Out of Africa

A fair amount of ink has been devoted to the likelihood that, even if it withdraws substantially from Iraq, an Obama administration will send a considerable number of troops (though probably not enough to make much of a difference anytime soon) to Afghanistan. Even though it is widely acknowledged that the “surge” tactics the U.S. employed in Iraq – and there are justifiable questions as to whether luck and circumstances played the chief role in reducing violence there – would not be viable in the markedly different, more rugged terrain (and neighborhood) of Afghanistan, a good deal of military attention is being paid to devising strategies that might work. There seems to be an establishment consensus that the new administration must “do something” about a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

It is also worth noting, however, that there is pressure from some quarters, which is likely to increase, for U.S. intervention in Africa. Recent high-profile seizures of commercial vessels for ransom by Somali pirates, and the reported sinking, by an Indian navy ship, of an African-based pirate vessel, have put the region on front pages. A recent article on The New Republic‘s Web site by Jonathan Stevenson, a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College, argues for the concerted use of power in Africa – mostly “soft” power like brokering negotiations among factions, using President-elect Obama’s presumed credibility with Africans, but also including naval punishment of the pirates – as an early priority for an Obama administration.

On the neocon Right, the Wall Street Journal has featured an editorial and an opinion piece by Republican lawyers David Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey on how international law might be interpreted to facilitate a more muscular approach to the piracy problem, which has in fact increased in the last couple of years. The Journal recommends beefing up an existing Combined Task Force 150 naval consortium among several Western nations, claiming that “If the high seas are allowed to degrade into a no-man’s land, the world’s thugs will notice and press forward elsewhere.”

The policy world is beginning to buzz with remembrances that it was Thomas Jefferson, the president most genuinely committed to a limited role for government, who in 1805 ordered the first military engagement by the U.S. in foreign territory, against the then-active Barbary Pirates, who used the similar tactics of holding ships and people for ransom. The shores of Tripoli and all that.


As Jonathan Stevenson’s piece acknowledges and partially explains, one of the things that most appalls Western observers is the fact that after numerous failed attempts by the UN and other outsiders, Somalia still has no effective central government. He notes that one of the complicating factors is that primary loyalty is paid at the tribal level (roughly coterminous with regional demographics), and brokering a coalition government that pleases both the allegedly al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and the Ethiopian government, which a couple of years ago (almost certainly with Western support and encouragement) ousted the ICU from Mogadishu and still has a certain amount of control, would not be easy.

The upshot of what most choose to call the “failed state” of Somalia is that there is no national military that might be able to act against the pirates. Stevenson is encouraged that the Obama team includes Susan Rice and Samantha Power, both of whom have knowledge of and a long-term interest in African problems. He suggests that expectations have sunk so low that even an only partially successful but still credible effort at nation-building and stabilization in Somalia (and perhaps elsewhere in Africa) would yield decent results for an Obama administration and bolster American standing in the world.

As Nikolas Gvosdev, who styles himself the “Washington realist” on his blog, points out, there are sound economic reasons that have so far prevented various navies from just sailing in and retaking ships that have been seized by pirates.

“Generally, companies prefer getting their ship and cargo back in one piece rather than risk destruction – and because the pirates, as of yet, don’t seek to kill the crews (although there have been accidental deaths from bullet wounds during the initial takeover and a sailor on the Ukrainian vessel that was seized in September had a coronary) – there is no sense that the captured sailors are in imminent danger of death.”

Thus, the companies have preferred negotiating and paying ransom to forceful efforts. In addition, there are environmental concerns about oil spills should a tanker be damaged or sunk in a military-style encounter.

Despite circumstances that make a military approach to countering piracy potentially dicey – not to mention the unresolved question (which Rivkin and Casey raise) of what one does with captured pirates, including where they would be detained and who might try them – pressure is likely to grow. As Shashank Kulkarni, secretary general of the Indian National Shipowners Association in Mumbai, told the Washington Post after the sinking of a pirate ship by an Indian navy ship, “We are very, very concerned about piracy as it is hurting business.”

Who Should Handle It

The existence of a piracy problem around the Horn of Africa is what converts the yen to fix Africa from what has too often been the attitude of “liberal” or “progressive” people concerned with various international problems – that U.S. intervention into the affairs and troubles of other countries is more noble and therefore more justified if no geostrategic interest is involved and it’s strictly “humanitarian” – into a cause that “realists” might get behind. Piracy hurts commerce and, like the slave trade, undermines the fabric of civilization, so any civilized person has an interest in suppressing it. There’s a geostrategic interest after all.

Kulkarni’s affiliation with ship owners suggests who might more appropriately handle the piracy problem than governments around the world. Those most directly affected by piracy on the high seas are shipping companies and the companies that insure them. They have the most powerful incentive to have the problem solved or reduced, and they might very well be the best entities to do so fairly directly.

U.S. State Department spokesman Geoff Morrell, in fact, said he objects to “this whole issue that it’s incumbent upon the armed forces of the world – the navies of the world – to solve this problem.” As the Washington Post reported, “He suggested using high-frequency sounds to deter pirates from boarding and having more armed guards on commercial ships.” Such measures would increase the cost of shipping, but perhaps not by as much as the cost of having ships put out of commission for a while, being distracted from your core business by the necessity of conducting protracted negotiations, and then paying a ransom. I have no access to the shipping companies’ books, so I don’t know. That’s a calculation they would have to make.

If the cost of piracy is sufficiently high, they might even consider forming their own paramilitary groups, or contracting with one of the many private “security” firms like Blackwater to go after the pirates in their lairs. It might take only a few commando-style raids in which the ability of pirate groups to operate is disrupted and the pirates captured or killed to convince a lot of people at loose ends in Somalia that there might be less dangerous ways to make a living.

End of an Era

It is not surprising that most people who think about international relations think about nation-states as the natural entities to act on behalf of stability and the interests of civilized people who prefer commerce to ethnic hatred. But historian John Lukacs has argued in his recent book, At the End of an Age, that the era of nation-states on the Western model is coming to a close (though he’s not sure what kind of institutions will replace them, and he has some trepidation on that score). And the just-released national intelligence global trends report on what the world might look like by 2025 puts it this way:

“A global multipolar system is emerging with the rise of China, India, and others. The relative power of nonstate actors – businesses, tribes, religious organizations, and even criminal networks – also will increase.”

If that’s the case, suggesting that the businesses directly affected by a problem like piracy handle it themselves without bringing governments into it (except perhaps to try and punish the suspects) could be just going with the flow of history.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).