A reminder, in case you needed it, that it is not 1794 anymore: Vice Admiral William Gortney of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet has advised merchant mariners that there’s not much he or his Combined Task Force 150 can do about the aggressive operations of Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. Since “[the multinational naval] coalition does not have the resources to provide 24-hour protection for the vast number of merchant vessels in the region,” Gortney has announced that it is up to ship’s masters to provide for their own security. He has also advised them to hire shipboard security guards from mercenary companies.
One does not want to be too hard on Admiral Gortney, given that he may be an honest man in spite of his rank. Yet in the event he is honest, he should be at least a little abashed for having begotten an unintentionally Onion-esque headline via Military.com: “Navy Calls on Industry to Tackle Piracy.”
The reader is advised to give that sentence a second look.
Are there not a couple of words that seem a bit, well transposed?
No, we have read correctly. Industry is shamelessly shirking its duties in the rightful scheme of things. So the Navy is giving Industry a few helpful nudges, so that Industry might stop goofing off and start doing its job. Hey, Industry, wake up! Tackle piracy!
To be fair to the admiral, safeguarding traffic in a 1-million-square-nautical-mile zone off the Somali coast is a daunting task. On the other hand, this task is one of the few justifications for keeping a vast, globe-spanning, hegemonic navy in the first place. If a navy lacks the capability to keep the sea lanes open, one must wonder how its leaders can in turn keep straight faces while requesting a $149 billion budget. Either the admirals require a great deal more, or their inability to produce results means they can only be trusted with a great deal less. If it is our Navy’s business to rattle sabers in defense of Georgia’s right to blitzkrieg South Ossetia, then it is surely our Navy’s business to ensure the safety of peaceable ocean commerce through a major trade artery. (Perhaps our Navy has no business doing either, but at least it was founded with the express purpose of accomplishing the latter.) Based on the shock-and-awe inflicted upon the first-responders, one would think we were dealing with Godzilla or Captain Nemo here, not the age-old and chronic problem of seafaring.
Hey, what did you expect for a measly $149 billion? Decks made of gold? Anchors decorated with rubies?
The fact is that the U.S. Navy in its current form like the American military writ large is a white elephant that is ceaselessly touted as indispensable and omnipotent. Until, that is, the elephant is actually called upon to do something useful. Consider the available arsenal. Thanks to taxes paid by subjects of the American empire, the U.S. Navy possesses three conventional aircraft carriers, 10 nuclear supercarriers, 10 VSTOL/helicopter carriers, 18 nuclear ballistic missile submarines, 48 nuclear attack submarines, 22 guided-missile cruisers, 53 guided-missile destroyers, 30 guided-missile frigates, and 3,000 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Observe that this account does not include minesweepers, patrol craft, military sealift command vessels, spacecraft, shore installations, and 300,000+ personnel. Supposedly the U.S. taxpayer must foot the bill for all of this because the Navy’s protective aegis vouchsafes the security of free peoples throughout the world.
Yet now, having stockpiled all this hardware, the Navy’s response to a distressed international maritime community is to pass the buck and adopt a fake paternalism more appropriate to Smoky the Bear: Only you can prevent ocean hijackings. I am not a libertarian, but episodes like this do make it easy to understand libertarian sentiments. That is, what are admirals, the aforementioned armada, and Benevolent Global Hegemony actually for? Humanitarian interventions? Toppling undemocratic regimes? Meddling in other people’s civil wars? Putting an end to evil? “Maintaining freedom of the seas” has become passé in naval circles it’s just so 18th century. As it turns out, if you want freedom of the seas maintained today, well, you pretty much have to hire a private contractor.
First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon of Barbary Wars fame would probably agree with Gortney’s assessment that “the solution is on the beach.” But the admiral’s commitment to “preventing the conditions that breed pirates” is a bit perplexing. My own hope is that the admiral is merely under the mistaken impression that pirates hatch from eggs laid in stagnant ponds, yet I fear he may instead be channeling the great postmodern spirit of nation-building. According to this spirit, the realistic approach is not to fight adversaries as they come but to remold and remake the world so nobody wants to fight you.
Cynical observers may argue that this mindset becomes self-fulfilling. As more forces are tied up in elaborate nation-building projects and other messianic adventures, fewer forces are available to perform the functions one could reasonably expect from an empire, such as keeping the highways open. Perhaps sailors and Marines would be in a position to chip in and stand sentry duty aboard merchant vessels were they not preoccupied restraining excited Shi’ites and Sunnis from celebrating too hard under the intoxicating high of sweet liberation.
One possible option even now is the one advocated by Russia’s NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin, a follower of the classic Russian ve must crush them school of thought. Rogozin calls for “the European Union, NATO, and others to launch a coastal land operation” against the sea-raiders’ bases.
But simple, straightforward punitive expeditions have ceased to be America’s strong point. If Afghanistan or Iraq are indicators, then the warm and futile glow of trying to fix somebody else’s country has become a higher priority than the alleged reasons for breaking it in the first place. Should America’s foreign-policy ding-a-lings get warmed up, before we know it we’ll have a glorious “Global War on Piracy." Its inevitable failure to capture the pirate ringleaders will somehow become a pretext for invading Iran.
There is a more pragmatic technique available if America insists on remaining the guarantor of peace, freedom, and security worldwide. (Like me, you may not agree with this insistence, but we can concur that if it must be done, it should at least be done competently for once.)
Canceling one of our new aircraft carriers would free up over $6 billion, and rethinking 1794 delivers a creative, proactive use for this tremendous sum. “Preemptive ransom” rather than preventive war could become the new catch phrase in strategic think-tanks, as this treasure-hoard should be more than enough to buy the loyalty of the most adept sea-bandits along the Horn of Africa. Admiral Gortney could then hire them to do his job for him, guaranteeing the safety of merchant mariners.
On second thought, terms like “ransom” or “tribute” should be avoided, of course, in favor of more diplomatic euphemisms, such as "insurance."
Naturally, the Navy’s powerful carrier lobby would be upset at the loss of a flattop, as would various “pro-military” pork-barrel paladins in the House and Senate. But either the thing can do the task or it can’t. If a carrier-centered superforce cannot fulfill one out of the three goals listed in the U.S. Navy’s mission statement, then nobody has any right to start shrieking about how the world will end if the Navy gets one less Gerald R. Ford for Christmas 2015.
The only drawback to this approach is that sooner or later the Somali pirates will realize their insurance payments are in a currency that floats upon a titanic bubble of debt, and that the dollar is little better than Monopoly money. They might insist on being paid in real wealth, of which the U.S. is notoriously short nowadays.
We must keep in mind that just because they’re criminals doesn’t mean they’re stupid.