2008 November 26 Wednesday
Why We Are Pussies About The Pirates?

Bret Stephens looks at the fairly lame response of various nations to the East African pirates.

A multinational naval force has attempted to secure a corridor in the Gulf of Aden, through which 12% of the total volume of seaborne oil passes, and U.S., British and Indian naval ships have engaged the pirates by force. Yet the number of attacks keeps rising.

Why? The view of senior U.S. military officials seems to be, in effect, that there is no controlling legal authority. Title 18, Chapter 81 of the United States Code establishes a sentence of life in prison for foreigners captured in the act of piracy. But, crucially, the law is only enforceable against pirates who attack U.S.-flagged vessels, of which today there are few.

What about international law? Article 110 of the U.N.'s Law of the Sea Convention -- ratified by most nations, but not by the U.S. -- enjoins naval ships from simply firing on suspected pirates. Instead, they are required first to send over a boarding party to inquire of the pirates whether they are, in fact, pirates. A recent U.N. Security Council resolution allows foreign navies to pursue pirates into Somali waters -- provided Somalia's tottering government agrees -- but the resolution expires next week. As for the idea of laying waste, Stephen Decatur-like, to the pirate's prospering capital port city of Eyl, this too would require U.N. authorization. Yesterday, a shippers' organization asked NATO to blockade the Somali coast. NATO promptly declined.

I think problems should be solved. Courses of action should be considered in light of the question of how to most quickly and easily to solve a problem. This attitude puts me at odds with how the people who run governments reason about so many problems.

Some people point to Thomas Jefferson's response to the Barbary Pirates as an example of a more uncompromising and violent response to pirates. But a careful reading of that history finds that before and at the end of the war Jefferson's government consented to pay the pirates. Now, Jefferson was much more willing to use military force. But he was willing to negotiate with them.

We could stop piracy pretty quickly by flagging all cargo ships in the region with American flags, refusing negotiation, and killing all pirates. We could even stop piracy with a less extreme response which still involves taking back all hijacked ships by force with no more ransoms while keeping captured pirates alive. But the West has grown soft and so the piracy will continue.

In the 18th century the margin for survival was much lower. Ships' captains could not afford the risk (and probably not even the food) of keeping captured pirates on board. A weak new United States had little in the way of a navy and so was tempted by the idea of paying protection payments to the Muslim rulers of North Africa.

Curiously, one motive for Jefferson's war against the Barbary Pirates is that he thought victorious war would be cheaper than tribute. Jefferson fought war in order to reduce the size of government. What a different era he lived in.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2008 November 26 10:45 PM  Civilizations Decay

Steve Johnson said at November 27, 2008 6:58 AM:

Back when governments didn't just create money out of thin air the people who ran them had to actually be concerned about using limited resources.

Back when countries were mono-ethnic the incentives and social pressure worked to guide rulers toward acting the considered long term best interests of the ruled country.

Back when the franchise was limited governments had a better quality of people heading them.

Unsurprisingly our current power structure constantly propagandizes against any of these ideas since if the quality of rule were to be compared our present structure would be shown to be grossly inferior.

Stopped Clock said at November 27, 2008 9:44 AM:

This is such an anachronism. I thought piracy was gone long ago, like that old Jimmy Buffett song said.

Jerry Martinson said at November 27, 2008 11:12 AM:

A flip side of given into the seemingly "surrender money" extortion racket is that it can generate intelligence and be used to get rival pirate groups to rat each other out. But I think this only works if there is a methodical effort to combat the pirates via effective methods that are beyond normal law enforcement.

Taking a legal approach to piracy is effective only when the pirates are based in a country that actually has laws. If countries hosting aren't enforcing the law (i.e. philosophically surrendering their sovereignty), a few JDAMs on suspected pirate locations or even some task force raids should be done. Pirates in active areas should be killed and identified and tracked down by use of baiting tactics. The UN rules in this case are unrealistic; certain areas of the sea are essentially in a low-intensity conflict and need a lower burden of proof.

Stephen said at November 27, 2008 2:03 PM:

People steal ships just the same way that other people steal cars and trucks - that's why we have insurance. I don't hear many calls for country A to lob a few JDAMS at country B just because a truck registered in country C happens to have been stolen while passing through B. Why is a ship different?

Ned said at November 27, 2008 6:41 PM:

The United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, gives Congress the authority:

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;

They knew how to deal with pirates back in Horatio Hornblower's day - hang 'em. They'll get the message pretty quick.

Dave said at November 27, 2008 6:47 PM:

haha, They aren't stealing ships Stephen, they are kidnaping people and holding them for ransom. They give the ships back after they've been paid, unless they are weapons shipsments which they can easily sell on in their war-torn countries.

I believe crossborder kidnaping has always been treated more seriously than localised car theft, and rightly so.

Stephen said at November 27, 2008 9:27 PM:

Dave said: "...they are kidnaping people and holding them for ransom".

Do you really think that the owner of the ship would pay a ransom for the return of half a dozen anonymous third-world deck hands? No way. Its the cargo and ship itself that has value, not the crew.

The proof is that if the crew actually thought they were going to be ransomed, then they themselves would be busy repelling boarders because their own lives would be at risk if no ransom was paid. Additionally, who wants to be dropped off in down-town Mogadishu? Much rather stay aboard ship.

Jerry Martinson said at November 28, 2008 9:46 AM:


Actually ransom is a major part of the racket according to press reports. And the interviewed sailors describe their treatment as awful in the press. This isn't like some sort of *wink* *wink* mafia hijacking a truck in New Jersey like you see in the cheesy Mob movies where the driver is complicit. These are repetitive violent actions hosted in areas that aren't under any meaningful political or legal control from the country that claims the turf. The internal dynamics of these regions are far more complicated than can be appreciated by looking at the crisp borders of a political map probably made in Britain long ago. I'm not saying lob JDAMs at political entities that claim the turf but actually don't meaningfully control it. That would be nuts as the titular regimes in these areas barely have control over the wealthy parts of the major cities. I'm saying target the people controlling the bandit action if the political entities that claim the territory are unable or unwilling to police that territory.

Dave said at November 28, 2008 6:03 PM:

They aren't 'third world crew' two Brits are on the Sirius Star supertanker, many captured ships have European crews.

Larry said at December 3, 2008 1:06 PM:

Why not use Q ships (as used in WW1 against U-boats and raiders). These would be armed civilian cargo ships that look unarmed. Let the pirates attack and then blow em out the water. After more and more pirates fail to return home they will get the message. This is the private solution.

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