FrontPage | 11.1.11
By Alan W. Dowd

The European Union, that fount of forward-looking innovations, has another great idea: hiring a “pirate cultural advisor” to assist EU naval forces operating off the Horn of Africa “with pirate cultural and religious advice and in particular to advise on pirate trends and weaknesses.” 

You can’t make this stuff up, but what’s most disheartening about the EU’s politically-correct answer to piracy is that it’s representative of the West’s overall response to piracy in recent years.

  • According to a Reuters report, the EU’s counter-piracy effort entails confiscating the pirates’ weapons and the ladders they use to board ships “and leaving them with only enough petrol to get back to shore.”
  • The United States and its allies have formed ad hoc counter-piracy flotillas like Combined Task Force 151 that focus largely on escorting merchant ships, deterring pirate activity through shows of force, creating safe corridors and apprehending pirates. But some 90 percent of captured pirates are caught and then released. 
  • The television documentary “U.S. Navy: Pirate Hunters” captures the futility of the anti-piracy coalition’s constrictive rules of engagement—and the frustration it causes U.S. forces. Sailors aboard the USS Gettysburg jokingly call their ship “Hotel Gettysburg” due to the generous hospitality they offer captured Somali pirates, who are usually released. Regrettably, assault teams returning from intercepting pirate skiffs and boats have been conditioned to say things like, “We’ve got enough to prosecute them.”
  • Of course, even when they make it to trial, the pirates turn the proceedings into a farce. After using RPGs to attack a Dutch-flagged cargo ship in 2009, Somali pirates were captured by Danish marines, taken to the Netherlands to stand trial and promptly claimed that the Dutch cargo ship had attacked them. The Somalis were found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, but EU officials now worry about convicted pirates seeking asylum after serving out their sentences.
  • A more common outcome when allied naval forces encounter pirates is temporary detention and release. Since January 2010, the NATO-EU piracy taskforce has set 1,500 captured pirates free.

This catch-and-release approach is the very definition of self-defeating, and it’s a far cry from how our forebears dealt with pirates.

Now, as in the past, pirates are anything but the fun-loving adventurers romanticized by Hollywood. To the contrary, they are stateless, lawless, codeless thugs. Our forebears labeled them “enemies of the human race” for good reason.

Citing a study commissioned by the shipping industry, Reuters reported earlier this year that “4,185 seafarers had faced a direct attack by pirates with firearms in the Indian Ocean or Gulf of Aden. At least 1,432 seafarers had their ships boarded. While some escaped capture by hiding in secure cabins until the pirates left, at least 1,090 were taken hostage, often for months.” Pirate brutalities include “deprivation of food and water, beating (often with the butt of a gun), shooting at hostages with water cannons, locking hostages in the ship’s freezer, tying hostages up on deck exposed to scorching sun, and hanging hostages by their feet submerged in the sea.”

Beyond the human costs, financial costs include lost cargo, damaged ships, delivery delays, ransom payments and increased insurance rates. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports that insurers are charging extra premiums of up to $20,000 per trip through the Gulf of Aden. To avoid the pirates and the insurance costs, some cargo lines are choosing alternate routes, increasing total distance traveled by as much as 38 percent. Other shippers are sending goods by air, which costs up to 10 times as much as seaborne transport. Add it all up, and the cost of piracy may be as high as $16 billion annually. These “piracy surcharges” are passed on to consumers.

In addition, piracy poses a real, albeit indirect, threat to national security. For example, 11 percent of global oil supplies travel through the Gulf of Aden. In 2008, pirates hijacked a Kenya-bound freighter loaded with T-72 battle tanks. In 2010, they captured a tanker carrying poisonous chemicals. The worrisome reality is this: Men willing to commit piracy have no qualms about selling their plunder to the highest bidder.

Our ancestors recognized this. Untainted by moral relativism, they never entertained the pathetic postmodern notion that pirates need to be understood—or the companion notion that all violence is somehow the same. Instead, they realized that the use of deadly force to protect innocents, uphold the law and maintain the order necessary for commerce served a greater good. We could learn from their example.

All great powers have had to deal with piracy. Rameses III, for instance, eliminated the pirate threat to Egypt some 3,000 years ago. “The Athenian navy,” as Angus Konstam observes in his book Piracy: The Complete History, “devoted much time and effort to clearing pirates from the Aegean.” When Rome emerged as the primary Mediterranean power, Konstam details how Pompey the Great employed a massive military force of 500 ships, 120,000 troops and “the equivalent today of half the U.S. budget and armed forces” to fight piracy. Pompey sank 500 pirate ships, razed 120 coastal bases and killed 10,000 pirates.

Donald Puchala of the University of South Carolina notes that “Reluctance to use countervailing force tended only to encourage the pirates.” He adds that piracy has historically been combated “by a single major power, frequently the hegemon of the era.”

The United States plays that role today.

Many Americans forget or simply do not know that piracy has been a challenge since the very beginning of the Republic. Indeed, it could be argued that pirates are America’s oldest enemy.

The Barbary States in northern Africa required ships traveling near their waters to pay tribute to guarantee safe passage. In fact, when George Washington was inaugurated, as Donald Chidsey observes in The Wars in Barbary, Americans were being held hostage by Barbary pirates. The U.S. paid huge sums in tribute, ransom and naval stores.

Thomas Jefferson bitterly opposed this policy, and he overturned it once he became president. “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them,” he said. Skirmishes, battles and full-scale invasions followed, until a series of U.S. victories finally forced the Barbary States to sign treaties, ending decades of attacks against U.S. shipping. Puchula adds that the French decision to send 37,000 troops to occupy Algiers helped the cause.

But piracy wasn’t confined to the Barbary Coast. CRS notes that between 1801 and 1855, U.S. forces carried out counter-piracy missions in Tripoli, Algiers, Greece, Ivory Coast, Hong Kong and Sumatra. After what President Andrew Jackson called “an act of atrocious piracy” against a U.S. merchant ship in the waters around Sumatra, he deployed the USS Potomac, disguised as a Dutch merchant ship, “to inflict such chastisement as would deter them and others from like aggressions.”

Back in this hemisphere, CRS reports that there were 3,000 pirate attacks in the Caribbean between 1815 and 1823. The U.S. Navy responded in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish Florida and the Yucatan. Konstam notes that President James Monroe even created an “anti-pirate squadron.”

Closer to our times, President Ronald Reagan dealt with a kind of latter-day Barbary piracy, when Libya declared the Gulf of Sidra as its own, in violation of international law. In response, the U.S. Navy repeatedly engaged the Libyan navy and air force, to deadly effect. In 1985, Reagan ordered U.S. warplanes to intercept and divert an Egyptian airliner carrying Palestinian terrorists who had pirated the Achille Lauro and murdered an American. And in 2009, after Somali pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama and took its captain hostage, President Barack Obama authorized Navy SEALs to kill the attackers.

It may be too uncivilized for the EU and the rest of the PC crowd, but the common denominator of successful counter-piracy campaigns throughout history is the use of military force not simply to apprehend pirates, but to target and destroy them, their vessels and their bases.