Fighting Piracy: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

by Christopher Preble | April 17th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Given that one of my distant relatives (no, not Johnny Depp) was one of the first Americans assigned the task of defeating pirates, I take a particular interest in the subject of piracy. Throw in my few years in the U.S. Navy, and I can’t help myself. Even though I was technically on vacation last week, I followed the story of the Maersk-Alabama and Captain Richard Phillips with great interest. And I exulted when three of the four pirates met their end. The safe return of the Maersk-Alabama and her entire crew was a clear win for the cause of justice, and could serve as a model. Future efforts to protect ships from pirates are likely to include some combination of greater vigilance on the part of the shipping companies and crews, in collaboration with the navies of the many different nations who have an interest in keeping the sea lanes open and free. (This is one of the themes that I develop in my new book, and that I will discuss next Monday at Cato.)

We do not need to reorient our grand strategy to deal with pirates. We don’t need to reshape the U.S. Navy to fight a motley band of young men in leaky boats. As my colleague Ben Friedman has written, piracy is a problem, but decidely minor relative to many other global security challenges.

But some are criticizing the approach taken to resolve last week’s standoff. They say that the only way to truly eliminate the piracy problem is to attack and ultimately clean out the pirates’s sanctuaries in lawless Somalia. This “solution” fits well with the broader push within the Washington foreign policy community that would deal with our security problems by fixing failed states.

I have gone on at length, usually with my colleagues Justin Logan and Ben Friedman, on the many reasons why a strategy for fixing failed states is unwise and unnecessary. I won’t expand on that thesis here, other than to point out that of all failed states in the world, Somalia is arguably the most failed of the lot. “Fixing” it would require a massive investment of personnel, money, and time — resources that would be better spent elsewhere.

Mackubin Owens offers one of the more intriguing defenses of this approach in a just published e-note for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Owens likens a strategy of fixing Somalia to Gen. Andrew Jackson’s military operations in Florida, a story that features prominently in John Lewis Gaddis’s Surprise, Security and the American Experience. As Owens notes, when some members of President James Monroe’s cabinet wanted to punish Jackson for exceeding his mandate — in the course of his military campaign he captured and executed two British citizens accused of cavorting with the marauders who had attacked American citizens – Secretary of State John Quincy Adams jumped to Jackson’s defense, and proposed a different tack. He demanded that Spain either take responsibility for cleaning up Florida, or else give it up. And we all know what happened. Under the terms of Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, Florida became a territory of the United States. 26 years later, it became our 27th state.

I’ve vacationed in Florida many times. Walt Disney World is wonderful for the kids; I’ve been there six times. I spent three memorable days watching March Madness in Miami a few years back. Spring training baseball is great fun.  Adams couldn’t have imagined any of these things when he acquired a vast swampland; he cared only that Florida under Spanish control, or lack thereof, posed a threat.

Here is where the parallels to the present day get complicated. I’ll admit that I’ve never been to Somalia. Perhaps they have their own version of South Beach, or could have some day. But I’m frankly baffled by the mere intimation that our national security is so threatened by chaos there that we need to take ownership of the country’s — or the entire Horn of Africa region’s — problems.

And yet, that is what many people believe. And this is not a new phenomenon. In many respects, we have chosen to treat all of the world’s ungoverned spaces as the modern-day equivalent of Spanish Florida.

Max Boot and Robert Kaplan liken U.S. military operations in the 21st century to the westward territorial expansion of the 19th century. In 1994, Kaplan authored one of the seminal works in this genre, ”The Coming Anarchy,” in which he advised Western strategists to start concerning themselves with “what is occurring . . . throughout West Africa and much of the underdeveloped world: the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war.” Less than two years later, William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote, “American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order.” Boot in 2003 advised Americans to unabashedly embrace imperialism. “Afghanistan and other troubled lands,” he wrote, ”cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”

Americans have resisted such advice, and with good reason. The world will not descend down the path to total ruin if the United States hews to a restrained foreign policy focused on preserving its national security and advancing its vital interests. That is because there are other governments in other countries, pursuing similar policies aimed at preserving their security, and regional–much less global–chaos is hardly in their interests. The primary obligation of any government is to defend its citizens from threats. Curiously, our conduct in recent years suggests that U.S. policymakers doubt that other governments see their responsibilities in this way. Indeed, we have constructed and maintained a vast military largely on the grounds that we, and we alone, must police the entire planet.

In The Power Problem, I quote Machiavelli, who noted in his discourses: “Men always commit the error of not knowing where to limit their hopes, and by trusting to these rather than to a just measure of their resources, they are generally ruined.” I continue:

As Machiavelli would have predicted, the notion of what Americans must do to preserve and advance our own security has steadily expanded over the years to encompass the defense of others. Seemingly unconstrained by the resources at our disposal, we are driven by our dreams of fashioning a new global order. But we are also driven by false fears. We believe that we can only be secure if others are secure, that insecurity anywhere poses a threat to Americans everywhere. If someone on the other side of the planet sneezes, the United States is supposedly in danger of catching pneumonia. The putative cure is preventive war. Such geostrategic “hypochondria” has gotten us all into much trouble over the years. We would be wise to take measure of our relative health and vitality, and not confuse a head cold with cancer.

1 Comment »

  1. Fighting Piracy through Nation Building? | Think Tank West wrote,

    [...] [Cross-posted from PSA’s Across the Aisle] [...]

    Pingback on April 17, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

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