Have we awakened a sleeping giant or stood up, at long last, to a local bully? President Obama's decision last weekend to authorize force against the Somali pirates holding Captain Richard Phillips brought the end of a crisis, but it may be the beginning of a longer military effort. This year pirates have attacked dozens of vessels in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, which leads into the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Egged on by generous ransom payments, they're holding more than 300 sailors hostage. Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, was the first one taken off a U.S. vessel. A Red Sox fan, a family man, a good-humored snowboarder, a pillar of his Vermont village who had the courage to offer himself as a hostage in exchange for the safety of his unarmed crew, Phillips is not the sort of person Americans are content to see bound, mocked and threatened in the most lawless corner of the planet. This was a hostage crisis. Had the kidnappers made it to shore with Phillips, they would have taken a large part of Obama's presidential authority and poll ratings with them.
On Easter Sunday, Navy snipers shot three of Phillips' captors dead and freed him. Obama passed his first test with flying colors. Yet there was also evidence of indecision. Phillips had made an attempt to escape two days earlier and was hauled back to the lifeboat. Were our forces inattentive? Out of range? Or unauthorized to help? Getting a feel for situations like these takes time. Even Ronald Reagan, with his reputation for decisiveness, never did settle whether to allow the Marines he sent to help keep peace in Lebanon in 1982 to use deadly force to protect themselves. The Iranian speedboats that threatened oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in the late 1980s confused the U.S. Navy, much as Somali speedboats have befuddled the navies now trying to police the Indian Ocean. (See pictures of modern-day pirates.)
The President is urging that we "work with our partners" to cope with a new kind of bad actor the guy with nation-size ambitions who is accountable to no nation. Slice it any way you like, it is a challenge that resembles fighting terrorism. There are a lot of suggestions on the table: A system of World War II style convoys and escorts. An international moratorium on ransom payments. Some urge arming crews, although assuming that shippers can outgun young men fitted out with the best the Somali black market has to offer is a risky bet. The best solution is likely to be military, based on inspections, exclusion zones, rapid reaction and deadly force. That is how our partners are beginning to view it. French commandos retook a yacht on April 10, killing two pirates. (One passenger was killed.) Last November, the Indian navy sank a pirate "mother ship" off Yemen. Favoring multilateralism over unilateralism often means favoring talk over action; maybe last week's operation is a sign that Obama is not so easily pigeonholed.
In some quarters, there is skepticism about whether a military response is appropriate. These aren't terrorists, one argument goes, because privation, not politics, is the root of the crisis. To listen to this woolly-headed analysis, you would think piracy was the closest thing Somalis had to a workable aid program. "The threat of death," editorializes the Los Angeles Times, "isn't much of a deterrent to hopeless young Somali men who face a choice between potentially making millions on the high seas or starving on shore."
There is an illogic here. If the incentives for piracy are economic, then a decreased likelihood of booty ought to curtail it. Yet no one seems to expect this to happen. Papers relay the boasts of pirates that they will exact "revenge" on Americans. How so? On whose behalf? Such solidarity is less typical of entrepreneurs than it is of terrorists and guerrillas. When Phillips' captors ran out of fuel, they radioed other pirate-held ships for help. There is talk of pirate dens on and near the Somali coasts: Harardhere, Eyl, Boosaaso. "Den" is a quaint, Peter Pan ish way of putting it. "Enemy naval base" might be more apt.
Somalia is the most failed of failed states, but that doesn't make the pirates apolitical. They don't need a state. Piracy is their state. Trying to erect a livable society in Somalia would be to confront them with a rival, as we discovered once before. The pirates are not "desperate." They are well fed, crafty and competent. They are the maritime wing of the warlord culture that governs Somalia de facto and does so in such a way that its citizens don't eat. Whatever the root causes of Somali piracy, helping Somalia might be a worthy goal once the pirates are defeated militarily. It is a pointless one until then.
Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. His book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe will be published in July