Paris, April 14, 2008 – President Barack Obama’s promise that the
United States and its allies will put an end to Indian Ocean piracy
had the forceful ring to it that good American citizens like to hear,
like the statement by Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John
Foster Dulles in 1953 when the president decided to agree to an
armistice to end the Korean War, leaving the country divided. Dulles
protested that the Chinese and North Koreans had to be given “one
hell of a licking” if Washington wanted to maintain American
Eisenhower, according to an anecdote recently recalled by the
distinguished biographer Jean Edwards Smith, replied that if such was
Dulles’ view, “I’m in the wrong pew.” He overruled Dulles, and in
less than four months the armistice was signed. As Smith notes,
during the following seven and a half years of his presidency, not
one American serviceman was killed in action. It goes without saying
that thousands if not hundreds of thousands of potential cold war
enemy combatants also lived, who would not otherwise have done so.
President Obama says that the U.S. “with our partners” will work
“to prevent future attacks, be prepared to confront them when they
arise...and assure that those who commit piracy are held accountable
for their crimes.” (Why do “we” have to do this? Doesn’t President
Obama have enough on his hands right now? Why not let Britain and
Italy lead the anti-piracy campaign; after all, Somalia in the past
belonged to their empires.)
Somalian piracy is a nasty little affair in which hundreds
of foreign seafarers have been made prisoner, but the only ones who
have died have been during efforts to rescue them.
But things are getting out of hand. The pirates now threaten
revenge. They haven’t killed anybody. At this writing they hold
some 200 hostages. As President Obama indicated, half the NATO
navies seem on the way to chase fishing boats in Somalian waters and
the Gulf of Aden.
Quoting the encyclopedias on Barbary Pirates and U.S. Marine Corps
lore about the Tripolitan War makes good newspaper stories. But the
Marines, and the Tripoli war’s settlement in 1805, did not put an end
to piracy on the Mediterranean Barbary Coast; American commerce was
being raided as late as 1815. Maybe somebody should tell the
president about that.
Why is there now piracy off Somalia? If you listen to the pirates
it is retaliation against the piracy of the international fishing
industry. Their story is that they were peaceful fishermen until
industrial fishing vessels, mainly from Asia, began raiding their
waters and sweeping up all the fish, mainly tuna, that provided their
principal exports. (Other Somalian exports at the time included
cattle, goats, hide products, skins, bananas, and clarified butter --
They had no government, to speak of, to defend them, or go to the
International Courts to protest about their stolen fish. Somalia’s
independence in 1960 had been followed by territorial and irredentist
struggles with most of Somalia’s neighbors. There was war with
Ethiopia and then Kenya between 1964 and 1967. Then there was a
“revolutionary” military coup, and the cold war being fought by the
mighty U.S.S.R. and U.S. in the region brought a pro-Soviet regime -
until Moscow supported Ethiopia against a Somalian invasion of Ogaden
in Ethiopia. The Somalians found a new backer in the United States.
Then there was guerrilla war, refugees, drought, famine affecting a
third of the nation; UN relief efforts harassed by warlords, and U.S.
support for the UN relief mission, leading to an American military
effort to sort all of this out, leading to the famous Blackhawk Down!
episode -- which made a good movie. After which the U.S. checked out
for a few years.
A Muslim fundamentalist movement grew up a half-dozen years ago
which actually pacified the country. But the War on Terror frowns on
Muslim fundamentalism, and the United States paid Ethiopia to once
again invade Somalia. But Somalian chaos, nationalism, religion (the
Ethiopians are mostly Christians), warlords and general disorder
drove the Ethiopians out last year.
In the meanwhile, a hungry fisherman, watching the ships go by,
said what about piracy? Fantastic! Great idea! Within months the
fishermen were millionaires. The money poured in. They didn’t have
to hurt a fly, merely to cut the victim ships’ fire hoses. They treated
the crews chivalrously, locked them up, fed them nicely, gave them
videos and television to watch, and shook hands all around when the
American diplomats today are reported to be keen to take over from
the military in putting order back into the world. Why not a big
international effort to get an EU, UN or NATO-policed agreement
governing who can fish in Somalian waters; one more try to put
together a provisional government, an agreement by the big countries
and Somalia’s neighbors to keep their hands off, and to let the
Somalians be Muslim fundamentalists if that is what they want?
And a big international fund set up by the world’s principal shipping
companies to help the Somalians get back into the export business?
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