Obama's Swashbuckling

The president did a good job handling the pirate crisis. But he should temper his enthusiasm to eliminate all Somali piracy.

Kudos to President Obama. He resisted the groundswell of public opinion demanding "immediate action" after the captain of the M/V Maersk Alabama was taken hostage. A patient approach won the day, eliminating three pirates and rescuing Captain Richard Phillips without injury. Most importantly, the president avoided a hostage crisis that, if allowed to continue for weeks on end, would have gravely weakened his presidency-he would not want to have daily news reports captioned "Held Hostage."

The liberation of Phillips gave the Obama administration some breathing room. The problem, however, is that the president immediately declared that the United States is "resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region." No breathing room, such as a judiciously considered policy review-the strategy that was so effectively used for the first several months on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Right now, in the afterglow of the rescue, American public opinion is very gung-ho about going after the pirates, sending SEALS and an army of Jack Bauers into Somalia to root out the pirate gangs, and deploying the navy to protect ships and crews from Suez to the Horn of Africa. Is that going to be the case in six months?

Problem one: shipping companies choose not to flag their vessels under the Stars and Stripes (or under the banner of other developed countries, for that matter) because they don't want to be subject to U.S. regulations and pay U.S.-mandated wages and taxes. So why should America take up the burden of defending ships flying the Liberian or Panamanian flags? Look at the immense political fallout from the financial bailout-the charge that the U.S. taxpayer is subsidizing Wall Street fat cats. Unless shipping companies are prepared to contribute to an anti-piracy fund to reimburse the United States for the costs of its deployments, this could be a point of contention down the road.  

But the reality is that Somali piracy for most shipping companies remains a nuisance-albeit a growing one. With up to twenty thousand ships sailing in the extended zone of Somali-pirate operations, the chances of any one vessel being seized are still quite small. And companies would rather pay ransom and get ships, crews and cargoes back undamaged than risk the losses. So unless the industry's calculus changes, they aren't going to want to incur new expenses for security. So does the U.S. taxpayer then just pick up the tab? It may prove to be a difficult selling point.

Problem two: contributions from other states. Obama was essentially rebuffed when he asked European NATO allies to contribute more combat forces for Afghanistan. Are they going to "make up" for this by taking the lion's share of the burden, then, of any new massive antipiracy coalition-not only in terms of ships to patrol at sea, but also any potential ground forces sent into Somalia itself? After all, the Gulf of Aden route to the Suez Canal is an important European shipping lane, not one as critical for the United States. How will the administration prevent a repetition of the free-rider problem? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she will convene the contact group on Somalia-bringing together both European and East African states-to push for a larger naval force off the coast and more efforts to stabilize Somalia. What happens if the response is lackluster from the contact group? Is the United States going to make up the difference?

Can the Obama administration convince other countries to step up and contribute forces or contributions? The high-water mark for success in such matters is the first Gulf War, where most of the expenses for the war were paid for by contributions from Saudi Arabia, Japan and Germany. Could Secretary Clinton duplicate the efforts of James Baker's famed "checkbook diplomacy"?

TNI Editor Justine Rosenthal recommended, back in November 2007, a strategy whereby U.S. leadership is best served "by holding back, being needed, picking our moment and then making the game-winning play." Has piracy off the coast of Somalia reached that point yet? Have we gotten "the invitation" from the rest of the world to take the lead or are we jumping the gun? Our anti-piracy policy should proceed cautiously and judiciously-and work to enhance the U.S. position, not undermine it.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.