The high-seas weekend rescue of Richard Phillips is a testament to both the heroism and impressive tactical skills of Special Operations Forces and the unparalleled role they play in the selective application of force. But as the weekend drew to a close and Somali pirates vowed to revenge the lives of their own and fired upon the aircraft of a departing congressman, it was depressingly obvious that the rescue effort succeeded in quelling only one part of the problem. It was a tactical success in the midst of a much larger strategic headache. Other ships remain in the custody of Somali pirates and more will ultimately meet the same fate. The international community, meanwhile, has no clear collective response other than off-the-coast patrols and ad hoc reactions.
Thus is the dilemma that awaits the Obama administration in the Gulf of Aden. The policy choice in Somalia seems to fall somewhere between three options: more targeted, covert action by US Special Operations Forces, either at land or on sea; ransom payments to free hostages and unfreeze cargo shipments, temporarily placating pirates; or a more serious political effort to restore law and order within the country itself. The first two only mitigate the symptoms but do not address the roots of what is in essence a land-based problem. The latter option, on the other hand, would be a risky and ambitious effort with minimal chances for success and entail a larger commitment than the US can presently afford. This is why I suspect that many countries will remain content to either rely on isolated rescue efforts when success is guaranteed or pay ransom when required – despite the risk that such actions will only increase the material incentives for piracy – lacking the political will to assume a temporary, international stewardship of Somalia or any other significant form of political engagement.
I don’t see these options as mutually exclusive, however. The first two are temporary efforts to stop the bleeding while the third (to continue the analogy…) is a heart transplant. But I can imagine some form of denial strategy at sea coupled with gradual economic assistance and the training of Somali police and security forces. Are there any readers out there with less cynicism and more solutions?