Our Pirates and Theirs

Posted February 28, 2009

Categories: Articles, Islamophobia

Here’s the plot of Pirates of the Caribbean 4. The film opens with Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow dropping anchor in New York harbor. He descends on Wall Street with his mates and, after a quick costume change at Brooks Brothers, storms the boardrooms of Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, and other major firms. They don’t need sabers to rake in the haul. Jack’s a clever pirate. He takes advantage of the tools at hand. Applying mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations, Jack seizes billions of dollars in booty. He distributes huge bonuses to his crew for a job well done. And just before the government steps in to clean up the mess, the pirates scramble back to their ship and set sail.

Quick question: Why are more than a dozen of the world’s navies converging on Somalia to battle pirates there instead of sailing into New York to capture the Wall Street pirates? After all, CEOs captured over $20 billion in taxpayer money using tax loopholes, according to an IPS study. Surely the global economy would be made more secure by forcing former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, who doled out $4 billion in executive bonuses even as his company was collapsing, to walk the gangplank than by cracking down on the bands of privateers in the Horn of Africa.

“Pirate,” like “terrorist,” has always been a slippery term to define. Just as the British considered George Washington a terrorist rather than a freedom fighter, they portrayed John Paul Jones as a pirate rather than a naval hero. After the Revolutionary War, the shoe was on the other foot when the United States fought several pitched battles with the “Barbary pirates.” These fearsome vessels, however, were not really pirate ships. Rather, they worked on behalf of several Barbary states that were part of the Ottoman empire. As Frank Lambert writes in The Barbary Wars, Algeria, Tripoli, and Morocco preferred traditional commerce and resorted to piracy largely because European powers refused to open their markets. If terrorism is the weapon of those on the political margins, piracy is the weapon of those on the economic margins.

Fast forward to the latest piracy news. The newspapers have been full of stories about gangs preying on vessels passing through the Suez Canal and near the Somali coast. They seized dozens of ships last year – including a Saudi tanker with $100 million worth of crude oil that yielded a $3 million ransom – with the help of fast boats, GPS, and submachine guns. The pirates are currently negotiating for a comparable ransom before releasing a Ukrainian vessel that has 33 Russian tanks, heavy artillery, and grenade launchers.

As Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Rubrick Biegon points out, the Somali pirates did not start out as Jack Sparrows. “Piracy in Somalia began because traditional coastal fishing became difficult after foreign fishing trawlers depleted local fish stocks,” he writes in Somalia Piracy and the International Response. “Desperate fishermen started attacking trawlers until the trawler crews fought back with heavy weapons, leading the local fishermen to turn to other types of commercial vessels. The pirates prefer to call themselves the Somali ‘coast guard,’ noting that, prior to the recent spate of hijackings, they organized themselves to defend their communities from overfishing and, according to several accounts, to protect Somalia’s coastline from toxic dumping by foreign vessels.”

Piracy blossomed in Somalia after Ethiopia invaded in 2006 with U.S. support and deposed the Islamic Courts Union. “Under the Courts, there was literally no piracy,” observes one maritime security expert. “While many Somalis disapproved of some of the more fundamentalist ways of the original courts, most felt that they were well organized, disciplined, and effective civil administrators who had certainly provided Somalia with its first semblance of order and leadership since 1991,” write FPIF contributors Gerald LeMelle and Michael Stulman in Africa Policy Outlook 2009.

The anti-piracy campaign, argues FPIF contributor Francis Njubi Nesbitt, is a giant red herring. “Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in December 2006, backed by the United States, sparked an Islamist resistance that led to thousands of civilian deaths, displaced over a million people, and depopulated the capital, Mogadishu,” he writes in Somalia: Waiting for Obama. “But instead of focusing on the aftermath of this crisis and helping foster a peace process, the United States, European Union, and other international actors are engaged in the more dramatic and media-friendly anti-piracy campaign.”

Hussein Yusuf disagrees. “Somalia poses a grave danger to the United States and the Horn of Africa today,” the FPIF contributor writes in What’s Next for Somalia. “Despite the U.S. ‘Global War on Terror,’ piracy in the Gulf of Aden threatens the supply of oil and commercial trade to the West. Islamic extremists threaten the stability of this region more than ever.” Yusuf and Nesbitt offer contrasting interpretations in their strategic dialogue on this topic.

