Solutions for the Pirate Problem

The latest Foreign Policy web-only exclusive, written by neoconservative J. Peter Pham, is an analysis of the Somali piracy problem, something Pham has been assessing for some time. The subtitle of the article "Why the U.S. Navy Can’t Win this Fight" is appealing in its prescience.

But what the author really means to say is that the U.S. Navy can only win the fight with the help of other navies, UN and US-led nation-building in Somalia (both in Puntland and presumably Somaliland which have functioning self-government, as well as in the southern Ethiopian-occupied Somalia, which does not).

Rather than being liberals mugged by reality, neo-conservatives can be likened to muggers promised redemption for a few public good works. Their souls chained by a sense of limit on every good thing, eager to appease and please their gangbosses, and with an unshakeable faith in the use of force on the weak — neoconservatives persist in the halls of government and throughout the government-dependent media.

Hoodlums in suits they truly are, although it’s possible some of them mean well. But high-minded muggers cannot imagine real solutions to the problems of sea piracy. Instead, they put forth more state-on-individual intervention, more national and international bureaucracy. Like other criminals, they suppose the rest of us will pay for it, in blood and honor, and be grateful we were spared our very skins.

The history of private security is not glorious, inevitably souring with its proximity to government contracts and politicians. Nonetheless, it met — and meets — a need for commercial security that offers a decentralized way to think about the problem of robbers, whether they be Robin Hoods, out-of-work fishermen, teenage boys — or the global money launderers than make this aspect of the world go round.

Popular movies like The Thomas Crown Affair, and the American love affair with our individualistic, independent and armed forbearers tell one side of the story. The notoriety and faithlessness of the global defense contractors working with — and against — governments for cash and ideology — as seen in this season’s 24 — tells the other side.

Every clue is available to government decision-makers — yet the obvious solutions to piracy and indiscriminate hostage-taking escape the Obamites and congressional Republicrats. To solve the problem of cargo and crew seizure for ransom, decentralized decision-making and decentralize actions will work best, at minimal cost, with minimal destruction and violence.

Insurance rates in the Gulf of Aden have risen tenfold. This recent spate of news coverage belies the fact that sea piracy has been around for centuries — and indeed we already know something about how to reduce it. In the Straits of Malacca, South China Sea and Indonesian waters, insurance rates have increased drastically, routes altered, and some freight companies have hired onboard security guards. A 2004 study explains

"These guards … are being deployed discreetly, because the legal status of armed guards on board commercial vessels is not clear under international law. …If the guards use deadly force, they and their employers may be criminally liable. Yet the policy is pursued because it is working; numerous, potentially deadly piracy attacks are being thwarted on a daily basis by the mere presence of armed guards, who, working in groups of four to eight per ship, often do not have to fire even a single shot in order to keep the pirates at bay. Ship owners also favor hiring armed private security guards because the practice may help them negotiate better insurance premiums.

It goes on: "The deterrence effect can also be achieved when pirates know or expect that the ships’ crews themselves carry firearms. Pirates deliberately avoid Russian- and U.S.-flagged ships, for example, because they believe that many of them carry small arsenals for protection." Incidentally, the crew of the US-flagged Alabama was not armed — and yet was still able to get the better of the four Kalashnikov-armed hijackers. This heroism is individual and team based, autonomous. Unlike the famously overplayed stories of a Flight 93 passenger uprising — where no after-action interviews may be conducted — we will be subjected to far more noise today about the heroism of Naval commanders and Navy snipers hidden on the fantail of the USS Bainbridge.

A business-oriented, personal responsibility-friendly, insurance rate-enhancing approach will never be recommended, suggested, or condoned by "state sovereignty" types. American missions must be justified, sunk cost in a global police force rationalized. Obamites and their neoconservative allies, around the world and regardless of their political coats, prefer war, prefaced by political and economic intervention of those perceived to be weaker or less worthy than ourselves.

Perhaps one of the companies formerly known as Blackwater will see new opportunities in private commerce protection. Of course, they’d need plenty of subsidies and guaranteed long-term contracts. No need to advocate decentralized market-based solutions just yet — let’s wait for more state-sanctioned war, more justification for American hostility and use of force around the world, more generalized fear here at home. Then, perhaps Xe or a subsidiary will jump in the game, complete with congressional blessings and taxpayer cash.

Whether the drug war, the poverty war, the war on terror, or the war on piracy — for our government, it’s always first things first. Establish the moral high ground of the state, centralize decision-making, bureaucratize and internationalize the legitimate policy discussion, drum fear and uncertainty into the hearts of markets and populations, demonize the "enemy" and smear as co-conspirators any individual actors offering non-state solutions, and make the erstwhile victims as helpless as possible.

We could lighten up on sovereign—greed oriented regulation on shipping companies and freighter captains, and let the real producers of wealth decide how to proceed. We could take a look at where some of this ransom money is being laundered, and with no additional bureaucracy, easily shut down some of our white-collar friends. Instead, Washington is alive with possibility — tut-tutting excitedly about international or sub-regional coast guards, invasion of Somalia for its own good, academic study of the pirate tactics of 17-year-old boys, and the barbarous behavior of others.