The administration of President Barack Obama is certainly owning the successful rescue of Americans held hostage by pirates in the seas off Somalia, holding it up as the epitome of what our rulers would like us to believe is a pragmatic, tough-minded, and decisive administration, and touting it as the Obamaites first overseas military success. Yet, barely a few hours after the dramatic rescue was made — complete with a display of sharp-shooting skills surpassed by none, and a tale of derring-do that featured a self-sacrificial captain and a crew determined to see him safely home — the problem with this sort of grandstanding was and is all too clear: the pirates are back, and with a vengeance, hijacking four more ships in 24 hours.
Which brings us to the question: is the United States military going to be rescuing each and every victim of pirates in the seven seas, ceaselessly sailing in whenever some off-course yacht is boarded by bad guys in the troublesome waters off the East African coast? If so, they’ll be plenty busy for the next decade or so, and they will doubtless have to cut down on their other activities — say, guarding our own coastline — in order to play superheroes of the seas.
An earlier rescue, that time carried out by the French, underscored the dangers inherent in such operations: one hostage was killed, along with three of the pirates. Aside from the problematic nature of such military actions, however, is the practical question of when to attempt a rescue and when to refrain from doing so. Is every act of piracy on the high seas a casus belli, insofar as these modern-day incarnations of Captain Hook and his crew are concerned?
The answer is that it can’t be. With Somalia a "failed state" and its neighbors unable or unwilling to take up the slack in policing East African waters, the problem is firmly embedded in the region. The solution, say all too many pundits and alleged experts, is for the U.S. military, or some combination of the U.S. and its allies, to intervene on land and nip the problem at its supposed source — the poverty and statelessness of Somalia.
Yet this is no solution at all, and it raises the same kind of open-ended commitment — because the same conditions prevail in, say, Mexico, where drug gangs are now competing with the "legal" gang in Mexico City for control of the country, or at least some significant portions of it. Kidnapping-for-profit is a burgeoning industry — indeed, the only industry that is enjoying boom times. Will the U.S. send in the Marines every time an American citizen is kidnapped and held for ransom on land? Or does this newfound anti-piracy militancy apply only to kidnapping on the high seas?