Not long after achieving independence, the United States faced its first foreign threat: pirates off the coast of Africa seizing American merchant ships. As Michael Oren recounts in Power, Faith and Fantasy, his sweeping history of America’s involvement in the Middle East, American vessels were abducted beginning in 1784, their crews enslaved and held for ransom. One local despot, Hassan Dey, paraded his American captives “past jeering crowds” and “spat at them, ‘Now I have got you, you Christian dogs, you shall eat stones.’”
This crisis, Oren writes, “raised fundamental questions about the nature, identity, and viability of the United States. . . . Would Americans imitate Europe and bribe the pirates, or would they create a revolutionary precedent and fight them?” George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both believed it was right and necessary to use military force. But not until 1794 would Congress vote to create a navy. And not until 1805 would U.S. Marines fight on the “shores of Tripoli.”
Today, American ships are again under siege by pirates off the African coast. This time, however, the buccaneers are setting sail from Somalia rather than from the territories that are now Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Today, the U.S. has the greatest navy the world has ever seen. But the debate is exactly what it was more than 200 years ago: Do we have the will to fight? Or would we prefer to submit to blackmail — to pay tribute to sea dogs?
Just last week, Somali pirates seized a vessel that was being sailed around the world by two American couples who were stopping along the way to donate Bibles to far-flung churches and schools. As American naval officials attempted to negotiate their release, all four were murdered.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded by saying the Obama administration was “deeply saddened and very upset . . . ” She called the murders a “deplorable act” that underscored the need for increased international cooperation. “We’ve got to have a more effective approach to maintaining security on the seas, in the ocean lanes, that are so essential to commerce and travel.” Ya think?
At this moment, Somali pirates are holding more than 30 vessels and more than 600 hostages. They have been collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom — the figure has been growing year after year. As Tara Helfman and Dan O’Shea report in the February issue of Commentary, these pirates are not “merry bands of lucky amateurs. They are organized militias with informants in foreign ports, and networks of ransom negotiators, money launderers, and arms runners abroad. Moreover there is mounting evidence of collaboration between militant Islamists and pirate militias.”
The “international community” has taken no serious actions to curb these international outlaws. Helfman and O’Shea write: “Whereas the Romans used to crucify pirates and the Carthaginians used to flay them alive, the UN Security Council’s crowning achievement in its campaign against piracy is a recent report detailing the successful ‘business model’ adopted by Somali pirates (or, as the report termed them, ‘shareholders’).”
Such dithering is emboldening the pirates. Last week, one of their spokesmen — yes, they are media savvy — issued new threats specifically against Americans in reaction to a New York court sentencing Somali pirate Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse to 33 years in prison for the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama.
Maj. Gen. Tom Wilkerson, USMC (ret.), is CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute. He told me he believes it is high time for a new approach. The U.S., along with a coalition of the willing, he says, could and should increase the risks of piracy and lower the rewards. That means taking the offensive: killing pirates at sea, in the harbors where they dock their vessels (and those they seize), and in what are now their safe havens and homes in the coastal areas of the northern Somali province of Puntland.
“Anytime you give your enemies places where they can rest and regroup, where they can’t be attacked, you cede the initiative to them,” Wilkerson said. “This doesn’t require putting boots on the ground. We have demonstrated that we have the technology” for both surveillance and remote attacks.
Would taking the war to the pirates be a violation of international law, as some proponents of inaction and appeasement claim? Wilkerson said it would not: “Two UN resolutions, 1851 and 1897, allow hot pursuit” at sea, into port, and onto land.
Other measures could be implemented as well. There could be expanded and coordinated naval patrols in the area, drawing from all nations whose ships, cargoes, and crews are threatened. Under current law, insurance companies are actually incentivized to pay ransom. New legislation could be introduced to encourage shipping companies to defend their vessels and crews with less fear of being sued for “violating the rights” of brigands. An international tribunal could be set up to prosecute captured pirates. Somali nationals could be trained as a constabulary force to prevent piracy, once suppressed, from being reestablished.
“The point is you have to decide on a goal and a strategy to achieve it,” Wilkerson argues. “But if we don’t do something there will be more opportunities for innocent deaths like we saw last week.”
Helfman and O’Shea add: “Seen from the perspective of an Islamic world that is testing the will of the democratic West to prevail over terrorism, the spectacle of captured pirates being allowed to slip through the cracks of international law is proof that Islamists are poised to prevail.”
We know what Washington and Jefferson would do. The question now: What will Obama and Clinton do?
— Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.