As good as it might have felt to the American psyche, Sunday’s heroic rescue of hijacked captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates was far from a decisive action. If betting on either three desperadoes or a U.S. Navy destroyer, always take the warship and the points.
Nor was it final. Since the rescue, pirates have seized four more vessels, taken 60 hostages and brazenly attacked another U.S. flagged ship, which escaped. Though defeated, the pirates certainly know that the 1.1 million square miles of rolling ocean around Somalia are their great equalizer.
The Navy cannot play cat-and-mouse in the Gulf of Aden forever, not as long as incentives for piracy remain lucrative: the practice earned $40 million in plunder last year alone. Time magazine recently calculated piracy’s profit margin is 40 percent, in a country where the average annual income is $600.
As long as violence remains rare, and huge ransoms paid in cash, the piracy will continue without fear of reprisals. It’s too profitable to abandon.
So, on the Sunday talk shows and in post-rescue commentary, calls emerged either for greater armaments for vessels on the high seas, despite its inherent problems, and executing assaults in Somalia to “clean out” the pirate dens and restore order to shipping traffic in the Persian Gulf.
Yet these are military solutions to a law-and-order problem. The pirates are not terrorists, per se, motivated by hatred and ideology to cause senseless havoc. They are entrepreneurs, more or less, engaging in an age-old trade that has been the symbol of lawlessness for many centuries.
It’s this lawlessness that is Somalia’s current legacy, which has not only led to rampant piracy but also the presence of sizable diaspora communities, such as those in Lewiston-Auburn and Portland, populated by refugees who have fled the violent, volatile semi-nation.
Restoring law to Somalia will take force, either by internal forces or external pressure. The U.S. military is unequipped for this mission, given the fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor is it solely responsible for action. There isn’t a country on this planet who can claim immunity from this crisis.
Ships flying all flags ply the seas off Somalia, crewed by sailors speaking every language. The petroleum freighted from the Persian Gulf is destined to all corners and its price affects nearly all economies. Relief vessels, merchant ships, luxury yachts — all are targeted indiscriminately.
International forces must respond in kind, with examples such as the Phillips rescue. Strategy should not be to attack in force, but repel with speed, efficiency and ruthlessness. Modern navies are better trained and equipped than any pirate vessel; this advantage should eventually lead to success and victory.
Plus, the thirst for profit would be slaked if it meant embarking on risky missions which may likely end in death or capture. The old pirate maxim is wrong, after all: Dead men do tell tales.
And booty becomes worthless if one wouldn’t be alive or free to spend it.
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