The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, April 13, 2009

The War on Piracy

Hopefully, It’s Very Different from the War on Terror.

Three shots and it was over. Navy SEAL snipers killed three Somali pirates yesterday, thereby rescuing an American ship captain they had taken hostage. A fourth pirate, in need of medical attention, had previously surrendered to the Navy. The captain’s crew had foiled the pirates’ attempts to hijack their ship days earlier.

While most analysts viewed the incident as a national security victory for the Obama Administration, many saw the larger crisis as far from over. The lead editorial in this morning’s Wall Street Journal challenged, “Now the Obama Administration has an obligation to punish and deter these lawless raiders so they'll never again risk taking a U.S.-flagged ship or an American crew . . . since the Navy can't stop every hijacking, some kind of military action against pirates on land may be needed.”

Certainly, the pirates were talking tough in the aftermath. “From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill [the hostages],” said one. “Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying,” agreed another.

One need only remember back eight and a half years to another attack against U.S. civilians with a far more tragic outcome to find all of this ominously familiar. Even as the Obama Administration has banished the fading term “war on terror,” a war on piracy, ostensibly so antediluvian, appears about to dawn in the Twenty-First Century.

On the other hand, different people are in charge today and the way they handled this standoff suggests President Obama will be a bit more circumspect than former President Bush before plunging the nation into yet another warfront. True, Obama authorized the use of deadly force against the pirates but he previously called in FBI hostage negotiators, acknowledging the quasi-military, quasi-criminal threat pirates represent.

Much like buccaneers of old, modern-day pirates mount their attacks motivated by dreams of booty. Dollars also play a big role in exactly how the U.S. may defend itself from the threat they represent in the future.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates unveiled a $534 billion budget proposal that represents a “fundamental overhaul” in defense acquisition as well as a shift from fighting conventional wars to “the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years to come,” in Gate’s own words.

This includes forsaking the high-tech F-22 stealth fighter jet in favor of the cheaper and more flexible F-35 model, ending the massive DG-1000 Zumwalt destroyer program for the more maneuverable Littoral Combat Ship capable of operating close to shore, scraping the Army’s Future Combat System’s armored vehicles, and cutting back on a highly controversial anti-missile “shield” defense.

Places where Gates wants to spend more consist of surveillance systems and other relatively low-tech weapons that are best suited for guerrilla or irregular war as well as recruitment and training of nearly three thousand additional Special Operations personnel focused on counter-terrorism.

“It is important to remember that every defense dollar spent to over-ensure against a remote or diminishing risk – or in effect to run up the score in a capability where the United States is already dominant – is a dollar not available to take care of our people, reset the force, win the wars we are in and improve capabilities in areas where we are under-invested and potentially vulnerable,” Gates said.

Thomas Donnelly and Gary Schmitt, editors and scholars at the conservative American Enterprise Institute decried Gate’s focus on budget over security in last Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, arguing it was part of a larger Obama Administration stratagem to switch spending priorities from defense, which has doubled in size since 2001, to domestic social programs. Such a shift, the pair insists, portend “a future U.S. military that is smaller and packs less wallop.”

However, it is important to remember that guns versus butter has always been an unfortunate but necessary tradeoff for every nation. What is more, those in Congress hostile to Gate’s cuts are as likely to point to the economic impacts on their districts as they are to national defense for their objections.

Even since wartime spending during World War II helped lift the country out of the waning years of the Great Depression into productive vitality, the U.S. has demonstrated an over-reliance on military spending to stimulate our economy. The high-tech and progressive nature of weaponry has resulted in a behemoth industrial-military complex, upon which entire communities and even entire states come to rely for jobs and infusions of capital.

What is more, others agree with Gates that the constant pursuit of ever more powerful futuristic weapons is inconsistent with contemporary U.S. challenges. In the April issue of World Policy Journal, Navy Commander James Kraska, a member of the faculty of the International Law Department at the Naval War College, and Navy Captain Brian Wilson, a senior Navy lawyer in Washington D.C., argue that foes likes pirates are unimpressed by colossal shows of power.

The recent standoff between the U.S. Navy and Somali pirates is a classic example. The guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge dwarfed the pirates in terms of size and firepower but this did not force them to release their hostage or thwart their attempts to seize control of an American ship in the first place.

Instead, the happy outcome resulted mainly due to speedy response, individual expert marksmanship, and the willingness of this crew to fight back rather than submit to being taken hostage, reminiscent of the passengers of the fourth airliner downed in a Pennsylvania field on September 11. Kraska and Wilson suggest the U.S. pool resources with other nations to provide African countries with smaller, leaner boats and train people there to patrol their coasts effectively.

For their part, Donnelly and Schmitt are correct to point out that traditionally “[war] often rewards those who arrive on the battlefield ‘the fustest with the mostest,’ as Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest once put it.” However, a certain converge is occurring between the “shock and awe” power needed for conventional warfare with the irregular tactics associated with pirates and terrorism.

Fred Iklé, an author and scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, points out in the Washington Post this morning that terrorists could use pirate techniques to their own nefarious ends. Possibilities range from exploding a large bomb in a crowded port or shipping lane to kidnapping and killing passengers on a luxury liner to simply raising money to finance their operations.

Then there are the unconventional military branches of hostile nations, such as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. This force hides speedboats loaded with explosives in the many coves of Iran’s coastline that could ram ships on suicide missions, similar to both pirate and terrorist techniques.

Yet it may be Robert Kaplan, writing in Saturday’s New York Times, who notes the most salient link between pirates, terrorists, and rogue regimes. “Somali pirates are usually unemployed young men who have grown up in an atmosphere of anarchic violence and have been dispatched by a local warlord . . . These pirates are fearless because they have grown up in a culture where nobody expects to live long.”

Anywhere that extreme poverty meets virtually nonexistent hope for advancement is a breeding ground for converts to the aims of violent extremists. Moreover, Somali pirates driven by criminal gain, as opposed to ideological or religious radicalism, are far closer to threats the U.S. faces from groups like Columbian drug cartels or the tragic drug wars in Mexico.

Obama recently used the failed launch of a North Korean missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads as an opportunity to promote nuclear disarmament rather than a space-based ballistic missile race. In the same way, this foiled hijack and kidnapping provides an opportunity to act against the forces driving desperate young men from Third World nations into crime and violence versus declaring a new war against another ill-defined and, often enough, faceless enemy.

Very different people are in charge today. Hopefully, the war on piracy will be very different from the war on terror. The last thing we need is over-reaction and a repeat of the past eight and a half weary years.

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