November 21, 2008 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security
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 waters.
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:
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.