Thursday, April 16, 2009

Scurvy Dogs of War

The late William F. Buckley, political conservative icon and founder of National Review, must be clawing at his coffin lid. The print version of National Review, while Buckley held the reins, was often an over-the-top exposition of the more unsavory facets of the political right, but Buckley managed to keep it semi-respectable. National Review Online, however, always seemed to be written by the sort of thugs you’d find in a Berthold Brecht musical.

In a recent NRO piece, military historian and former classics professor Victor Davis Hanson comes across like a rabid war mongrel. Frothing over the recent Somali pirate caper involving a U.S. flagged merchant ship, Davis insists that, “To end Somali piracy, disproportionate measures against the shore should be taken—for every one pirate assault, a lethal air assault should immediately follow.” It’s perhaps understandable that Hanson doesn’t mention what Somalia offers in the way of suitable air strike targets; underdeveloped nations like Somalia don’t have any. Hanson probably doesn’t understand that, because like so many hawkish military historians, he doesn’t understand anything about the military. He doesn’t know much about warfare theory, either. He calls for extreme (though ineffectual) military measures in response to something he admits “may not be a matter of American national security” committed not by a peer competitor or a group of global extremists but by “two-bit pirates.” When a giant purposely crushes an anthill, he’s not pursuing a political objective; he’s feeding his perversions. That, like waterboarding someone 183 times, is not the sort of thing a global hegemon needs to be doing, Victor.

Thing are even wackier at the other end of the nut farm. In a December 2008 Weekly Standard piece, Barnacle Bill Kristol suggested that “the Marines would no doubt be glad to recapitulate their origins [on the “shores of Tripoli” during the Barbary Coast wars] and join in by going ashore in Africa to destroy the pirates' safe havens.” In the same issue, Seth Cropsey also proposed that we address the pirate peril by invading Somalia. “Americans ought to know the limits of relying on naval power alone to stop piracy as a result of the nation's experience in the Barbary Coast wars,” Cropsey wrote. “Notwithstanding the offshore victories of larger American frigates, a successful conclusion was only reached by combined naval, Marine, and mercenary action that captured the Tripolitan town of Derna.”

Comparing Thomas Jefferson’s Barbary Coast wars to today’s situation in the waters off Somalia is an apples and elephants analogy. The Somali government, such as it is, isn’t demanding “tribute” from the United States, and it’s as likely to get its pirates under control as the Afghan and Pakistani governments are likely to tame the Taliban. Moreover, today’s U.S. Navy isn’t a small fleet of wooden frigates. I’ll repeat this as often as necessary: simply placing two or even just one of our 11 carrier strike groups—with their self-contained wide ocean surveillance, maritime lift, escort, communications and special force capabilities—off the coast of Somalia would shut down the pirate shenanigans faster than you can say avast!

The opinions of Kristol and Cropsey on matters of war and peace are even less credible than Hanson’s. Kristol, Weekly Standard editor and founder of the infamous Project for the New American Century, is a sterling example of how far a boy with a low IQ can ride on his father’s connections and Rupert Murdoch’s money. Cropsey’s credentials as a warfare expert mainly consist of his membership in neocon think tanks like Kristol’s PNAC and its parent organization, the American Enterprise Institute. Still, Kristol and Cropsey have stronger grasps of military and foreign policy matters than their fellow PNAC and AEI denizen Long John Bolton. As the folks at Think Progress point out, Bolton, our former ambassador to the UN, told his chums at FOX News that attacking Somalia would be “the prudential response” to our buccaneer conundrum, just as he said last year that attacking Iran would be “the most prudent thing to do,” and as he asserted in 2002 that we were on a “prudent course” with Iraq.

In a saner American century, the likes of Hanson, Cropsey, Kristol, Bolton and the rest of the war clowns would have been laughed off the world stage years ago. Bathetically, in the American century we have, the masses, washed and unwashed, take them as seriously as they take professional wrestling and TV evangelists.

