Blackbeard and the Black Hawk

As piracy emanates through the news, the Pentagon considers ground operations in Somalia

SundayâÄôs heroic naval rescue of hostage Captain Richard Phillips from the clutches of Somali pirates off the East African coast gave Americans a strange, but welcome relief from economic misery. But pirates, once a scourge of the past, now have cable news outlets revving up a profitable infusion of maritime crisis. Surely any American with a television set remembers the Shock and Awe of Baghdad 2003, complete with a flash-boom cinematography hurled into American households like the heated climax from a made-for-TV thriller. Impending danger and military operations against nebulous enemies like terrorists, spawned amidst threatening social or economic conditions, are great for TV ratings. Obviously the Iraq War was waged against the Iraqi government and military, but in 2003 consensus held HusseinâÄôs Iraq to constitute part of the greater terrorist plot. And that plot was host to a spike in cable news ratings. MSNBC experienced a 357 percent jump in ratings, CNN 305 percent, and Fox News 239 percent, according to Nielsen reports from before and after the war. One pirate warned after the NavyâÄôs successful operation, leaving three captors dead, âÄúthe French and the Americans will regret starting this killing. We do not kill, but take only ransom. We shall do something to anyone we see as French or American from now.âÄù While taking the word of someone this involved in this situation often amounts to little more than peddling anotherâÄôs propaganda, Hussein, the Somali pirate who gave the quote is most likely telling the truth, at least about the ransom. While no one condones modern maritime piracy in the ransom model, it remains an essentially peaceful, albeit fear-mongering enterprise. The profitability of Somali pirates depends wholly upon the safe return of hostages. With this in mind, no policy going forward should militarily target pirates or pirate vessels. To do so would escalate the stakes, possibly beyond manageable proportions. Assassinating one, a few or a fleet of pirates may not be the best strategy. It may deter some pirates, but more likely, it will embolden them. Military efforts here could spur a classic blowback scenario, fueling resentment and giving propaganda pulp to pirate leaders for use in recruitment and legitimization. In fact, the bloodshed at Mogadishu, depicted in the 2001 film “Black Hawk Down,” in which US troops backing a UN-sanctioned task force killed 1,500 Somalis and wounded another 4,000, may be one of the primary reasons the anti-western terrorist group Al-Qaeda has a booming presence in the region. The proliferation of piracy âÄòcrisisâÄô news coverage works less to inform the average American about the implications of military action or the root of the piracy problem than it does to rile up a heaping batch of jingoistic patriotism: the stuff military justification is made of. Pirates, like terrorists, are an unlimited enemy. âÄòWarâÄô against such enemies often originates out of the political utility of exploiting a limitless threat, not out of some practical utility of militarism. As a naval officer recently said of the pirates, âÄútackling the pirates at sea is really like swatting mosquitoes without draining the swamp.âÄù Many analysts feel the only way to end Somali piracy is to bring stability to what is an incredibly impoverished and basically anarchic region, starving for both the aid pirate-targeted vessels are attempting to deliver, and starving for any money these pirates can plunder. Success lies in the removal of incentive toward piracy, but what form could this stabilization take when piracy is the primary source of income for the poorest regions in Somalia? It will have to be radical. Hijackings have been more frequent after the Sunday rescue of Captain Phillips, and now some analysts at the Pentagon are suggesting a land military operation. Defense Secretary Gates said Monday that piracy is âÄúprobably going to get worseâÄù until the international community can âÄúget something on land that begins to change the equation.âÄù David Smocked, an Africa expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, warned that if another Somali land operation is to occur, âÄúthe pirates would retreat and hide. It would be very hard to have a ground operation that would clear them out. And it would just set the Somali people against the Western states, and would only bring closer the relationship between the pirates and the jihadists.âÄù The possibility of war seems distant now, but an escalation in hijacking and sustained crisis-streaming by cable news media could substantially change contingencies. Thanks to the ratings garnered from the last couple weeksâÄô East African piracy coverage, two new television programs will cover the threat of pirates off the Horn of Africa. The American version, Pirate Hunters: USN to air on Spike TV, will examine the NavyâÄôs efforts to halt piracy. Ross Kemp, host of the British version, wasted no time beating the drum for his new program saying âÄúthe pirates are ruthless and wouldn’t think twice about slitting our throats for a few dollars.âÄù Shiver me timbers, thatâÄôs frightening: a few dollars? But Kemp would be hard-pressed to substantiate his provocative language. The only deaths relating to piracy lately are the three men shot and killed by the Navy when freeing hostage Captain Richard Phillips. Indeed, a pirate commander said the attack late Tuesday on American aid freighter Liberty Sun was out of revenge for the men killed by the US Navy operation. The piratesâÄô goal does not appear to be blood, only money. But for some reason these pirates, which sought only to scare and steal, are being presented to us as a threat to America. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the pirates âÄúarmed gangs on the seasâÄù when unveiling her four-point anti-piracy strategy. She went on to postulate, tellingly, that we âÄúhave to try to put out the fire before rebuilding the house,âÄù implying a need to militarily stop the pirates before Somalia undergoes drastic reorganization. Indeed the region and its economy present a complex challenge for the nations of maritime commerce, but if we havenâÄôt already got ourselves a raging fire off the East African coast, ratings-driven infotainment and an escalation of force employed on the seas could stoke the blaze until weâÄôve created one.