The Duck of Minerva

There Be Game-Changes Afoot

13 April 2009

OK, in between wrapping up my tenure statement draft and taking my daughter to the orthodontist, finally a moment for some Monday pirate blogging. As Peter notes, the big news story since Sunday was the rescue of Captain Richard Philips off the coast of Somalia: as I implied earlier, the capture of American hostages was bound to be a game-changer in the region and globally.

A few thoughts:

1) First, irrespective of any further US leadership on the issue now that our man is safe, there’s the copycat factor. The US’ precedent could be repeated by any vessels in the region, but whether this will solve the problem or make it worse is unclear. The pirates themselves are “vowing to retaliate.” Yeah, right. Pirate spokesmen seem to be claiming that their unbroken record of not mistreating captives might be coming to an end, but if their policy is to immediately kill captives whose countries approach the vessels, seems like that will put a damper on negotiations for ransom? One could imagine calling the pirates’ bluff but only through coordinated and systematic games of chicken. I think this could work in the long term: emerging naval technologies are going to make it easier, not harder, to pick off pirates in situations like this, and the US could consider sharing the technology with regional forces willing to help it police shipping lanes. Nonetheless, this approach, even if effective in the long-term, would certainly come at the expense of hostages’ lives in the short-term. I predict the exhiliration will quickly wear off and the issue of extrajudicial killing of pirates become a hot legal topic at the UN Security Council in short order – a good thing. High time we resolved this one.

2) One idea floating in the public discourse is a strategy of prevention, rather than retribution: arming merchant vessels. But there are many good reasons not to go this route, particularly in cases of supertankers filled with flammable liquid. But I wonder why non-lethal weapons such as long range acoustic devices are not being routinely deployed on such vessels. They’ve had success at repelling pirate attacks on cruise ships, why not merchant ships as well? Perhaps a global strategy of subsidizing the acquisition of such systems by commercial shippers would be less costly than an all out war against piracy on the high seas, or the kind of sanctions regime it would take to force countries and companies to stop making ransom payments.

3) On the other hand, the Obama Administration appears to be developing a more comprehensive preventive strategy: to go after pirate bases on land while resolving Somalia’s failed state status once and for all. A noble idea, but don’t expect it to be very politically popular, or to bear fruit overnight.

4) There is an opportunity here to solidify a security regime drawing in a number of regional maritime powers including Iran. Securitizing piracy in the Gulf of Aden could create a focal point for diplomacy between the US/EU and Iran. Roger Cohen has more. On the other hand, as John Boonstra points out, there is also an opportunity to muck up through a blustery unilateralism this emerging security community. Will Obama seize, squander or squelch this range of possibilities?

UPDATE: At Fox News, Paul Wagensell answers my question about sonic weapons: they’re not as effective as one might hope due to the availability of easy countermeasures. He lists a variety of other anti-piracy weapons that might, however.