Somali pirates have had their share of success in recent years, but they made a grave mistake last week when they tried to hijack the U.S.-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama and took hostage its American captain, Richard Phillips. In a retaliation seldom seen off Somalia’s troubled shores, U.S. Navy commandos on Sunday rescued Phillips, ending his four-day ordeal and killing three of his pirate captors. In the process, they sent an unequivocal message: the United States will not tolerate attacks on its ships.
By all accounts, the rescue operation was a masterpiece of tactical precision. When the AK-47-armed pirates inadvertently exposed themselves in their lifeboat, snipers aboard the U.S.S. Bainbridge, a warship dispatched to monitor the hostage situation, capitalized on the opportunity, firing to fatal effect from 100 feet. Earlier, the Bainbridge had succeeded in snagging a tow line on the pirates’ boat, preventing them from drifting to shore and making their getaway on land. Rescue attempts are invariably perilous enterprises: the French navy’s bid last Friday to free a sailboat seized by pirates previously in the week ended in tragedy when one of the five hostages was killed in the crossfire. But the U.S. Navy played its part to perfection. The pirates never had a chance.
There is plenty of credit to go around in the wake of the rescue, starting with Captain Phillips himself. Although he has disclaimed the “hero” label in the aftermath of his dramatic deliverance, preferring to leave the superlatives to his Navy rescuers, Phillips deserves recognition for his leadership. After the pirates seized the Maersk Alabama, only to be beaten back by the ship’s resilient crew, Phillips offered himself as a hostage if the pirates abandoned ship and left his men in peace. For that selfless sacrifice, he endured four days of stifling 120-degree heat aboard the pirates’ boat, a daring escape attempt in which he was nearly shot, and finally a last-minute standoff in which Navy commanders received word that he was in “imminent danger” of being killed. All ships should have such courageous captains.
The Obama administration, too, rose to the nerve-wracking occasion. Despite making much-vaunted virtues of diplomacy and negotiation – regardless of the parties on the other end – the president showed that he will not hesitate to use force when necessary to safeguard American lives. This was by no means obvious just a few weeks ago, when Defense Secretary Gates offered the astonishingly candid admission that the U.S. was “not prepared to do anything” to stop North Korea’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile.
No such diffidence governed the administration’s response to the Somali pirates. Beginning with Secretary of State Clinton’s demand for forceful action to “end the scourge of piracy,” the administration adopted an appropriately uncompromising approach. When it came to the difficult decision – authorizing the use of deadly force to free Captain Phillips – President Obama never wavered. Indeed, according to military sources, Obama approved this weekend’s operation twice.
The administration’s boldness was all the more impressive given the defeatist tenor of much of the popular debate about piracy. A recent column in the New York Times advised, more or less in earnest, that the best course for ships and nations alike was to “steer clear — way clear, like 500 miles plus — of Somalia’s seas,” as though surrendering millions of miles of essential shipping lanes to boat-going brigands were a plausible solution to piracy. Stretching the point further, London’s Guardian claimed that the Navy’s standoff with the pirates was the “perfect emblem of America's military problems in the world,” as U.S. “warships, bristling with missiles,” had failed to frighten the handful of armed men in a lifeboat. Thus the paper’s assurance that only “talking, not shooting, offers solutions.”
It turns out, though, that shooting can be quite effective. Before they were gunned down on Sunday, the pirates frustrated every attempt at negotiation, apparently believing that the more desperate the situation the larger the ransom they could hope to collect. It was not, on the face of it, an irrational conclusion: As ship owners have chosen to give in to pirates’ demands rather than risk confrontation, piracy has become a singularly lucrative trade in Somalia, netting an estimated $150 million in 2008 alone. Captain Phillips’s hijackers had every reason to believe that they would once again make out like the bandits they are. At the very least, this weekend’s successful assault should complicate the pirates’ calculations, a conclusion endorsed by Somalia’s fragile transition government, which has struggled to stop the pirates. Following the rescue on Sunday, a Somali government spokesman noted that “it will be a good lesson for the pirates or any one else involved in this dirty business.”
In the long term, to be sure, the deaths of three pirates will not deter piracy – not as long as the prospect of million-dollar ransoms continues to tempt its practitioners to sea. But this weekend’s operation does suggest that a more aggressive strategy may reduce its appeal. Such a strategy would almost certainly have to involve arming ships’ crews. Shipping companies have been hesitant to do so – sometimes out of reasonable safety concerns, often as a misguided sop to adverse union leaders – but it’s clear that the current strategy of widespread disarmament will not keep the pirates at bay.
More critically, an effective anti-piracy strategy would have to target the pirates’ lairs – Somalia’s port cities – which have heretofore escaped retribution even as they have become valuable support bases for the piracy industry. As President Obama has rightly noted, the only way to stop pirates is to make sure that those “who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.” This weekend, they finally were.