Everyone agrees, however, that the pirates of the Somali coast have raked in quite a lot of money, somewhere around $30 million in 2008. That’s more than a few pearls and pieces of eight. But compare that to the bonuses that Wall Street employees took home last year: $18.4 billion.

At least the Somali pirates were good at their jobs.

Speaking of Jobs…

President Obama recently appointed Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke has “perhaps the most sordid history of any of the largely disappointing set of foreign policy and national security appointments” in the Obama administration, writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in Insensitive Choice for a Sensitive Region.

Holbrooke got his start, Zunes continues, working on “notorious pacification programs in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. This ambitious joint civilian-military effort not only included horrific human rights abuses but also proved to be a notorious failure in curbing the insurgency against the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon. This was an inauspicious start in the career of someone Obama hopes to help curb the insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.”

As Holbrooke sets to work, he’ll need to consider a major out-of-area factor: Russia. “Looking at the developments of the past 90 days through the filter of the new Russian security framework, a clearer picture emerges,” writes FPIF contributor Sam Gardiner in Russia and Iran Get Strategic. “It’s no longer a question for the United States of whether or not Russia will support additional sanctions on Iran. That won’t happen. Russia is on the path to make Iran a strategic partner, a counter to the United States in the regions of rivalry.” And that will have significant implications for work in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama and Democracy Promotion

Even as it stumbled so blatantly in its efforts to promote democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration institutionalized its “freedom agenda” before leaving office – through national security directives, legislation like the ADVANCE Democracy Act, and boosted funding for such organs as the National Endowment for Democracy.

As FPIF contributor Anthony Fenton points out, the Obama administration looks likely to continue along the same trajectory. “Obama has pledged to rebrand democracy promotion so that it ‘cannot become a casualty of the Iraq War,’” he writes in Bush, Obama and the ‘Freedom Agenda.‘ “Seeking ‘durable bipartisan support’ for his democracy policies while avoiding ‘mere rhetoric,’ Obama’s team has said they will foster ‘concrete outcomes that will advance democracy.’ What exactly the Obama administration means by ‘concrete outcomes’ remains unclear. The U.S. democracy promotion apparatus has historically been criticized for double standards and nefarious meddling in the internal affairs of unfriendly regimes.”

If Obama wants to engage in concrete democracy promotion, he should consider repairing ties with the democratically elected leader of Bolivia. “The ratification by popular referendum of Bolivia’s constitution has given President Barack Obama an opportunity to rebuild frayed relations with a nation that perceives itself to be a long-suffering victim of U.S. policies,” writes FPIF contributor Joshua Gross in Why Obama Should Meet with Morales. “Even with a broken economy to mend and many other geopolitical priorities, Obama should meet with Bolivian President Evo Morales in his first 100 days in office. Rapprochement with Bolivia based on mutual respect and non-interference would send a signal to Latin America’s many skeptics that the Obama administration intends to break from an inglorious past and forge a more constructive U.S. policy in the region.”

More on War

The United States and Israel are both dealing with the fallout from their respective wars. As FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan writes in Purple Hearts: A Cold-Blooded Decision, the Department of Veterans Affairs has largely ignored returning soldiers with Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): “Fewer than half of those Iraq and Afghanistan vets diagnosed with PTSD or MTBI have received disability benefits. One Veterans Affairs psychologist in Texas even urged VA staff to ‘refrain from giving a PTSD diagnosis’ and consider instead ‘a diagnosis of adjustment disorder.’ PTSD sufferers receive up to $2,527 a month, adjustment disorders significantly less.”

In Israel, meanwhile, the election campaign is in full swing and the candidates are all trying to out-hawk one another. This rhetoric might not just be for the consumption of voters. “That Israel got away with a military tour de force at minimal immediate military cost is likely only to encourage those Israelis who have already set their sights on regime change in Tehran,” writes FPIF contributor William deB. Mills in Gaza: Laboratory for the Power-Hungry. “These Israelis are likely to dismiss talk of Israel having lost support globally or tarnished its image by its brutality; rather, they will cite Israel’s smooth, rapid exit and proclaim the inevitability of Israeli military victory over all enemies. The outcome of this invasion of Gaza thus raises the likelihood of a conflict with Iran, both directly to the degree that it encourages Israeli adventurists and indirectly to the degree that it frightens Iranians and empowers Iranian radicals.”

FPIF, February 3, 2009

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