In the comic books, bad guys often team up to fight the forces of good. The Masters of Evil battle the Avengers superhero team. The Joker and Scarecrow ally against Batman. Lex Luthor and Brainiac take on Superman.
And the Somali pirates, who have dominated recent headlines with their hijacking and hostage-taking, join hands with al-Qaeda to form a dynamic evil duo against the United States and our allies. We’re the friendly monsters — a big, hulking superpower with a heart of gold — and they’re the aliens from Planet Amok.
In the comic-book imagination of some of our leading pundits, the two headline threats against U.S. power are indeed on the verge of teaming up. The intelligence world is abuzz with news that radical Islamists in Somalia are financing the pirates and taking a cut of their booty. Given this "bigger picture," Fred Iklé urges us simply to "kill the pirates." Robert Kaplan waxes more hypothetical. "The big danger in our day is that piracy can potentially serve as a platform for terrorists," he writes. "Using pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of certain nationalities thrown overboard."
Chaotic conditions in Somalia and other countries, anti-state fervor, the mediating influence of Islam, the lure of big bucks: these factors are allegedly pushing the two groups of evildoers into each other’s arms. "Both crimes involve bands of brigands that divorce themselves from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves; both aim at civilians; both involve acts of homicide and destruction, as the United Nations Convention on the High Seas stipulates, ‘for private ends,’" writes Douglas Burgess in a New York Times op-ed urging a prosecutorial coupling of terrorism and piracy.
We’ve been here before. Since 2001, in an effort to provide a distinguished pedigree for the Global War on Terror and prove the superiority of war over diplomacy, conservative pundits and historians have regularly tried to compare al-Qaeda to the Barbary pirates of the 1800s. They were wrong then. And with the current conflating of terrorism and piracy, it’s déjà vu all over again.
Unlike al-Qaeda, the Somali pirates have no grand desire to bring down the United States and the entire Western world. They have no intention of establishing some kind of piratical caliphate. Despite Burgess’s claims, they are not bent on homicide and destruction. They simply want money.
Most of the pirates are former fisherman dislodged from their traditional source of income by much larger pirates, namely transnational fishing conglomerates. When a crippled Somali government proved incapable of securing its own coastline, those fishing companies moved in to suck up the rich catch in local waters. "To make matters worse," Katie Stuhldreher writes in The Christian Science Monitor, "there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali waters. That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of AK-47s."
Despite their different ideologies — al-Qaeda has one, the pirates don’t — it has become increasingly popular to assert a link between radical Islam and the Somali freebooters. The militant Somali faction al-Shabab, for instance, is allegedly in cahoots with the pirates, taking a cut of their money and helping with arms smuggling in order to prepare them for their raids. The pirates "are also reportedly helping al-Shabab develop an independent maritime force so that it can smuggle foreign jihadist fighters and ‘special weapons’ into Somalia," former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn has recently argued.
In fact, the Islamists in Somalia are no fans of piracy. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had some rough control over Somalia before Ethiopia invaded the country in 2006, took on piracy, and the number of incidents dropped. The more militant al-Shabab, which grew out of the ICU and became an insurgent force after the Ethiopian invasion, has denounced piracy as an offense to Islam.
The lumping together of Islamists and pirates obscures the only real solution to Somalia’s manifold problems. Piracy is not going to end through the greater exercise of outside force, no matter what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may think. (In a recent column lamenting the death of diplomacy in an "age of pirates," he recommended a surge in U.S. money and power to achieve success against all adversaries.) Indeed, the sniper killing of three pirates by three U.S. Navy Seals has, to date, merely spurred more ship seizures and hostage-taking.
Simply escalating militarily and "going to war" against the Somali pirates is likely to have about as much success as our last major venture against Somalia in the 1990s, which is now remembered only for the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. Rather, the United States and other countries must find a modus vivendi with the Islamists in Somali to bring the hope of political order and economic development to that benighted country.
Diplomacy and development, however lackluster they might seem up against a trio of dead-eyed sharpshooters, are the only real hope for Somalia and the commercial shipping that passes near its coastline.
From the Shores of Tripoli
It would have been the height of irony if the sharpshooters who took out the three Somali youths in that lifeboat with their American hostage had been aboard the USS John Paul Jones, a Navy guided-missile destroyer. Considered the father of the American Navy, Jones was quite the pirate in his day. Or so thought the British, whose ships he seized and looted.
We are left instead with the lesser irony of the sharpshooters taking aim from the USS Bainbridge. This ship was named for Commodore William Bainbridge, who fought against the Barbary pirates in the battles of Algiers and Tunis during the Barbary Wars and was himself taken prisoner in 1803.
The parallels between the pirates of yesterday and today are striking. Then, as now, American observers miscast the pirates as Muslim radicals. In fact, as Frank Lambert explains in his book The Barbary Wars, those pirates actually served secular governments that were part of the Ottoman Empire (much as Sir Francis Drake plundered Spanish ships on behalf of Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century or Jones served the United States in the eighteenth). Then, as now, the pirates resorted to preying on commercial shipping because they’d been boxed out of legitimate trade.
