An almost perfect metaphor for one of the world’s greatest threats came sailing out of the front pages of the world’s newspapers a couple of weeks ago. A Saudi supertanker, the MV Sirius Star with $100 million in oil aboard, had been hijacked by a small band of Somali pirates likely armed with not much more than AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades.
The piracy is a symbol of the anarchy in Somalia and other failed states that has made even the smallest and most primitive lands a threat to the most powerful and sophisticated nations.
But even if the dilemma of Somalia is insoluble, it should not deter Western nations from efforts to defeat the pirates or at least render them impotent to threaten Western interests. The anarchy on land is divisible from that at sea.
In May 2003, President Bush announced the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) under which eleven nations joined together to work outside the UN to interdict and seize illegal shipments of weapons of mass destruction and missiles on the high seas, in the air and on the ground. The PSI soon proved its worth when Libya was caught shipping nuclear weapons technology. The PSI provides a model in which the concerned nations – not just the United States – can unite to use military force to suppress piracy and protect shipping.
That approach is important: the United States should not — alone — be responsible for the safety of shipping.
Ship hijacking off the Horn of Africa has been on the upswing for the past two years and has finally come to the forefront of international attention with the taking of the Sirius Star. There have been close to 100 attempted hijackings this year, forty of which were successful, with fifteen ships and close to 300 crewmen remaining in pirate hands.
So far the pirates have claimed $30 million in ransom, but the real significance (beyond the threat to crews) is that ships are increasingly avoiding the region, abandoning the short cut to Europe through the Suez Canal in favor of the much longer and more expensive route around South Africa.
The pirates typically operate from Puntland, a largely independent region in Somalia’s north. Not surprisingly, officials there have been accused of assisting the pirates; even less surprising is that they say they are powerless to stop the kind of bandits and terrorists (prominently including Al Qaeda) who inevitably thrive in the interstices of power in Muslim states.
As Afghanistan is proving, foreign powers are unable or unwilling to respond effectively. Nation-building doesn’t work and the West has — thankfully — outgrown colonialism. It would require prodigies of blood and money to stabilize Somalia economically and police effectively, even if the international community could agree on a plan.
Breezy suggestions to “send in the Marines” to the ports sheltering hijackers are as fatuous as they are irresponsible; the entire country — almost the size of Texas — is a sanctuary for the pirates, who can launch their small craft from a coast line of over 2,000 miles. They wouldn’t oblige us by waiting in their pirate dens for capture and out of impoverished desperation — and spurred by the Islamists who control vast parts of Somalia and share the booty — the pirates would undoubtedly develop new techniques to elude any raiders.
That on- and off-shore anarchy might be halted by a temporary government imposed under UN mandate remains an improbable ideal. The UN’s Blue Helmets are not only overstretched, but have marred their reputation with ineffectiveness and bad conduct, and have been manhandled or fired upon by indigenous forces. And they cannot be counted on to fight.
But even as the Security Council has condemned the piracy with Resolution 1838, close to 1,100 words of the usual mush, slush and gush, an informal international consensus for action outside the fatuous auspices of the UN may finally be emerging.
Major trading powers have recently increased their naval presence and become more aggressive. In October NATO sent seven warships to patrol the Horn of Africa; India deployed a warship in the region in early November; Arab states have finally been stirred by the taking of the Saudi supertanker; and, Russia has recently joined the international flotilla (possibly paving the way for China, which recently saw one of its fishing boats attacked).
This concert of nations might be institutionalized along the lines of the Proliferation Security Initiative, which aims to stop trafficking in WMD and their related materials and delivery systems.
Efforts to subdue piracy may even have an advantage over PSI, as the Somalis operate in a very circumscribed area compared to the global scope of proliferators; and, as the pirates are the aggressors, the tricky issue of boarding other nations’ trading vessels to search for WMD is avoided, which may also mean that — unlike with PSI — private security may also be regularly engaged.
Moreover, the status of piracy in international law is long-established; law governing activity on the high seas is already quite extensive; the hijacking is more commercial than political in its implications; its continuation offers no advantage to East, West, North or South; and, arresting it does not involve the controversial issue of foreign troops on the African continent.
As many maritime powers as possible should be arrayed around NATO, Russia and India. Like PSI it should be a low-key operation, stripped as much as possible of politics and entanglement with bureaucracy.
Suppressing piracy off the Horn of Africa won’t be easy. The Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean constitute a vast area that swallow up the small boats of the innumerable desperate tribesmen willing to take a chance for riches. But “sending in the Marines” to get at the root causes in Somalia is a practical impossibility. The world will have to either wait for a strong man to pacify the country or for some terrorist outrage, likely by Al Qaeda, that — as with Afghanistan — will force a massive international response.
Turn a supertanker on a dime, anyone? In the meantime, we can turn back the piracy.