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On Piracy


The piracy issue pops up every once in a while when a spectacular hijacking hits the news. Two questions normally then arise — and both have already been raised on the Corner today. Cliff May asks why they don’t put armed guards on the ships. David Rivkin and Lee Casey examine the muddled international law of the issue, and the box we’ve worked ourselves into by pretending that we need international permission to vindicate the freedom of the seas. 

Cliff’s question is crucial, because what is often lost in this discussion is a sense of strategic proportion: What is the weight of the U.S. interest involved? There were over 90 Somali pirate attacks last year, resulting in about 40 successful hijackings, with few fatalities. But — this is the crucial point — about 21,000 merchant vessels transit the Horn of Africa region every year. With profit margins as razor-thin as they are in the merchant shipping industry, it would be expensive to add an effective force of armed guards to all of those crews — apparently too expensive to make it worthwhile given the risk (and given the alternative of avoiding the area altogether and taking the longer route about the Cape of Good Hope). Any ship transiting the Horn of Africa has less than a 1 in 200 chance of being hijacked, even with the upsurge of recent years. Moreover, virtually none of those ships are American flags or (more important) American crews. (One exception is ships that bear international food aid to Somalis — and protecting those is the mission of a specific NATO task force.) Obviously their success can’t be judged by this one failure.

I don’t think it’s fair to describe the performance of the U.S. or even European navies in this area as “lame.”  Their presence in the lower Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the nearby areas of the Indian Ocean have an incalculable and probably huge deterrent effect on piracy, and have likely reduced what would otherwise be intolerable levels of piracy to levels that are commensurate with free navigation in the area. If it were otherwise, the route would not be among the world’s most heavily transited by merchant ships — it is not catastrophically more expensive to go around the Cape of Good Hope, as thousands do. In the early 19th century the ravages of the Barbary Pirates were starting to materially hurt the American economy, which is why we organized our first navy to fight it. Piracy probably was never totally “eradicated;” more likely, it was just reduced to commercially acceptable levels. The situation today is not so different: the U.S. Navy and its international partners are forcing the Somali pirates to operate far out into the Indian Ocean, which is much more difficult for pirates to reach, and where their targets are much more dispersed. The effect is that what could be a strategic threat to vital U.S. interests simply isn’t. 

The U.S. Navy would likely resist any attempt to increase assets committed to the anti-piracy task force at the expense of other missions. And Central Command would certainly fight off any suggestion of a mission to root the pirates out of their bases, which would entail a great commitment of force and a great loss of civilian life to root out at an enemy that isn’t terribly deadly or strategically dangerous to begin with–not to mention the nebulous prospects of victory that would attend any such mission. When Navy commanders point to the rule-of-law and good governance in Somalia as the only ultimate solution to this problem, they are consciously pointing to goals that cannot be accomplished by the U.S. military at any cost remotely commensurate with the U.S. interest involved. 

However, if the U.S. should not necessarily expand its anti-piracy operations, it should certainly expand (or restore) the scope of the right we claim to defend the freedom of the seas. Here is where the Rivkin/Casey analysis is crucial. We can expect liberal transnationalists (and, for want of clearer operational authorities, the military itself) to call for international tribunals and the like to handle pirates.  This must be seen as another assault on U.S. sovereignty. The U.S. should vindicate a right to fight, detain, prosecute, and punish pirates every bit as broad as that which we vindicated in the early decades of the Republic.


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