According to an April 13 Bloomberg story by Jeff Bliss, unnamed “defense officials” say “The U.S. military is considering attacks on pirate bases on land.” One can’t help wonder what kind of bases the U.S. military thinks the pirates have: the ones Dr. Evil left behind when Austin Powers chased him out of Africa? I can guarantee you their “bases” look nothing like the embassy we’re building in Baghdad. Somali piracy is a direct result of abject Somali poverty. That’s why the pirate they captured on the recent caper is only 16 years old.

Hey. What do Somalis call a 16 year-old pirate? An intern. What does the Pentagon call a 16 year-old Somali pirate? A number two man.

James “Jim Boy” Carafano, a right wing tank thinker at the Heritage Foundation (Bolton, Cropsey and Hanson have Heritage ties as well), told Bloomberg’s Bliss “There really isn’t a silver-bullet solution other than going into Somalia and rooting out the bases.” There isn’t a silver-bullet solution at all, nor are there much in the way of bases to root out, but as we have discussed, there is at least one superior option that hopefully involves doing whatever the Navy comes up with (throwing carriers at the problem) after JCS chairman Admiral Mike Mullen makes the maritime service look "broadly and widely and deeply" at the problem. ("We've actually been focused on this issue for some period of time,” Mullen said on ABC’s Good Morning America. "We've had a focus on it," he reassured us. He promised us that, “There are many, many people working on it right now.")

Neil Livingstone, chairman and chief executive officer of ExecutiveAction LLC, a Washington-based anti-terrorism consultant, told Bliss it’s futile to concentrate anti-pirate efforts solely at sea. “It’s a massive area,” he said. “You can’t patrol all of it.” Livingstone is another security expert who knows nothing about military capabilities. The assets of a carrier strike group or two, directed by E-2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft, can patrol that area handily.

Unnamed “security analysts,” most likely Carafano and Livingstone, told Bliss “The U.S. should take as its model the 1801 decision by then-President Thomas Jefferson to send a naval force to assault the land bases of Barbary pirates.” Gee, is there a network where all these war mongrels get together and decide on how they’re going to talk us into their next stupid war, do you think?

If they are going to cite historical precedent, they’d serve us better by pointing to more recent case studies. Operation Restore Hope, the Big Daddy Bush and Bill Clinton excursion into Somalia, began in December 1992 as a humanitarian mission and turned into a cluster bomb. That’s what happens when you put boots on the ground in a place you know nothing about. Things didn’t go appreciably better when we paid the Ethiopians to invade Somalia for us in 2006, and the air raids we supported them with reinforced what I said earlier about suitable air strike targets: the best ones our AC-130 gunships could find were Somali villages.

Somalia does not offer tangible military objectives. There are no pirate seaports or forts or barracks to bomb from the air. And if we invade, how do Kristol and the rest of the brown shirt bubbas suppose our Marines will tell the pirates from the other starving Somalis? By their jolly swaggers and the parrots on their shoulders?

Smart Power poster girl Hillary Clinton apparently has “many, many people” working on the pirate issue as well. An April 15 BBC headline read “US unveils plan to tackle piracy,” referring to Hillary’s announcement of her State Department’s new “counter-piracy initiatives” designed to address “the scourge of piracy.” (Arr, and that’s the salty kind of talk we like to hear, Madame Secretary). Hillary’s plan includes four “immediate” steps: 1) sending “an envoy to attend” a meeting, 2) calling “for immediate meetings,” 3) tasking a “diplomatic team to engage” in meetings and 4) directing her team to meet and “work with shippers and the insurance industry.” As silly as they sound, Hillary’s team meetings and make more sense that the standard kill-kill-kill mantra we get from the neocon Kilroys.

I will always maintain that a smooth operator in the back of an airborne E-2C Hawkeye controlling a carrier group’s assets could ensure that any pirate who boards a merchant ship in the in the NPZ (No Pirate Zone) would be mumbling into a Navy SEAL’s gun barrel within hours. But the simplest and cheapest way to tackle the piracy scourge might be for all ships transiting the POA (Pirate Operating Area) to pull up their metal boarding ladders and stow them on deck. You can count the number of Somali pirates who are really, really motivated to swing a grappling hook over a gunwale then climb hand over hand up the side of a pitching ship on the fingers and toes of a porpoise.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword. Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books), a lampoon on America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now.


