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Stopping Stateless Pirates

The plague of piracy menacing shipping off the coast of Africa has set off a search for creative solutions. Various navies have mobilized warships to ward off the pirates. Blackwater has offered its services, which is an offer, as I have previously argued, that shipping lines should take up. Seth Cropsey, a former Defense Department official, suggests in this Weekly Standard article that all those responses are inadequate. He argues we need to hit the pirates where they live:

The Russians have suggested attacking such pirate bases as Eyl in the northern Puntland region of Somalia. The idea deserves serious consideration. Naval patrols can reduce piracy, but they cannot stop it. So long as the risk of serious punishment is low and the ransoms that shipping companies pay are high, piracy will thrive and multiply.

In support of this idea he draws a parallel to the Barbary Wars of the early 19th century, when the nascent U.S. Navy helped to stamp out piracy emanating from North Africa. This involved landing marines on “the shores of Tripoli” and sailing American warships into the harbors of the Barbary states.

Cropsey’s idea is certainly worth trying. But I have doubts about how effective it would be. The problem is that there is a crucial difference between the Barbary pirates and the modern-day pirates operating off the Somali coast. The former were not really pirates; they were actually privateers. This is not just a semantic difference. The Barbary corsairs were under the effective command of their host states, Morocco, Algeria, Tripoli, and Tunis. They would not sail without the sanction of local officials. Thus cowing those local officials by invading and bombarding their cities and threatening to overthrow them proved to be an effective way of reining in the pirates.

That strategy is not likely to work as well today because Somalia has no functioning government at all. Sure, you can destroy pirate havens but what is to stop the malefactors from moving a few miles away and resuming their activities? Their style of piracy-employing a few speedboats and fishing vessels–does not require a large operating base, in contrast to the Barbary corsairs whose multi-masted sailing ships necessitated a substantial support infrastructure.

What is ultimately needed is a government in Somalia capable of controlling its own coastline. Indeed, it is salutary to remember that, while Americans rightly cherish their own operations against the Barbary states, they did not completely end their piratical forays until they were occupied by European colonialists. Cropsey recognize the problem. He writes:

Trying to restore order to Somalia in the hope that a stronger government could control piracy is a worthy effort which Washington should continue and redouble. Successful diplomacy and effective local reconstruction efforts could indeed reduce the real possibility of a local Islamist takeover and offer relief for the country’s unfortunate people.

But, as Cropsey also recognizes, the chances of that happening anytime soon are slim. So we are left with second-best solutions.



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