Bring Back the Privateers

As violent extremists spread carnage to more and more countries, letters of marque issued by Congress to private companies might offer strategic advantages in flexibility, speed and cost control.

May-June 2015

IF STRATEGY is the art of rethinking the possible, then the time for strategic innovation against what the U.S. military terms violent extremist organizations (VEOs) is now. The American-led air war in Iraq and Syria may have shown some progress against the Islamic State and other VEOs, but the VEOs and their sympathizers have hit back with attacks in France and brutal beheadings of journalists and aid workers. Frustration is growing in Congress as the traditional tools of American power fail to produce decisive results. But what can those on Capitol Hill do?

More than they realize. An overlooked clause of the Constitution empowers them to take the fight to VEOs in a way the president cannot. Invoking this clause would help Congress restore its faded prerogatives in national security while hitting America’s extremist enemies harder—and it would be cheap. Under Article I, Section 8, Congress “shall have Power . . . to declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” American legislators should now consider resurrecting this long-forgotten but constitutionally enshrined strategic alternative by issuing letters of marque and reprisal.

Historically, these letters provided the legal authority by which naval warfare could be conducted by private individuals, commonly known as privateers. Even before the Constitution was ratified, many colonial governors (and the infant Continental Congress) issued letters to promote raiding against Britain’s economic assets in North America during the Revolutionary War. This approach was deemed necessary because the young United States lacked a navy of sufficient size to confront its early enemies. The letters expeditiously authorized a much-needed military capability to wage war when other tools weren’t readily available. The situation is similar today, when political choices and fiscal barriers hobble the deployment of uniformed American and coalition ground forces into Iraq and Syria. There are insufficient ground forces to alter the territorial status quo the Islamic State has created. By authorizing private forces with letters of marque, Congress will begin to address the pressing need to engage in ground combat against VEO militants.

 

ARE LETTERS of marque legal? In 1856, fifty-five governments ratified the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law, which banned states from commissioning privateers. The United States was not a signatory of the declaration. However, as its official naval assets increased, the use of letters faded from America’s strategic consciousness. Despite this historic shift, the United States has signed and ratified no international treaties that supersede Congress’s authority to both modernize and reissue letters.

Congress can again participate in shaping national strategy by issuing letters to any number of the private military corporations (PMCs) that have expressed a willingness to go to war by putting private “boots on the ground.” PMCs were integral force multipliers in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, freeing regular troops for higher-priority tasks. Unfortunately, like the privateers of yore, they have a mixed reputation, in part due to incidents in which they have operated beyond the scope of their contracts. There is also a public perception that they exist solely for profit. However, as VEOs proliferate and spread carnage to more and more countries, letters issued by Congress to private companies (American or international) might offer strategic advantages in flexibility, speed and cost control. Ultimately, they could produce results on the battlefield, with private troops doing the fighting. Bring back the privateers.

 

WHO WOULD these privateers be? Taking a page from the all-volunteer Rough Riders of the Spanish-American War and the famed Abraham Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Civil War, PMCs could recruit socially concerned individuals to go fight for a good cause abroad. In doing so, American and European Muslims who are offended by VEOs’ blood-soaked blasphemies would have a productive venue to help defend their faith in Iraq and Syria. In addition to Muslims motivated to fight to preserve the reputation of their faith and restore peace to their coreligionists’ homelands, many veterans of America’s recent wars may be drawn to employment with PMCs out of a sense of duty and a longing to finish the fight begun on September 11, 2001. By late 2014, news outlets reported that the first American and Canadian veterans had arrived as private citizens to fight alongside the Kurds in northern Iraq. Unconventional? Yes. But PMCs and modern privateering are ideas worth embracing if Congress is seeking new options to augment the growing international coalition against the scourge of VEOs like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

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