Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Pirates 3 a.m.

Back in the 2008 Democratic primaries, then candidate Hillary Clinton suggested that fellow candidate Barrack Obama wouldn't be ready as president to answer the emergency phone call that comes into the White House at three in the morning; now according to former George W. Bush press flack Ari Fleischer that call has come, in the form of Somali pirates.

“4 Americans killed by pirates. This is the 3:00am call that Hillary warned about. If O [Pres. Obama] doesn't want more killed, he must strike back,” Fleischer tweeted according to ABC News. Fleischer was of course referring to the four Americans aboard a hijacked yacht in the Indian Ocean on Tuesday at the hands of Somali pirates that had captured the ship over the weekend – though frankly a few things about that story don't make a lot of sense. Supposedly the pirates were negotiating with the FBI when gunshots were heard. Navy SEALS were dispatched from a nearby US warship only to find the hostages dead; two pirates were then killed in a shootout, two others wounded and 13 taken into custody. The problems I have with this story though are why would the pirates decide to shoot their hostages in the middle of negotiations? And 21 people seems like a lot for a 58-foot yacht... Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that this was a Navy-led hostage rescue attempt gone wrong.

But getting back to Fleischer, he went on to tweet: “If I was a Somali pirate & if O doesn't retaliate, I'd keep taking hostages. If crime/terror pays, there will be more crime/terror.” Fleischer is apparently unaware that the current wave of piracy off the coast of Somalia has been going on in earnest since 2008 and that literally dozens of ships have been captured so far and tens of millions paid in ransom. Equally as tone-deaf was Donald Trump at the recent CPAC convention when he said that all we needed to solve the piracy problem was a few ships and a couple of good admirals; again apparently unaware that at any given time there is a flotilla of roughly two dozen warships from navies around the globe, the US Navy included, engaged in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. The problem is that given the fact Somali pirates now range across several million square miles of ocean, to effectively combat the problem more than 100 warships would be needed. (Frankly it's also a little hard to believe that with protests roiling North Africa and the Persian Gulf, Fleischer keyed in on Somali pirates as Obama's “3 a.m. moment”.)

Fleischer's comments are likely a new conservative line of attack on Obama's foreign policy, slamming him over a fairly intractable problem that the global community has been happy to ignore for the past two decades; namely the lawless state that is Somalia. An increased naval presence in the Indian Ocean could help to battle the pirates, but the only real solution to ending piracy in Somalia lies onshore. A stopgap measure would be to put troops on land to capture and secure pirate port cities like Haradhere and Eyl; the only way to permanently solve the problem would be to restore security a functioning government to Somalia as a nation, which has essentially been lawless since the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. But the international community is reluctant to even offer financial support to the African Union peacekeeping mission that is maintaining a tenuous foothold in the capital, Mogadishu for Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, let alone doing anything bold like supplying equipment or troops to the mission. So until the international community gets serious about restoring Somalia to the ranks of functioning nation-states around the world, the piracy problem will continue, no matter how many tweets Ari Fleischer writes.

Finally, to wrap up on a more ominous note, this week Somali pirates operating out of the port of Haradhere agreed essentially to pay a “tax” to Somalia's main Islamic militant group, al-Shabaab. While there has long been a fear that Somali piracy was being used to fund the Islamic militancy in the country, the Islamists had only a slight involvement in piracy, while the Somali pirates were happy to spend their ransom money on women, alcohol and drugs – all things forbidden under the strict version of Islam pushed by groups like al-Shabaab. Late in December, militants moved into Haradhere, one of the main Somali pirate ports. Now under terms of the agreement, Somali pirates will kickback 20% of any future ransoms to al-Shabaab – a revenue stream of potentially millions of dollars, in addition to a one-time payment said to be in the millions as well.
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