  1. I am not sure what your problem is with my comment since I said there was not easy solution. Here is what Heritage has said to do.
    attention on piracy. U.S. policymakers should resist letting headlines drive policy, such as supporting a new U.N. peacekeeping operation, which would face enormous--perhaps insurmountable--challenges.

    Key among such challenges is that there is no legitimate sovereign able to assert its authority for the U.N. peacekeeping operation to support. Instead, the U.S. should be seeking an approach to Somalia that capitalizes on existing realities.

    Recognize the Failure of Imposing a Centralized State Authority. Somalia is a failed state with various powerful factions possessing little, if any, national allegiance. A strategy of establishing a state-centric model (throwing capital, political and financial, at a succession of worthless central authorities) has been proven ineffective: The TFG is the 14th such interim government structure since 1991.

    Instead, the U.S. should support a "grassroots model" of identifying and bolstering existing legitimate authorities, including civil society and traditional clan authorities--excepting those with links to terrorism, piracy, or Islamic extremism. Applying this strategy will take time and face many difficulties. However, such an approach is more likely to lead to success in the long run.

    Encourage Improved Governance in Somalia. To encourage local Somali authorities and statelets to improve their governance structures and to mature politically, the international community should reward them with the benefits other governments receive--provided they meet clear benchmarks. For instance, to address the situation in Puntland, the international community should demand that local authorities clamp down on piracy and cooperate with international anti-piracy efforts as a key early condition. A similar approach should be used for other Somali regions, albeit tailored to their specific circumstances.

    Make the Seas Safer. Combating piracy will require security enhancements on the high seas. The Navy's presence coupled with effective intelligence sharing and targeted operations can:

    Conduct interdiction and blockade missions that will serve as partial deterrent;
    Conduct hostage rescue; and
    Perform search and rescue in concert with other concerned naval powers.
    Over time, U.S. maritime presence should shift from naval to U.S. Coast Guard forces, which are better suited to most of these tasks. The U.S. should also help regional allies improve their coast guard and maritime security programs. This shift will require speeding and expanding the modernization of Coast Guard maritime security assets.

    In addition, private sector shippers should take more responsibility for their own security. This should not include arming the crews of ships--such a move would be dangerous to the crew (untrained in the use of weapons) and face many legal obstacles. In addition, little can be practically done to prevent pirates from overtaking the ship once they are on board without endangering the vessel and the lives of the crew.

    Rather, private shippers could, at modest cost, hire private security that operates in separate small vessels. Sensors and non-lethal technologies could provide a picket line to prevent pirates from approaching commercial craft.

    Enhance International Efforts to Deal with Piracy. The U.S. and others should apply pressure to Puntland and other Somali authorities linked to piracy by undermining the profit motive (e.g., applying U.S. treasury sanctions on financial institutions linked to piracy or prohibiting insurance claims on ransoms paid to pirates).

    The U.S. should also, in coordination with other nations, implement a naval interdiction and blockade of Somali and other ports known to be harboring pirates should these ports prove unwilling to cooperate with anti-piracy efforts. Such blockades would be lifted only when the pirates are surrendered.

    The U.N. Security Council could assist by blessing interdiction of ports in Somalia and other nations where pirates have demonstrably been able to seek refuge; recognizing the historical customary international law practice of applying universal jurisdiction in cases of piracy on the high seas and the authority of ships to sink private vessels, kill individuals that refuse to surrender, detain pirates and deliver them to legal authorities; and permitting national authorities to try and punish them as they deem appropriate, so long as they comply with fundamental due process.

