DAYTON, OHIO—I'm the loudmouth pundit. I'm supposed to have the answers, or at least pretend to. This week, however, I'm baffled. Confused, even. So I'm turning the tables to ask you, dear reader: Why aren't we bombing the crap out of Somalia's pirates?
I don't get it. You can't build a house in Waziristan or throw a wedding in Afghanistan without drawing a blizzard of Hellfire missiles. We bomb aspirin factories, hospitals and schools. We employ bad-ass Special Forces types and psycho mercenaries who set up freelance torture operations and supervise mass executions. We Americans have our faults, but wimpy pacifism isn't one of them. So what's with these pirates?
In June 2007, a French warship witnessed the Danica White, a Danish merchant vessel carrying a crew of just five men, being hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The French, reported the Navy Times, "could not cross into Somali territorial waters to offer help." Which is confusing, what with Somalia being a failed state without a viable central government and all. Who was going to stop them—the Somali coast guard?
Somalia's territorial waters? Sacrosanct! Invade Iraq, invade Afghanistan, try to overthrow the president of Venezuela, send CIA agents into the Iranian desert to case their nuke plants, blast cars on highways in Yemen, no problem. But for God's sake, leave Somalia alone. National sovereignty matters.
A U.S. dock-landing ship was also on the scene of the Danica White shipjacking. "The USS Carter Hall fired flares and several shots across the bow as well as several disabling shots at the three skiffs in tow," said a Navy spokesman. Across the bow? Why didn't they blow them to smithereens? "But the hijacked Danica White made it into Somali waters and the Carter Hall had to back off and watch," reported Navy Times. "We're observing them at this point," said the Navy spokesman afterward. "It's ongoing."
At this writing, at least 14 ships and 250 crewmembers are being held "a few miles off a 230-mile stretch of Somali coastline between Xarardheere and the town of Eyl," reports The New York Times. These include the Sirius Star, a 1,000-foot-long Saudi oil tanker, and a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying enough Soviet tanks, anti-aircraft guns and other weaponry to get you a start as a respectable warlord. An international flotilla, including U.S. Navy ships, are watching the situation—and doing jack.
We know why President George W. Bush never tried to catch Osama bin Laden; he must have been worried he'd be captured alive and talk about his relationship with the CIA. But what do the Somali pirates have on Bush, the president of Ukraine and the king of Saudi Arabia? What explains their reluctance? Do the pirates plant hot Somali babes to seduce heads of state?
While we're asking questions, why don't ships that ply the pirate-infested waters south of the Gulf of Aden take security precautions? "For insurance and safety reasons, most crews on commercial ships do not carry weapons," says the Times. You'd think the Ukrainians might have at least been able to break into their own cargo to shoot back.
So far the most delicious coverage of this uncharacteristic display of military restraint has been a Times article bearing the headline "U.S. Urges Merchant Ships to Try Steps to Foil Pirates." The U.S. Navy, it said, was encouraging ships that travel near Somalia to employ "measures that did not involve the use of force" to avoid getting taken over. "The techniques," said the paper, "include complicated rudder movements and speed adjustments that make it hard for pirate speedboats to pull alongside, as well as simple steps like pulling up ladders that some ships leave dangling for an entire voyage."
It's like seeing someone walking around with money falling out of their pockets. Maybe they want the pirates to come aboard. I'm no pirate, but even I would be tempted to take over a ship with a skeleton crew, unarmed "for insurance and safety reasons," dangling its ladders. Such teases.
I understand why the Somalis do it. Piracy is big business in Somalia. In fact, it's the only good business. Kenya's foreign minister says Somali pirates have collected $150 million in ransoms so far this year. "All you need is three guys and a little boat, and the next day you're millionaires," Abdullahi Omar Qawden, an ex-captain in Somalia's navy told the Times. What I don't understand is why we, and so many other countries, put up with it.
In the old days, seizing a ship marked by a national flag was an insult and act of war. In 1803 pirates of the Barbary States, city-states along the north coast of Africa in the Mediterranean that were nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, captured the USS Philadelphia and held its crew hostage. President Thomas Jefferson dispatched sailors and marines to the port of Tripoli, where the ship was being held. To deny the Tripolitans use of the port, U.S. forces burned it and captured the city. It was America's first foreign military operation.
We're killing Afghan brides. We're paying off Somali pirates. What happened to us?
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.