The Corner

We’ve Learned

Last week, for the first time in two hundred years, pirates attempted to capture a vessel sailing under the flag of the United States of America, the Alabama. As we all know, their attempt was foiled.

Amazingly, the U.S. destroyer dispatched to the area to confront the pirates bears the name of Commodore Bainbridge, who was instrumental in shaping U.S. policy towards pirates in the late 1700s and early 1800s. At the time, North African pirates were waging war on commerce in the Mediterranean Sea. By declaring independence, the United States had just lost the protection of the British Empire, and with it the world’s most powerful navy. U.S. merchant ships, therefore, increasingly became victims of piracy in what was then a waterway of high importance.

Thomas Jefferson, then an American diplomat, reached out to France, Spain, and several other countries in an attempt to form a coalition of navies that would patrol the area, but the Europeans preferred paying ransom to the pirates rather than confronting them militarily. So the United States, too, resorted to bribery. The pirates’ demands, however, grew ever larger, and acts of piracy increased, as piracy became more lucrative. By 1786, the pirates had become so bold, and their respect for U.S. power had so diminished, that the leader of one pirateering nation told Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that the United States had to pay him $1 million per year if it wanted the pirates to stop attacking U.S. vessels. Bainbridge found these degradations appalling and advocated a more muscular approach.

 Ultimately, the United States followed Bainbridge’s advice and decided that the only way to keep American ships safe from piracy was a strong show of force. The United States mustered the domestic will to raise a proper Navy, and Thomas Jefferson ordered a “policing operation” in 1801. He dispatched several frigates to the Mediterranean, thereby commencing a sustained commitment to making those waters safe for American shipping. By 1816, James Madison felt comfortable declaring it to be “settled policy of America that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute.” So it was that the United States managed to go for two hundred years without falling victim to an act of piracy.  

For the most part, it seems that the United States is now heeding the lessons of that experience. With pirates throughout the Gulf of Aden paying close attention, the world’s sole remaining superpower showed that it would not tolerate acts of piracy against the United States.  President Obama should now explain that our tough response to the pirate attack against the Alabama will be the rule, not the exception. He might even consider declaring that if another U.S. vessel is attacked, he will authorize targeted strikes against pirate safe havens in the Somali ports of Eyl and Gara’ad.  

The United States should also immediately make clear that it intends to apply 18 U.S.C. 1653 to pirates captured in connection with this incident—and in connection with any future pirate attacks against the United States. The law states that “whoever, being a citizen or subject of any foreign state is found and taken on the sea making war against the United States, or cruising against the vessels and property thereof….shall be imprisoned for life.” The law could hardly be less ambiguous, nor could it be more appropriate to attacks like that against the Alabama and its crew.  

The East African pirates are non-ideological. They do not target particular countries because of religious fanaticism or political animus. Theirs is a simple cost-benefit calculation, and these actions will raise the costs of capturing an American vessel so high as to hardly make it worth the pirates’ while—especially with so many non-American vessels floating through those same waters. Indeed, the very success of this approach in deterring future attacks against U.S. vessels might convince Europeans and others to adopt a tougher policy against pirates as well. If that happens, the pirates’ reign of terror in the Gulf of Aden may finally come to an end.

 – Alexander Benard, a New York attorney, has worked at the Department of Defense and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

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