    A Unique Situation

    Ensuring freedom of the seas is fundamental to global commerce, and it is the responsibility of nations to ensure that right. The U.S. should do its part. The anti-piracy strategy should be applied to the Horn of Africa and surrounding waters, but the uniquely lawless situation in Somalia requires supplementary strategies. Specifically, the U.S. must focus attention on recognizing and bolstering points of stability in Somalia and working with local authorities toward the long-term goal of expanding governance in the country. James Jay Carafano

  2. My problem, James, is that your statement “There really isn’t a silver-bullet solution other than going into Somalia and rooting out the bases" is a total crock of neoconservative Newspeak poppycock. It contains at least three major fallicies, to wit:

    -- there is a silver bullet solution ( rooting out bases)

    -- There are "bases" to root out, like something maybe Dr. No built up before James Bond and Elke Summer defeated him.

    -- that there is "no other" solution.

    This is the kind of dishonest rhetoric you war hounds plop on the sidewalk all the time, and I for one don't like how it smells.


  3. Oh, I think I forgot a fallacy: that "rooting out the bases" is a "silver-bullet solution."

  4. Anonymous10:08 PM

    The hostage rescue near Somalia was mainly due to the fact that the ship was an American flagged vessel. Maersk is a Danish company. Many of the ships which pass through that area are not flagged in their owner's country, but rather in places like Liberia. I flew many missions with observers 'rigging ' ships and an inordinate number of them were flagged in Liberia.(Even when they were owned by US companies).

    If a ship is flagged in its home country, that country is responsible for the ship and crew's safety, not the US.

    Ships are flagged in countries which have lax safety regulations and do not require security checks of crew members.

    If the US were to place a carrier strike group in the area to protect shipping, should not other countries share in this endeavor and help fund the action?

  5. You make some good question, I'll attempt good (albeit quick) answers.

    If we pretend to care about this pirate caper, we have to pretend to care about all of it, not just the parts where an American captain winds up on TV.

    If we as the hegemon want to stop piracy, it doesn't matter to me if anyone else helps or not, and frankly, my experience in combined maritime ops tells me there are only a few folks I want aboard the operation anyway. Whoever tags along, none of them can contribute a whit what the CVBG can.

    I'll say further that none of your concerns, though legit, stack up to the legal, moral and practical concerns I have about putting boots on the ground or bombs on target in Somalia again.



  6. Jeff-you make a lot more sense than the NRO idiots.

  7. Thanks, Kh. Though, come to think of it, how hard can it be to make more sense than they do? ;-)


  8. Anonymous1:02 PM

    Your answers to my concerns are well taken. I agree that if piracy is to be stopped, the carrier strike group would be the best overall solution. What would follow is probably unknowable as Somalia is a failed stae.

  9. Yep, it's a failed state all right, and I don't think any amount of horses and men can unfail it.


  10. There is somalialand. Not a failed state. Just an unrecognized one. There is Puntland. Not a state yet, but working on it.
    And then there was Somalia. A poorly arranged menagé a trois that broke apart.
    Might be a workable solution to begin by recognizing the existence of three states not one. Then helping two of them actually develop a coast guard.
    Not a John Wayne Green Berets solution of course so it will gain no traction.
    Funny thing, there was never a problem recognizing the right to exist of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Not even a hint of a problem forcing the recognition of Kosovo.

  11. Anonymous8:46 PM

    Do you suppose that somalia is sitting on top of a large pool of cheap -to-extract light, sweet crude oil that some one wnats badly enough to destabilize the whole place? Perhaps the pirates are like the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    If Eritrea and Djibouti, and Yemen ever decide to get into piracy, trade in the Red Sea and Suez is in deep trouble.

  12. The CIA Factbook says Somalia has no proved reserves.

  13. Anonymous6:17 AM

    Around the time of the UN Mission in Somalia under Bush the Elder, the Oil & Gas Journal, the trade rag of the US oil industry ran a number of articles on Somalia's geology and more.

  14. Jeff,

    This article appeared in Commondreams by a columnist for the London Independent. It helps explain the pirate problem and sheds some light that we do not get in the patriotic press here in the US.

