A Sensible Approach to Piracy on the High Seas

Piracy has long been the stuff of song and story. Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan is funny and has a happy ending. We have tended to glorify and to turn pirates of the past into folk heroes. Unfortunately, the pirates of Somalia are neither heroic nor funny. By and large, the ones who attack merchant vessels are very poor young kids who have little in the way of alternative survival mechanisms. If they have a "pirate king," he is not much like the pirate king invented by Gilbert and Sullivan. Neither, most likely, were the real pirate kings of that era.

It has been reported that piracy in and around the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia more than doubled during the first half of 2009. Two hundred and sixty-six such attacks have occurred thus far in 2009, 154 of them off the coast of Somalia. Six ships and 104 crew members are currently being held. These numbers require a bit of interpretation, because piracy fluctuates with the seasons. The heavy monsoon rains off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden normally begin in May or June and last through August. Generally, the pirates take a long holiday from May through August because the small boats they use are unpleasant and dangerous during the monsoons. When the heavy rains, winds, and high seas end, resumption of piracy is expected.

Reasonably effective action taken by the United States Navy early last April when pirates descended upon a U.S.-flag vessel, the Maersk Alabama, was effective, although more could and probably should have been done more quickly. Still, things turned out OK. Then, on April 14, another U.S.-flag vessel, the Liberty Sun, carrying relief supplies to Mombassa was attacked but managed to escape by evasive maneuvers before the cavalry U.S. Navy arrived. She sustained damage from rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons but proceeded to her destination. It seems likely that the diminution of pirate attacks since April has had more to do with the weather than with any terror spawned in the hearts of the pirates by their misadventures with the Maersk Alabama, the Liberty Sun, and the U.S. Navy.

On September 11, the State Department issued a statement concerning the fourth plenary meeting of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. It was quite congratulatory and took no account of the impact of weather, which has almost certainly had far greater impact than anything the Contact Group might have accomplished. Perhaps the Contact Group, in secret session, performed an anti-rain dance.

On August 26, there was some apparent pirate activity. They fired on a U.S. helicopter making a routine surveillance flight over waters close to Somalia where various hijacked ships and their crews are being held. Heavy rains don't interfere with that sort of thing, except to the extent that they reduce the frequency of surveillance flights. The helicopter did not return fire. To have done so would probably have endangered the hostages, and the helicopter crew was doubtless under orders not to return fire without permission from higher headquarters which, going up the chain of command as far as the president, would have taken a very long time. Whatever may be his outstanding qualities, President Obama does not make good decisions quickly; he generally does not make good decisions even after long deliberation. It was quicker, easier, and safer for the helicopter simply to haul ass. In any event, this was the first such attack on a U.S. entity since the attempted April hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and the Liberty Sun. On or about August 28, a traditional vessel from India was attacked by pirates in the Persian Gulf. The six crew members were released a few days later. Now, before the piracy season resumes in earnest, seems a good time to consider what, if anything, the United States should do.

There are valid reasons why the U.S. need not do much about the problem. Very few U.S.-flag merchant vessels ply the waters off Somalia -- or elsewhere in the world. Most are required by law to be built in the U.S. and that costs lots more than building them elsewhere. Under pending legislation, all would be required to be constructed in the U.S. As of 2006, the U.S.-flag merchant fleet numbered only 465 ships. Seven hundred additional merchant ships were then owned by American interests but carried the flags of other countries and were, therefore, exempt from many of the laws and regulations governing U.S.-flag vessels. Since 2006, the number of U.S.-flag merchant vessels has probably declined. Aside from her navy, the U.S. is simply no longer much of an international seafaring nation.

There are reasonably safe ocean routes to and from the oil-producing countries which do not involve transiting the primary pirate areas, and the few U.S.-flag vessels attacked by pirates have been transporting relief supplies to Africa rather than commercial cargo. Such were the missions of the Maersk Alabama and the Liberty Sun. Noble though it may be to risk U.S.-flag vessels and their crews carrying humanitarian supplies, it has no significant impact on U.S. commerce. Nor does it seem to have done much to enhance the popularity of the U.S.