Recent headlines have been dominated by the exploits of pirates
operating in the Cape of Aden's global shipping lanes. By seizing
cargo ships and oil tankers, these modern pirates have had a
tremendous impact on the security of the maritime domain.
It is important that the U.S. government continues to monitor
these developments and supports anti-piracy initiatives through
established international forums. Such a role recognizes that we
cannot ignore the potential impact of piracy on the supply chain,
energy security, or our nation's counter-terrorism missions. For
the time being, though, piracy acts are largely an issue for
private shippers and affected nations.
It Is About the Money
These modern pirates are not unlike their swash-buckling
predecessors. Much like searching for treasure, their primary goals
are economic. Piracy is easy money--pirates take over a ship, seize
a few hostages and millions of dollars in cargo, and wait for the
shipping company to eventually pony up the money. The shipping
companies have cargo that needs delivery, and maneuvering through
these channels is the quickest and most cost-effective way to do
so--even if it means paying off pirates.
Some insist that this recent rash of piracy is a problem of
global concern. For instance, French President Nicolas Sarkozy
called a recent pirate attack on French tourists an action that
"the world cannot accept," hinting at more aggressive action by
other nations. Among other initiatives aimed at this issue, the
U.N. Security Council recently passed a resolution that would
encourage member states to help combat piracy.
The actual role that the United States should play in this
issue, however, is unclear. Currently, the U.S. Navy already has
some presence in this region, in the form of three ships, through
the Combined Task Force 150--a multinational counter-terrorism
force. Diverting significant resources to the piracy issue or
instituting a U.S.-led response, however, would seem ill-placed
considering that, unlike some of our allies, very little U.S. cargo
travels through the Cape of Aden and other routes that often come
in contact with pirates. Furthermore, the Cape of Aden is not the
only place where piracy occurs, so anti-piracy operations must not
encourage the pirates to merely move to friendlier, less-patrolled
But there may be incentives for the U.S. to use select
intervention when necessary. There is growing concern that these
pirate groups could team with terrorist and radical Islamist
groups--such as al-Qaeda--that may seek to harm the United States.
Furthermore, the U.S. is a maritime nation and does have an
interest in ensuring that other nations can protect their own
supply chains, disruption of which can impact the global markets.
And there is a need to develop, through mutual cooperation between
the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy, maritime constabulary
power--America's ability to use law enforcement and military
capabilities to maintain law and order at sea.
Actions in the U.S.'s Interest
The United States, however, is likely best served by not
engaging this issue in a way that would be perceived as a military
presence, unless our intelligence demands intervention. Current
Coast Guard leadership in this area (with Navy support) has been an
excellent example of the more hands-off measures in which our
nation should engage. The United States can adequately serve the
interests of Americans while preventing disruption of the global
supply chain by taking the following actions:
- Promote International Responses to the Piracy Situation.
While efforts to combat this issue should not be U.S.-led, there is
nothing wrong with supporting other international partners who want
to tackle piracy. Leadership should come from countries whose naval
capacities could have an impact on securing these maritime regions
and who have a dog in the piracy fight. A great example is the
Japanese--whose ships have been attacked by these pirates--and are
consequently looking to engage in more international cooperation
and have assisted in anti-piracy initiatives in the Straight of
Melacca. Furthermore, any response should incorporate the private
sector shippers--without their cooperation, the incentive for
piracy will still exist and security at sea cannot be
- Modernization of the United States Coast Guard. Programs
such as the USCG's International Outreach and the North Pacific and
North Atlantic Coast Guard Forums have produced tremendous
cooperation between the Coast Guard and nations around the world to
combat environmental problems, assist in natural disasters, and
other activities. And some of these USCG initiatives have been used
to help combat piracy without any formal U.S. presence. But
currently, the Coast Guard's fleet is extremely outdated. The U.S.
should divert more attention towards replacing and upgrading these
- Highlight AFRICOM as a Resource for African
Leaders. AFRICOM was created to work with African leaders and
governments to build their capacity to respond to threats like
piracy before they become violent conflicts or widespread problems.
Places like Somalia, where the government is weak at best, are
havens for pirates because of political and economic volatility.
The U.S. government should work with allies in the region to focus
more closely on piracy, support regional efforts to address these
concerns, and bolster the capacity of African nations to tackle
these problems. This approach avoids a large military presence and
attends to the issue in a less-evasive, grassroots manner, ensuring
that American interests remain at the forefront.
- Bolster U.S. Intelligence-Gathering and International
Efforts Inside Somalia. Considering that many of these pirates
are based in Somalia, it is vital that we continue to monitor their
movements to ensure that their relationships with terrorist
organizations do not develop into these pirates funding acts of
terrorism against the U.S. and its allies--a development that might
demand U.S. intervention. It is also fundamental that the
international community considers long-term initiatives that can
ensure more stable governance in Somalia.
U.S. Security at the Forefront
If the U.S. does not act in its own interests first, it will do
little to protect the security of Americans, and it will perpetuate
fears by African countries that the U.S. seeks to have a sustained
military presence in the region for less than honest reasons. The
U.S. does have some role to play to ensure that the international
maritime domain is more secure. But we must continue to assess our
actions in terms of what is in the U.S.'s interest and encourage
robust global partnerships for constabulary operations.
Jena Baker McNeill is
Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.