Holism and Pirates

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Our friend and frequent RCW contributor Joel Weickgenant writes:

I think a great amount of perspective is being lost amid the roundabout cheerleading we’re seeing after the recent rescue of a merchant ship captain from pirates off Somalia’s coast. It’s easy to assume a bellicose stance, talk about arming merchant ships (”Kill the Pirates?” Are you serious, Fred?), taking out the bandits of the high seas. We discuss the plague of piracy, and rightly express joyrelief when the bandits’ aims are thwarted and innocents survive. But the only solutions we talk about involve as usual the threat of retaliatory violence. We don’t consider the people behind the plague - why they do what they do - and how far desperation pushes their willingness.


It’s okay to be happy that the SEALs did their job, and President Obama may deserve credit for deftly handling an international crisis. But the crisis won’t abate just because it turns out that members of the special forces have good aim. And pirate crews are unlikely to be discouraged by armed merchant crews. They’ll simply be ready for more violence

I think the problem here with Joel's diagnosis is the prescription. Somalia has been a failing state for years now. We certainly do need to do more than cheer, but I don't know that a large scale nation-building project in Somalia is truly the best method for addressing piracy.

And that's the problem. Nobody really knows what the problem is, so the solution eludes us. Matt Yglesias, unsurprisingly, blames the United States (via Ethiopia). Or perhaps the problem is ill-defined waterways and abusive fishing? Maybe it's terrorism? Desertification? Toxic dumping???

I suppose it could be all of those things, but there are only so many nation-building adventures that the West can and should engage in at one time. I don't mean to be so flip, and there certainly are more things the international community could be doing (addressing the exploitative fishing and the coast's legality is among them).

But sometimes there's a strong case to be made for compulsion. Joel's aversion to this is well-taken, but "kill the pirates" just may be the most convincing sell the West has to make on the issue. After all, there are countless issues around the world where one could say "If only X country were stable and prosperous, we could then prevent Y from happening."

I think it may be a little too late for holistic measures in Somalia. This doesn't mean Somalia should be ignored, but using piracy as the catalyst to do more may not be the best idea at this time.

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