Monday, November 24, 2008

Some 21st-century problems require 19th-century solutions

It's been quite a November, hasn't it? GWS's little sister celebrated her first birthday out of college, Barack Obama was elected President, and the pillars of capitalism continue to be shaken by unforeseen tremors from both within and without. Many of the problems we face will require new solutions, and all of them will require sacrifice. But while FDR's legislative and regulatory template may not be a perfect fit for the problems we face today, Thomas Jefferson's interactions with the Barbary pirates may help President-elect Obama navigate the treacherous waters off the horn of Africa.

Try to imagine this scenario: you've been transported back to Selma, Alabama, 1955. There, you tell incredulous citizens that you are from the future where people speak to one another through tiny portable phones, a black man has been elected President, and that President does not face the challenge of mutually assured destruction but rather that of piracy. Good old fashioned, made-from-scratch, take-your-stuff-from-you-at-sea-and-hold-you-for-ransom piracy. I'd give you five seconds before someone inquired if, you, boy, weren't from round heah.

But piracy off the horn of Africa is a serious matter, made all the more so by the capture of Saudi Aramco's supertanker Sirius Star. The reason the capture of the Sirius Star is important is because of what some academics refer to as "signalling," which is a not-so-fancy way of saying that people paid attention to the taking of the giant oil tanker and will extrapolate lessons from this event.

The Sirius Star was captured more than 400 miles out to sea, well beyond what was thought to be the pirates' operational range. Forget the reports detailing the use of "mother ships" (who thought we'd hear that phrase used in conjunction with hard news?) and the Indian navy's recent successes; the important part of this event for anyone with interests off the coast of Africa was the fact that this strike occurred so far afield. As Fareed Zakaria noted on his most recent show, if Somali pirates' operational range is indeed 400+ miles from shore, the world's navies must now protect a staggering 1.1 million square miles of open ocean---a practical impossibility.

Beyond the cruel arithmetic of the current crisis, GWS is surprised by the lack of media coverage on the copycat angle. Pirates are like any other industry: when they see a better business model than the one they're using, they'll change course. So how the world responds to the capture of the Sirius Star becomes very important as a signal of how the international community plans to respond to this problem. It is possible that the capture of the Sirius Star is a one-time event, and the fact that it was attacked so far out to sea suggests that the perpetrators bought high-quality information that may not be readily available to all pirates. But GWS is less than convinced that this incident won't happen again, so the international community's response to this current crisis will act as a powerful signal to Somali pirates and the world of states alike. An ineffectual response will act as an accelerant on a slowly burning fire. Rumors are circulating about pirates making $50,000/year, but even if they're making half that, they're still living like kings in anarchic Somalia. If the world's navies accept pirate control of the waters off the horn of Africa and continue to merely ransom captive sailors, the implications for global trade could be dramatic.

The parallels between the current crisis and the United States' last major engagement with pirates---the Barbary Wars---are few and far between. Barbary piracy was a state-sanctioned form of high seas extortion wheras Somali pirates appear to be motivated by the appeal of a source of income in a shattered state, but there are still some lessons that can be applied.

First of all, the scourge of Barbary piracy was only brought to an end by a concert of nations. The United States was able to force the Dey of Algiers to favorable terms, but it took the brutal British Bombardment of Algiers the following year to bring the recidivist Dey back in line. Lesson: an effective response will require a coordinated and sustained international effort. Secondly, the Barbary pirates success against merchant vessels was not duplicated against the world's navies, neither on land nor at sea. The American navy mostly smashed the Tripolitan and Algerian forces it faced at sea, and the decisive battle of the First Barbary War came when the undisciplined defenders of Dernah fell into a disorganized retreat when faced by a numerically inferior American-led force. Lesson: pirates are not a disciplined fighting force and are likely to flee when faced with one, even when the pirates enjoy superior numbers. Finally, the Bombardment of Algiers may---may---be instructive. "Shock and awe," along with most theories of air power, have been discredited as effective coercive tools when used against a nation-state, but it just might work against loosely organized criminals. Lesson: speak softly, and carry a big Tomahawk cruise missile.

GWS favors a hawkish approach not because it worked hundreds of years ago against the Dey of Algiers, but mostly because it's the only way to send a negative signal to other pirates. GWS advocates a policy whereby the international community treats Somali pirates like William Longshanks treats the Scottish in "Braveheart": lie, cheat, steal, murder, and generally do whatever it takes to subdue these people by force of arms. The (multi)generational issue of Somali development must be considered alongside a military response, but neither the world's markets nor the pirates themselves are working on that long-term timetable. The international community has a major interest in keeping the waters off east Africa pirate-free, and they would do well to offer the pirates no quarter, to make $50,000/year piracy Somalia's most dangerous job (a tall order indeed). This is the only way GWS sees to curb piracy in the short- to medium-term. If GWS were Head Minister of World Naval Policy, he'd pay the pirates whatever they want, tell them whatever they need to hear, promise whatever he needed to ensure the safe release of the innocent sailors of the Sirius Star---and as soon as the crew were clear, send a SEAL team aboard the ship and kill every single pirate.

In the words of Brother Cavil, "We round [them] up, and we execute them. Publicly." Continue this policy of Stab-You-in-the-Back-ism until the pirates adapt and it stops working---then, adapt in response and stab them in the back again. Piracy is antithetical to international order, trade, and the freedom of the seas, and it cannot be tolerated by the world's nations. It is in the best interest of everyone outside a small band of Somali criminals to both rebuild the Somali state and deal swiftly and severely with those who engage in piracy. Somalia's pirates must come to see the seizure of the Sirius Star as an example of hubrisitic overreach, not a viable new business model.

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