I had the day off Thursday, so I watched some TV and listened to the radio as the topic of piracy continued to come up. I think I would have killed fewer brain cells if I was to down a keg of Shock Top solo. I am convinced that this blue guy is smarter on the Somalia issue than most of the experts I've heard on talk radio over the last 24 hours. TV producers should do their show a favor and interview real experts like David Axe.
As I am following the discussions regarding Somali piracy, what bothers me right now is the shortage of real intellectual inputs that explains the current policy, never mind a conversation about piracy that promotes a realistic policy.
President Bush essentially punted the Somali piracy problem to Barack Obama. The only action related to Somalia piracy implemented under the Bush administration was the standing up of Combined Task Force 151 less than a week before Obama's Inauguration Day. It is unclear if the establishment of this organizational framework for the Navy was directed by the Bush Administration, or simply an effort by the Navy in preparation for the Obama administration policy.
The Obama administration implemented the first policy relating to Somali piracy with the announcement in late January that Kenya and the United States had signed a memorandum of understanding that will allow pirates captured in the region to be tried in Kenyan courts. This legal framework is the rule set the Obama administration developed the law enforcement centric policy for dealing with Somali pirates. This policy instructs the United States Navy to capture pirates and deliver them, and the associated collected evidence, to Kenya for legal prosecution. Since that policy went into effect, when evidence was collected pirates have been turned over to Kenyan authorities. When there was not enough evidence to link armed Somali's matching the description of pirates reported to be attacking commercial ships off the coast of Somalia, those detained would be released.
The current policy for addressing Somali piracy was the first major foreign policy decision implemented by the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after Obama became president. As a new policy, it is fluid and must be assessed at each step. I contend that when a US flagged ship is hijacked by pirates for the first time in 200 years while our naval forces are struggling under the law enforcement policy to produce successful prosecutions, thus deterrence, the Obama pirate policy is not working.
The current Obama policy is not aligned well with the US Navy's capabilities at sea. The Obama administration maritime law enforcement policy forces the great United States Navy to operate like an inept United Nations coast guard against Somali pirates. Tough choices will need to be made to align the Obama administrations law enforcement policy with our national capabilities at sea, and these choices are a lot tougher than the political rhetoric on the piracy issue is articulating.
John Kerry has called for hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to address the growing problem of Somali piracy. He is correct that a rigorous policy debate "is long overdue."
"When Americans, including at least one from Massachusetts, are endangered, you’ve got a complicated and dangerous international situation brewing, and that includes questions about a hot pursuit policy on Somalia’s coastline."I only hope that Senator Kerry is thinking clearly regarding the type of experts to invite for the discussion. Somali piracy is a very complex issue. The Senate needs new ideas to promote a better policy, because the Navy needs a better policy framework in order to develop a more effective strategy. Somali piracy is not a serious strategic threat to the United States, although it can become one if it continues at the current rate. Something does not have to be a strategic threat to represent a very serious issue that can have unintended consequences of grave strategic concern to our nation.
It is my observation that as the issues get more complex, the political rhetoric informing the public becomes less informed through the forwarding of simplistic perspectives. The right side of politics in America has been discussing piracy akin to terrorism, as if political motivated violence and economically motivated criminal activity is the same thing. The left side of politics continues to embrace the idea that every Somali pirate is a victim of western exploitation, which would make sense if the commercial ships being hijacked were part of the 800 or so fishing vessels annually illegally fishing yellowfin tuna, shark, and other rare fish off Somalia. The conditions that led to the growth of piracy in Somalia are no longer the conditions driving piracy today. Hopefully John Kerry can successfully move the piracy discussion down the political football field with his hearing.
The Obama administration wouldn't be the first president who enters office with a domestic political agenda focus and becomes dogged by foreign policy issues. The political risk the Obama administration is facing with the choices ahead for Somalia are not insignificant. The maritime shipping industry touches $7.8 trillion in global commerce annually. When Barack Obama refused to answer the question about the current incident, I got the impression he hasn't been briefed on the first and second effects of Somalia piracy, never mind the 3rd and 4th effects that trickle down as a result from the activity of the last week where 6 ships were hijacked. Essentially, I was left with the impression he doesn't think piracy is important.
The current approach taken by the worlds Navy's, due primarily to a highly restrictive Rules of Engagement driven by a law enforcement political policy, has been to use limited available naval resources to consolidate the area to protect as a safe shipping lane and utilize convoy systems when available. This is an effective approach with limited resources, but the problem with this approach is that it doesn't change the security conditions, so the strategy does not have a real goal or achievement to work towards. Understanding the ultimate solution is solved on land, it is also important for the Navy to recognize that long term maritime security means there is work that needs to also be done at sea. The Navy needs to be prepared to discuss options.
Is it time to make pirates walk the plank? Mackubin Thomas Owens, a Professor at the Naval War College, suggests it is. Guided by history he makes his case.
