Obama and the Pirates

A foreign policy "success" may backfire

by , April 15, 2009

The administration of President Barack Obama is certainly owning the successful rescue of Americans held hostage by pirates in the seas off Somalia, holding it up as the epitome of what our rulers would like us to believe is a pragmatic, tough-minded, and decisive administration, and touting it as the Obamaites first overseas military success. Yet, barely a few hours after the dramatic rescue was made – complete with a display of sharp-shooting skills surpassed by none, and a tale of derring-do that featured a self-sacrificial captain and a crew determined to see him safely home – the problem with this sort of grandstanding was and is all too clear: the pirates are back, and with a vengeance, hijacking four more ships in 24 hours.

Which brings us to the question: is the United States military going to be rescuing each and every victim of pirates in the seven seas, ceaselessly sailing in whenever some off-course yacht is boarded by bad guys in the troublesome waters off the East African coast? If so, they’ll be plenty busy for the next decade or so, and they will doubtless have to cut down on their other activities – say, guarding our own coastline – in order to play superheroes of the seas.

An earlier rescue, that time carried out by the French, underscored the dangers inherent in such operations: one hostage was killed, along with three of the pirates. Aside from the problematic nature of such military actions, however, is the practical question of when to attempt a rescue and when to refrain from doing so. Is every act of piracy on the high seas a casus belli, insofar as these modern-day incarnations of Captain Hook and his crew are concerned?

The answer is that it can’t be. With Somalia a "failed state" and its neighbors unable or unwilling to take up the slack in policing East African waters, the problem is firmly embedded in the region. The solution, say all too many pundits and alleged experts, is for the U.S. military, or some combination of the U.S. and its allies, to intervene on land and nip the problem at its supposed source – the poverty and statelessness of Somalia.

Yet this is no solution at all, and it raises the same kind of open-ended commitment – because the same conditions prevail in, say, Mexico, where drug gangs are now competing with the "legal" gang in Mexico City for control of the country, or at least some significant portions of it. Kidnapping-for-profit is a burgeoning industry – indeed, the only industry that is enjoying boom times. Will the U.S. send in the Marines every time an American citizen is kidnapped and held for ransom on land? Or does this newfound anti-piracy militancy apply only to kidnapping on the high seas?

The principle appears to operate like this: if a hijacking is high-profile enough, action is warranted. If not – if, say, some hapless American kid on spring break is scooped up by kidnappers in Tijuana, his parents are presented with a ransom note, and no one outside the immediate circle of family and friends takes much notice – then the "principle" disappears.

It’s all about appearances, and reality enters very little into it: that about sums up the modus operandi and motivating energy of the Obama administration in this instance. The other day on MSNBC one commentator praised the administration for turning what could have been a major embarrassment into a public relations triumph, reveling in the fact that they played it up for all it was worth. In the end, however, the president and his amen corner will find it was hardly worth it, as a wave of ship hijackings and kidnappings washes over them – "blowback," if you will.

This incident underscores how haphazardly – and stupidly – the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth comes to be formulated and put into practice. With no clear principle of action – or inaction – the only consistent factor governing overseas military operations is how and to what degree they enhance the prestige and power of our rulers. The Obama administration is using the "war on piracy" to show that their guy is no wimp: he’s ready, willing, and indeed eager to employ those magnificent sharpshooters in pursuit of "justice." The Obamaites claim to be doing just that in Afghanistan and Pakistan, albeit on a larger scale.

This is supposed to be an administration of levelheaded "pragmatists," the perfect antidote for those starry-eyed neocon visionaries who got carried away with emotion and overreached in their ideological zeal. What this incident with the pirates reveals, however, is that the present lot are just as emotionally charged and reactive as their predecessors. One might argue that the Obamaites were, after all, successful, the hostages were freed, and all came out well in the end; but recall that the Bush administration, too, was hailed for its great "success" in Iraq, at least initially, and war critics were raked over the coals in the first few months for their lack of faith in the Bushian "global democratic revolution," which was said to be taking off throughout the region and world. It was only later, when the bloody reality broke through the miasmic cloud of propaganda, that the whole perfidious project began to be reevaluated.

The greatest danger is that this upsurge in "piracy" – i.e., private individuals engaging in activities that are normally monopolized by government agencies – will provoke a new wave of pundit palaver calling for the U.S. to "do something" about the problem by going after the "root causes." This is code for undertaking a full-scale military and social engineering project to "rescue" poor little Somalia from the cruel orphanage of statelessness.

In this scenario, the West will do its moral duty and embark on the first symbolic step of a major campaign for international economic and moral uplift. A black American president will extend a helping hand to an African nation without a functioning state. If, in Afghanistan, our alleged goal is to exact a punitive justice, in Somalia, or, indeed, anywhere in Africa, it will be deemed a "humanitarian" act. In more practical terms, however, it would be a project very similar to what we are attempting in Afghanistan: building a central government from the ground up – a project sure to gladden many liberal hearts.

The ultimate logic of liberal interventionism boils down to this: if government intervention is good, per se, on the home front, then why not apply the same principle abroad? Military action is, after all, the ultimate government action – and one, need I remind you, that modern liberals have not hesitated to project overseas. FDR, LBJ, and JFK come immediately to mind. And then there was Clinton, whose own foray into Somalia perhaps prefigures what awaits Obama, if he makes the mistake of taking his own rhetoric seriously.

Read more by Justin Raimondo