    You Are Being Lied to About Pirates
    by Johann Hari

    Who imagined that in 2009, the world's governments would be declaring a new War on Pirates? As you read this, the British Royal Navy - backed by the ships of more than two dozen nations, from the US to China - is sailing into Somalian waters to take on men we still picture as parrot-on-the-shoulder pantomime villains. They will soon be fighting Somalian ships and even chasing the pirates onto land, into one of the most broken countries on earth. But behind the arrr-me-hearties oddness of this tale, there is an untold scandal. The people our governments are labeling as "one of the great menace of our times" have an extraordinary story to tell -- and some justice on their side.

    Pirates have never been quite who we think they are. In the "golden age of piracy" - from 1650 to 1730 - the idea of the pirate as the senseless, savage thief that lingers today was created by the British government in a great propaganda-heave. Many ordinary people believed it was false: pirates were often rescued from the gallows by supportive crowds. Why? What did they see that we can't? In his book Villains of All nations, the historian Marcus Rediker pores through the evidence to find out. If you became a merchant or navy sailor then - plucked from the docks of London's East End, young and hungry - you ended up in a floating wooden Hell. You worked all hours on a cramped, half-starved ship, and if you slacked off for a second, the all-powerful captain would whip you with the Cat O' Nine Tails. If you slacked consistently, you could be thrown overboard. And at the end of months or years of this, you were often cheated of your wages.

    Pirates were the first people to rebel against this world. They mutinied against their tyrannical captains - and created a different way of working on the seas. Once they had a ship, the pirates elected their captains, and made all their decisions collectively. They shared their bounty out in what Rediker calls "one of the most egalitarian plans for the disposition of resources to be found anywhere in the eighteenth century." They even took in escaped African slaves and lived with them as equals. The pirates showed "quite clearly - and subversively - that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal navy." This is why they were popular, despite being unproductive thieves.

    The words of one pirate from that lost age - a young British man called William Scott - should echo into this new age of piracy. Just before he was hanged in Charleston, South Carolina, he said: "What I did was to keep me from perishing. I was forced to go a-pirating to live." In 1991, the government of Somalia - in the Horn of Africa - collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since - and many of the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

    Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury - you name it." Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. When I asked Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: "Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention."

    At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish-stocks by over-exploitation - and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea-life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia's unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters."

    This is the context in which the men we are calling "pirates" have emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a 'tax' on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia - and it's not hard to see why. In a surreal telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali, said their motive was "to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters... We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas." William Scott would understand those words.

    No, this doesn't make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters - especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But the "pirates" have the overwhelming support of the local population for a reason. The independent Somalian news-site WardherNews conducted the best research we have into what ordinary Somalis are thinking - and it found 70 percent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence of the country's territorial waters." During the revolutionary war in America, George Washington and America's founding fathers paid pirates to protect America's territorial waters, because they had no navy or coastguard of their own. Most Americans supported them. Is this so different?

    Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We didn't act on those crimes - but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world's oil supply, we begin to shriek about "evil." If we really want to deal with piracy, we need to stop its root cause - our crimes - before we send in the gun-boats to root out Somalia's criminals.

    The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarised by another pirate, who lived and died in the fourth century BC. He was captured and brought to Alexander the Great, who demanded to know "what he meant by keeping possession of the sea." The pirate smiled, and responded: "What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor." Once again, our great imperial fleets sail in today - but who is the robber?

  15. Great stuff, Andy. Many thanks.


  16. Here's another take on the pirate story. It has some interesting info that our peerless media somehow forgot to mention in their coverage of this, at least in the stories I saw.

  17. The Reality Kid4:28 PM

    You have the wonderful - and wonderfully consistent - ability to make me laugh, cry and grit my teeth in anger, at approximately the same time. I wonder how I'd feel if I disagreed with you; perhaps I should ask Mr. Carafano...heheheh.

  18. redknight381:50 PM

    Maybe we should let VDH try his plan. He can be a trierarch, as this might be his dreams, and outfit a bunch of good ole boys in bronze armour and spears. He can storm the beaches screaming "This is FRESNO!"

    I mean, everyone knows that the Western Way of War always wins, right? I say, give him his shot.

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