Barack Obama's good luck holds steady. When, for the first time in more than two centuries, pirates seized an American-flagged ship on April 8th, the 20-man American crew recaptured their ship hours later a few hundred miles east of the Somali coast. Although the captain remained a hostage, the recapture of the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000 ton container ship with a cargo of humanitarian assistance destined for Kenya, diminished potential public interest to a single individual, just as Iran's jailing of a single American journalist in late January relieved the new administration of having to address a crisis magnified by a large number of hostages. In the short term, the narrowing of these incidents to a couple of American citizens buys the Obama administration time as they search for solutions. The larger picture is more ominous.
The principles that are being tested in Iran and off the coast of Somalia hold no matter how many Americans are wrongfully detained by hostile governments or international outlaws: the United States is obliged to protect its innocent citizens. Failing to do so effectively invites more and bigger trouble. A similar principle applies to Chinese naval vessels' harassing of the unarmed U.S. Naval Survey ship, Impeccable, in international waters off Hainan island early in March. The Obama administration made diplomatic remonstrances and sent a destroyer to the area. This is not likely to have impressed China's leaders. The result is that there will be more such incidents--and not only in international waters near China--that test American resolve.
The hijacking of the Alabama offers President Obama an exceptional opportunity to act resolutely, justly, and effectively in reducing the likelihood of more attacks against American--and other--ships off the increasingly dangerous coast of east Africa, near one of the world's most important oceanic choke points: the Strait of Bab al Mandeb where the Red Sea empties into the Gulf of Aden. Some 20,000 vessels, most of them on their way to or from the Suez Canal or the Straits of Hormuz, pass through the gulf each year.
The ocean area that has become the pirates' hunting ground is immense, between one and 2.5 million square miles. In land terms, this ranges between roughly twice the size of India, and--at the lower end--an area about that of Argentina. NATO patrols the region with five ships besides three frigates from the European Union. The U.S. Navy maintains a presence of between five and 10 vessels. Notwithstanding, Lt. Nathan Christensen, the spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, noted that "we can't be everywhere at once," a remark that, while not aimed at the Pentagon's coming budget battle, is particularly appropriate given the slow, unabated shrinkage of the U.S. combat fleet. Lt. Christensen pointed out that the U.S. naval combatant nearest the Alabama when it was commandeered about 280 miles southeast of the Somalia pirate center, Eyl, was approximately 330 miles away at the time of the attack.
The U.S. and its allies are not the only contributors to the western Indian Ocean anti-piracy mission. China, India, Japan, and Russia as well as other nations have sent naval vessels to help secure the area.
Diplomatic efforts have paralleled naval ones. The United Nations Security Council in December 2008 unanimously passed Resolution 1851 whose title page "authorizes states to use land-based operations in Somalia." Subsequent language muddies this apparently tough grant of international authority requiring such government authority as exists in the minimally functional Somali state to notify the U.N. in advance of actual military operations. But since the resolution neither addresses nor prohibits less red-tape-bound military means, these remain possible. The same Security Council resolution directly supports international naval action to discourage piracy off the Somali coast.
Still, Secretary of State Clinton seems uncomfortable. She told a news conference on 9 April that "the administration is seeking a 21st century response" to piracy.
What could this mean? The basic requirements that senior Obama administration officials, including the president, have set as a standard for conducting foreign policy are all in place. The participation of many different navies off the Somali coast is diverse and multi-lateral. The U.N. has authorized the use of force against the pirates. Solid reason exists for taking full advantage of the careful work that preceded these measures: an attempt was made in international waters to steal American property, and an assault was made on an American crew. The American captain remains a hostage of the pirates.
Certainly, negotiations should continue for the captain's release and return. But, what then? Does a "21st century" response mean that with the crew and ship safely returned, the case is dismissed and we go about our business? This will guarantee more attacks on U.S.-flagged ships and American merchant marine sailors.
It will add to the appearance that the new administration's idea of a "21st century" response is one in which there are no consequences for those who violate international laws and customs in crossing the United States.
There are plenty of other reasonable alternatives that would send a clear message. If the pirates who seized the Alabama can be apprehended and transferred to a U.S. Navy ship, Title 18 of the U.S. Code allows them to be brought to the U.S. and, if found guilty, imprisoned for life. A more convincing approach would be to use the same unmanned aerial vehicles that have been operational since U.S. involvement in Bosnia to target pirates in the centers where they are known to congregate on land. Special operations missions could accomplish similar objectives, albeit with less plausible deniability.
Punishing the guilty would do justice, increase respect for the Obama administration while conforming to its standard of soliciting international approval, and decrease the likelihood of repeated attacks against Americans abroad. It might also provide the same benefit for mariners aboard ships carrying the flags of other states who go about their business peacefully in the region. This is more likely to increase respect for the administration abroad than ignoring direct challenges to the U.S. and packaging such sideways glances as policy that befits the 21st century.
Least likely to produce positive tangible result are approaches that bypass the administration's own foreign policy standard of multilateralism and UN sanction in pursuit of the additional and dubious requirement that wrongdoers escape serious consequences for their action.
The destroyer that was sent to the aid of Alabama is the U.S.S. Bainbridge. The ship was named for Captain William Bainbridge who served several tours in the American naval expeditions that eventually used force successfully to end the Barbary pirates' threat to American merchant shipping in the Mediterranean during the first two decades of the 1800s. Sometimes the 19th century, including the statesmanship of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, is the most appropriate model for U.S. policy.
Seth Cropsey is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.