In an interesting letter to Barack Obama on the subject of Somalia, Senator Russ Feingold writes the following:
As you know, piracy off the coast of Somalia is a symptom of the state collapse and instability on land; thus, any military actions we take will only be stopgap measures. In recent Congressional testimony, Director of National Intelligence Blair and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Army Lt. General Michael Maples cited lawlessness and economic problems on land for the rise in piracy at sea. The ultimate solution to the problem of piracy, then, is the establishment of a functional government that can enforce the rule of law. During the rule of the Council of Islamic Courts in 2006, there was a notable decline in piracy that can be attributed, in large part, to the rise of a central authority in southern Somalia. Without replicating the repressive rule of the Courts, we must keep in mind that establishing a central governing structure in Somalia is critical to resolving, not just stopping, the problem of piracy.
Feingold proposes closer U.S. cooperation with the Somali government to "help establish security and functional, inclusive governance within the country." At first glance this seems like the clear way forward. Given that a large portion of pirates are impoverished individuals attempting to make a livelihood for themselves in the absence of other options, an internal solution to the problem (i.e. establishing governance and subsequently creating opportunity) appears the right one.
Yet while this nation-building route may be the most sensible of options, it does raise two questions. First, should the United States engage in yet another nation-building mission in the Islamic world? Recall that Somalia is in large measure (informally) controlled by al-Shabab, an extreme al-Qaeda aligned terrorist group that has been active in Somalia since 2006. Despite America's benevolent intentions, I remain highly skeptical that any sort of state-building activity would be welcomed, especially given America's recent track record (and reputation) in the Islamic world. And given, too, that Somalia is a sovereign nation. Arguably this would radicalize the pirates just as much as would the second option: military action.
The second option (and second question) is indeed that of air strikes on pirate land bases, an option currently being debated by the U.S. government. While I hesitate to believe that such action would do much to ameliorate the piracy problem in the long term, and would inevitably mar the vision of a peaceful, all-loving America which the Obama administration seems intent on creating, some argue that it may be the appropriate response to what are, in fact, acts of terror. Indeed, the fundamental question implicit in this option is that of what label we designate to pirates: are they merely (helpless) criminals (or a 'better class of criminal' as my colleague Jon Santiago comically muses), or are they terrorists? Hostis humani generis?
The question of how to solve the piracy problem is fantastically complex, and I don't claim to have much in the way of a solution. There is much to consider and, as it stands, America appears caught between a rock and a hard place. Arrrghhh matey, indeed.
My blog reflects my research interests: East Africa and the Horn; international security; African emerging markets; global financial regulation; U.S.-China relations; and the emergence of China as a major global economic and political actor. Occasional intellectual detours likely.
I am a doctoral canditate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. I hold an M.Phil in Comparative Government from Oxford (2008), and a B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy from Northwestern University (2006).