Shadow Government

Time to act like a state

By Tom Mahnken

The seizure of the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia shined a spotlight on a problem that has been spreading in the shadows for years. Piracy has grown in the waters bordering the Horn of Africa because states have failed to act like states and leaders have failed to lead. Whether military force is permitted as a response to piracy is, as my lawyer friends say, settled law. International law has recognized pirates as outlaws who may be killed on sight since the Roman Empire. More recently, and more precisely, late last year the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1851, which permits operations against pirates in Somalia. Even with such authorization, it has proven more expedient to many to buy off criminals than to enforce international law. The non-response to piracy has sent a dangerous signal to all those who oppose international order. As William S. Lind noted in a recent essay, "Piracy not suppressed represents history lifting its leg on the whole state system."

The Obama administration's reaction to piracy in general, and the seizure of the ship in particular, betrays muddled thinking about the nature of the threat posed by piracy and the proper response to it. At least implicitly, the Obama administration appears to be treating pirates as if they were insurgents. Criminals (including pirates) represent a challenge of an altogether different sort. Whereas a mixture of political and ideological motivations drives insurgents to violence, it is the search for profit that fuels criminality. It is true that both terrorists (in the form of the Islamist insurgent group Al Shabab) and the pirates that prey upon merchants in the waters off Somalia thrive off the fact that Somalia lacks a government capable of bringing order to that benighted land. However, it is hardly necessary to "fix" Somalia in order to deal with piracy. Addressing Somalia's role as an ungoverned area will take time; addressing piracy in Somalia need not.

What the United States and those who wish to join us need to do is to drive up, rapidly and decisively, the cost of engaging in piracy. The successful operation to free Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates is a good start, but it is just a start. More will be needed to remove this threat to the global commons. Specifically, President Obama should give on-scene commanders permission to shoot pirates on sight. He should also authorize punitive strikes against the bases from which Somali pirates operate. Such actions, over the course of days or weeks, should be sufficient to drive the pirates off the seas. Of course, punitive strikes will not turn these criminals into law-abiding citizens; they will still be free to smuggle qat or steal relief aid. Nor will military action bring order to Somalia; it will still be a troubled and troublesome land. But military action can ease the threat of piracy to international commerce and to world order.

The United States is the most powerful state in the world and possesses the most powerful navy in the world. It is high time that we began to act like it.

David McNew/Getty Images

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