Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Obama and the Pirates

After several days in which Somali pirates held an American cargo ship captain, the Navy rescued him. They talked the pirates into attaching a tow rope so that the lifeboat they occupied could be towed to calmer waters. The toe rope was shortened until the boat was only around 100 feet from the snipers. Three pirates were killed.

President Obama gets credit for authorizing this action and the use of lethal force. This may help his credibility among our enemies. He has proved that he will order the death of foreign nationals in order to save an American.

That resolved the short-term crisis but not the long-term problem of piracy. There are several possible results:

  • Somalis may think twice about pirating in the future. This is very unlikely. There is too much money to be made by piracy. In fact, four ships have been hijacked since the rescue.
  • Somalis may leave American-flagged ships alone but continue raiding other ships. This is probably the best that we can hope for but it is still unlikely. Again, there is too much money involved.
  • Somalis may escalate attacks against US-flagged ships. Some pirates promised this when they heard of the dead pirates. I am skeptical. Right now crews are willing to surrender to the pirates because they can count on good treatment. If the pirates start beating or killing captives then ships will be more likely to fight back.
  • Nothing will change. This is most likely given the events of the last couple of days.
So where does that leave us? Pretty much back where we started. Probably the only way of stopping the pirates is to start attacking their bases. Announce that any port that shelters a ship taken by pirates will be shelled. At the same time warships need to patrol the Somali coast to keep foreign ships away. The whole mess started because foreigners started dumping toxic waste in Somali waters and poaching on their fishing (hopefully in different areas). The pirates may not like returning to fishing but it could be made an attractive option.

I expect President Obama to take the opposite approach - try to stop the pirates through increased patrols. Historically this has never worked. The surest way to eliminate pirates is to deny them safe harbor.

No comments: