole cities of Iraq and Afghanistan that now lay in ashes, where Al Qaeda’s recruiting work is now labor-free.
I hope I don’t have to have this as a bumper sticker in two years: End the War in Somalia!