The Barbary pirates took to looting European vessels because European governments had barred the states of Algiers, Tripoli, and Morocco from trading in their markets. Back then, the fledgling United States accused the Barbary pirates of being slavers without acknowledging that the U.S. was then the center of the global slave trade. Today, the U.S. government decries piracy, but doesn’t do anything to prevent the maritime poaching of fishing reserves that helped push pirates from their jobs into risky but lucrative careers in freebooting.
The most improbable link, however, involves the conflation of terrorism and piracy. In the aftermath of September 11, pundits and historians identified the U.S. military response to the Barbary pirates as a useful precedent for striking out against al-Qaeda. Shortly after the attacks, law professor Jonathan Turley invoked the war against the Barbary pirates in congressional testimony to justify U.S. retaliation against the terrorists. Historian Thomas Jewett, conservative journalist Joshua London, and executive director of the Christian Coalition of Washington State Rick Forcier all pointed to those pirates as Islamic radicals avant la lettre to underscore the impossibility of negotiations and the necessity of war, both then and now.
The battle against the Barbary pirates led to the creation of the U.S. Marine Corps ("…to the shores of Tripoli") and the first major U.S. government expenditure of funds on a military that could fight distant wars. For historians like Robert Kagan (in his book Dangerous Nation), that war kicked off what would be a distinguished history of empire, which he contrasts with the conventional wisdom of a United States that only reluctantly assumed its hegemonic mantle.
Will the current conflict with the Somali pirates, if successfully linked in the public mind to global terrorism, serve as one significant part of a new justification for the continuation of empire and a whole new set of military expenditures needed to sustain such a venture?
The New GWOT?
The United States has the most powerful navy in the world. But what it can do against the Somali pirates is limited. Big guns and destroyers are incapable of covering the necessary vast ocean expanses in which the relatively low-tech pirates operate, can’t respond quickly enough to pin-prick attacks, and ultimately aren’t likely to intimidate what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has quite correctly termed "a bunch of teenage pirates" with little to lose.
"The area we patrol is more than one million square miles and the simple fact of the matter is we just can’t be everywhere at once to prevent every attack of piracy," says Lt Nathan Christensen, of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Last year, approximately 23,000 ships passed through the Gulf of Aden. Pirates snagged 93 of them (some large, some tiny). Yet, in part because these trade routes are so crucial to global economic wellbeing, this minuscule percentage struck fear into the hearts of the most powerful countries on the planet.
The failure of the U.S. Navy to stamp out piracy has led to predictable calls for more resources. For instance, to deal with nimble, low-intensity threats like the speedy pirates, the Pentagon is looking at Littoral Combat Ships instead of another several-billion-dollar destroyer. The Navy is planning to purchase 55 of these ships, which, at $450-$600 million each, will come in at around $30 billion, a huge sum for a project plagued with costs overruns and design problems. With the ground (and air) war heating up in Afghanistan and the CIA in charge of operations in Pakistan, the Navy is understandably trying to keep up with the other services. The Navy’s goal of a 313-ship force, which boosters champion regardless of cost, can only be reached by appealing to a threat comparable to terrorists on land. Why not the functional equivalent of terrorists at sea?
Pirates are the perfect threat. They’ve been around forever. They directly interfere with the bottom line, so the business community is on board. Unlike China, they don’t hold any U.S. Treasury Bonds. Indeed, since they’re non-state actors, we can bring virtually every country onto our side against them.
And, finally, the Pentagon is already restructuring itself to meet just such a threat. Through its "revolution in military affairs," the adoption of a doctrine of "strategic flexibility," and the cultivation of rapid-response forces, the Pentagon has been gearing up to handle the asymmetrical threats that have largely replaced the more fixed and predictable threats of the Cold War era, and even of the "rogue state" era that briefly followed. The most recent Gates military budget, with its move away from outdated Cold War weapons systems toward more limber forces, fits right in with this evolution. Canceling the F-22 stealth fighter aircraft and cutting money from the Missile Defense Agency in favor of more practical systems is certainly to be applauded. But the Pentagon isn’t about to hold a going-out-of-business sale. The new Obama defense budget will actually rise about 4%.
George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror, or GWOT, turned out to be a useful way for the Pentagon to get everything it wanted: an extraordinary increase in spending and capabilities after 2001. With GWOT officially retired and an unprecedented federal deficit looming, the Pentagon and the defense industries will need to trumpet new threats or else face the possibility of a massive belt-tightening that goes beyond the mere shell-gaming of resources.
The War on Terror lives on, of course, in the Obama administration’s surge in Afghanistan, the CIA’s campaign of drone attacks in the Pakistani borderlands, and the operations of the new Africa Command. However, the replacement phrase for GWOT, "overseas contingency operations," doesn’t quite fire the imagination. It’s obviously not meant to. But that’s a genuine problem for the military in budgetary terms.
Enter the pirates, who from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp have always been a big box-office draw. As the recent media hysteria over the crew of the Maersk Alabama indicates, that formula can carry over to real life. Take Johnny Depp out of the equation and pirates can simply be repositioned as bizarre, narcotics-chewing aliens.
Then it’s simply a matter of the United States calling together the coalition of the willing monsters to crush those aliens before they take over our planet. And you thought "us versus them" went out with the Bush administration…
John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His writings can be found at his website, and you can subscribe to his weekly e-newsletter World Beat here.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, and editor of The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.]