The Magazine

To the Shores of Tripoli . . .

The place to stop pirates is on the beaches.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By SETH CROPSEY
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The Indian navy, meanwhile, found itself in a position to take more forceful action. The frigate INS Tabar did so with distinction answering in self-defense a pirate mother ship that challenged her in the Gulf of Aden on the night of November 18. The Indian frigate refused to stop and opened fire. Tabar sank the pirate vessel and chased the smaller accompanying vessels. The Indians acted sensibly and effectively. They deserve credit.

But the growing number of pirate attacks against shipping in a rapidly expanding area of international waters is unlikely to be deterred and will certainly not be stopped by a small or even a medium-sized naval force. The small fast boats that carry out the actual assaults can be loaded aboard fishing vessels, small freighters, and other unremarkable-looking merchantmen; new mother ships can always be found, especially when pirate coffers are filling with ransom. Nor are the pirates likely to be dissuaded by the air and naval blockade of the Somali coast that an international association of tanker owners proposed in the last week of November. Preventing a single large ship from slipping out of an enclosed sea is difficult enough--as the Bismarck's departure from Gotenhafen in May 1941 demonstrates. Culling the guilty few from the innocent many along a 1,900 mile coast would absorb the energies of several navies with no reasonable assurance of success.

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. Years of paying tribute to government-sponsored North African pirates produced increasing demands--as Thomas Jefferson warned. Once inaugurated, he rejected Tripoli's demand for tribute. Naval warfare followed in which small, fast pirate boats darted out to capture valuable prizes. 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. Rightly convinced that he was squarely in the Americans' sights, the Bashaw of Tripoli agreed to peace, thus concluding the First Barbary War in 1805.

The second Barbary War ended similarly as the threat of Commodore Stephen Decatur's nine-ship squadron's guns trained on various North African cities convinced rulers to withdraw their demands for tribute and recognize U.S. shipping rights. Patrolling the Mediterranean was not nearly as persuasive in stopping piracy as denying pirates the bases from which to conduct operations or threatening those who supported them with destruction. The reference in the Marine hymn is to "the shores of Tripoli," not to its bays or littoral or coastal estuaries. The shore is where the problem festered. The shore is where it was resolved. And the shore is where today's problem should be addressed if an end to piracy is the objective.

Trying to restore order to Somalia in the hope that a stronger government could control piracy is a worthy effort which Washington should continue and redouble. Successful diplomacy and effective local reconstruction efforts could indeed reduce the real possibility of a local Islamist takeover and offer relief for the country's unfortunate people. But Somalia's descent into turmoil began almost two decades ago, and is as unlikely to be reversed soon by soft as by hard power. The jihadist threat--in the form of the Islamic Courts Union which controls most of the country--has already been unleashed on the region. What sense is there in failing to stop a serious incipient threat--sea piracy--out of concern at exacerbating a terrorist threat that already flourishes?

The Russians have suggested attacking such pirate bases as Eyl in the northern Puntland region of Somalia. The idea deserves serious consideration. Naval patrols can reduce piracy, but they cannot stop it. So long as the risk of serious punishment is low and the ransoms that shipping companies pay are high, piracy will thrive and multiply. Failure in antipiracy efforts off the Somali coast is likely to encourage more piracy elsewhere and invite terrorists into the act. Adding international defeat at the hands of ingenious Somali pirates to the failure to find and kill Osama bin Laden increases the perception that states are powerless in the face of daunting challenges to international order.