How to beat the pirates.

Military analysis.
April 15 2009 6:06 PM

How To Beat the Pirates

Let's start by treating them like the criminals they are.

Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips (right) stands alongside Cmdr. Frank Castellano. Click image to expand.
Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips (right) with Cmdr. Frank Castellano

There's nothing like a rant by Kim Jong-il and an assault by pirates—all in the same week, no less—to highlight the strangeness of global politics in our times.

Scholars and strategists refer to these sorts of phenomena—tinhorn runts and teenage gangsters harassing the most powerful nation on earth—as "asymmetric threats" or the danger of "failed states." The puzzle, as yet unsolved, is what to do about them.

Piracy, of course, is nothing new, though its frequency is intensifying, and the attack on an American-flagged merchant ship, the Maersk Alabama, revealed an unusual degree of daring—and, as it turned out, at least this time, stupidity.

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Last weekend's triumph over the Maersk's pirates—in which Navy SEAL snipers killed three of them, with a single shot for each, then rescued the American captain from their clutches—was a welcome relief as well as a model of political shrewdness and military professionalism. But it was also an exception, and it is likely to remain so given the vast areas of those waters. As if to prove the point, a few hours after the rescue operation, Somali pirates took control of three other freighters, just to show they remain undeterred.

Last year saw 293 incidents of piracy, 111 of them in the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast—three times as many in that region as the year before. Pirates are currently holding 250 crewmen for ransom.

Some perspective is useful. Many have drawn comparisons between the Somalis and the Barbary pirates of yore. But the Barbary corsairs, as they were also called, were a far greater and more expansive threat, spanning from the North African coast out into the Mediterranean and sporadically the North Atlantic. Between the 16th and early 19th centuries, they captured more than 800,000 Europeans and sold many of them on the Algerian and Moroccan slave markets. In the early 1800s, the U.S. government—having won independence from Britain and thus having lost the British fleet's protection—found itself spending one-fifth of its annual budget for ransom to pirates who captured its ships and crewmen.

The rest of the story is well-known. President Thomas Jefferson, who had negotiated terms of ransom with the pirate-dominated Moroccan government while ambassador to France, built a navy and sent in the Marines. (The "shores of Tripoli," in the Marine Corps' anthem, refers to their rescue of merchant crews from pirates in Libya.) Meanwhile, the British and Dutch launched heavy bombardment campaigns in Algiers. Finally, in 1830 the French conquered Algeria, and that was pretty much the end of the Barbary pirates.

It's very unlikely that President Barack Obama or any other world leader would pummel, much less colonize, Somalia today. The scope of the threat, though not to be trivialized, is nothing like that of Barbary days. Memories of Black Hawk Down, as well as troop commitments elsewhere, should stave off fantasies of a "cake walk" through Mogadishu. Nor do Europeans seem to be hankering for a revival of foreign adventurism.

Some, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, say that the roots of Somali piracy lie in the lawlessness of Somalia itself and that the problem won't be fully solved until that country has a strong, stable government. This may be true, but it's a dead-end observation. What to do while waiting for a Mogadishu messiah?

There are some realistic options—SEAL snipers being one of them—and a less-remembered chapter of the Barbary saga offers a pertinent framework.

In 1815, the great nations of Europe—Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia—assembled the Congress of Vienna to forge a new balance of power in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. (More than 200 smaller states and principalities attended the session, as well.) One of the initial motives for holding the congress was to condemn, and coordinate a common policy on, the European slave trade along the Barbary Coast. It was after the congress formed that the Europeans and Americans stopped paying ransom and took action.