We need to return to an important distinction first made by the Romans and subsequently incorporated into international law by way of medieval and early modern European jurisprudence, e.g. Grotius and Vattel. The Romans distinguished between bellum, war against legitimus hostis, a legitimate enemy, and guerra, war against latrunculi — pirates, robbers, brigands, and outlaws — "the common enemies of mankind."Leveraging history, he goes on to note that the founding fathers understood this. The problem is, this approach is a clear escalation of violence, and the risks are not trivial. The escalation of lethal action against pirates may change the behavior of pirates, and they may escalate the level of violence on commercial ships and begin killing merchant mariners as a response. While there is no question merchant mariners face many serious dangers under current conditions, if escalation with lethal violence results in the death of civilian mariners consistently, the United States will be forced into a situation where we must escalate stability efforts, which tends to become a nation building exercise. If we break it, we will own it.
The former, bellum, became the standard for interstate conflict, and it is here that the Geneva Conventions and other legal protections were meant to apply. They do not apply to the latter, guerra — indeed, punishment for latrunculi traditionally has been summary execution. Until recently, no international code has extended legal protection to pirates.
So first, we should revive that distinction. When they are caught, they should be hanged. Second, I'm not the first to suggest that we should use force to wipe out the pirate lairs. Under the old understanding of international law, a sovereign state has the right to strike the territory of another if that state is not able to curtail the activities of latrunculi.
Ultimately, while this approach may well be aligned with history, it comes with significant risks for blow back and unintended consequences, and without the political will and support from the larger international community, the United States will find ourselves bogged down in a third war front trying to promote security conditions back to the point they are today.
The only way that plan works is if we can sink every boat pirates use on the entire Somali coast. Unfortunately, that would almost certainly result in the elimination of the existing fishing fleet current feeding many, many thousands in a failed state where the people are starving to death. I do not have any confidence in Professor Owners solution, and oppose the call for unilateral escalation to use lethal force on ground.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, agrees with me that the status quo is no longer tenable, and also believes it is time to start thinking about more proactive measures. I think we need more innovative ideas like this.
One [idea] would be to shift the mission of the naval forces currently on station off the Somali coast. Instead of patrolling shipping lanes, the flotillas could enforce an exclusion zone around Somalia, attempting to blockade the main ports and pirate centers to make it much more difficult for ships to leave, or for captured vessels to be brought back to sanctuaries such as Eyl. Given the length of the coastline, no blockade would be foolproof, but it would certainly raise costs for the pirates.I don't endorse either idea automatically, but I appreciate that both are moving in the direction of new ideas short of a unilateral escalation of violence. Both of these ideas carry economic costs and long term commitments though, so they are not easy choices. The first idea sounds very similar to an Operation Market Time type of commitment with international naval forces.
Another [idea] is to examine whether the “sons of Iraq” model might be applicable to Somalia. Piracy flourishes because it is successful in bringing in income. Pirates perform a Somali version of trickle-down economics because ransoms that are paid for hijacked ships provide an income stream not only in terms of donations to clans and religious leaders, but also supporting the entire infrastructure for piracy, down to paying the families of those who guard, feed and house captured sailors. If clans, however, could be paid (in cash and services) for serving as “coast guard auxiliaries”—with a clear understanding that payments would continue only if there was a corresponding drop in the number of pirate attacks—this might help to undermine the economic rationale for piracy.
The second idea is a broader policy question that I believe needs to be asked and answered at the Senate hearing John Kerry will hold. The global coast guard generally sucks where it exists in the 3rd world, and in the case of Somalia it doesn't exist. One question that the Obama administration needs to ask is whether the United States, with the international community, will spend money and help stand up a regional Coast Guard in those seas to fight Somali piracy. This means building capacity and committing to a long term partnership providing cooperative training and equipment for Kenya, Yemen, Djibouti, and potentially even the government of Somalia, or even to the level of the autonomous regions of Somalia.
The policy question whether to commit to developing a Coast Guard for regional maritime security would need to be answered before how such a Coast Guard would be created. Professor Gvosdev's idea would be one such option, essentially a "Sons of Somalia" model that in a way, sounds a lot like a 21st century version of a letter of marque, except instead of hiring western private contractors, indigenous security forces would be hired instead. Clearly to be effective a cooperative training role would exist, and potentially the necessity to provide some technologies to help integrate any indigenous Somali Coast Guard into the broader international coalition efforts.
Regardless of how the Maersk Alabama incident turns out, if the naval power fighting Somali piracy does not respond positively to the activity of the last week, maritime insurance rates are going to go up, likely way up. For an industry currently struggling due to global economic conditions, the trickle down effect can have consequences ranging from increasing consumer prices to determining what type of ships China is building in their shipyards next year should orders for commercial vessels slow down due to rising costs of trade at sea.
For its part, the US Navy cannot wait for the politics to change the current policy, the necessity to improve the current pirate fighting strategy exists now. The shipping companies only have the option for escort through the Gulf of Aden, there are no options around the east or southeast of Somalia. Expanding the convoy system to include the southern shipping lanes looks to be an important step that needs immediate attention.