“Pirates, Hawks, and Doves” sounds like a children’s game. But last week, in the midst of the piracy drama off the Somali coast, it was a game played by adults acting like children.
Media pundits and partisan operatives were quick to seize on the unusual hostage crisis at sea involving the cargo ship Maersk Alabama to frame the incident as a “major foreign policy test” of the Obama administration. Partisan critics lambasted the administration for taking days to seek a negotiated solution, seeing in this approach a hesitation to use force when it seemed to be the obvious solution. The image of the powerful USS Bainbridge in a four day standoff with young Somali gunmen in a small lifeboat was a perfect metaphor for critics seeking to portray the administration as hopelessly inexperienced and dovish. When the pirates were eventually shot and killed and Captain Phillips rescued, Obama supporters were quick to claim it as a major victory. President Obama, they insisted, passed his first major foreign policy crisis with flying colors.
All of this was complete nonsense. Regardless of whether the incident was resolved via negotiations or lethal force, this was by no means a major foreign policy crisis. It was a highly unusual, made-for-TV drama at sea that captured the imagination of the American public, but it involved a single hostage. That is not a foreign policy crisis.
But Somali piracy remains a political crisis for the Obama administration. Whether we like it or not, Somali piracy – which shipping companies consider a manageable nuisance, not a threat to global trade – has now taken on the importance of a litmus test for the Obama administration.
And this is very bad news for President Obama and his team, because Somali piracy is a political trap. Why? Because on the surface, it appears to be simple threat with a simple and obvious military solution – use lethal force against pirates at sea, and attack the pirate villages on shore. But in reality it is a far more complex issue, in which military responses run a strong risk of undermining broader U.S. strategic interests in Somalia.
Specifically, U.S. military actions which kill Somali pirates risk enflaming anti-Americanism in Somalia, playing right into the hands of the Somali jihadist group shabaab. Shabaab, currently the strongest militia in the lawless country, controls key territory from the Kenyan border to the outskirts of the Somali capital Mogadishu and has ties to al Qaeda. It is a security concern of the first order for Somalia, the U.S., and the entire Horn of Africa region. But shabaab has been in trouble lately and appears to be in decline, thanks to a new moderate Islamist government in Mogadishu and the withdrawal of Ethiopian occupying forces. The U.S. has powerful interests in encouraging this trend, which offers the hope of an end to Somalia’s long 19-year nightmare of state collapse and prevention of Islamic extremism in Somalia. Aggressive U.S. military actions against the pirates – who constitute at best a second order security concern – will play right into the hands of shabaab and other extremists, who would feast on the image of American military killing Somali youth (who are not, it should be stressed, seen as lawless pirates in the eyes of most Somalis). It would also undercut and discredit the moderate Islamists who have working relations with the West.
But more nuanced anti-piracy policies that restrain the use of American force, view piracy as a long term problem to be managed rather than a problem amenable to a quick fix military solution, and subordinate anti-piracy policies to broader U.S. strategic interests, will come at a political cost to the administration. Each new piracy attack, and each new payment of ransom, will be seized upon by conservative talk show hosts as evidence of a failure of nerve by President Obama. How, they will demand, can we wage a war on terror and reassert American primacy in the world when we can’t even take on a ragtag group of pirates in 20-foot skiffs?
Under these circumstances it will be tempting for the administration to seek policy responses to piracy which satisfy domestic political objectives – i.e., pre-empting conservative criticism by embracing robust military responses to the pirates – even at a cost to broader U.S. security interests in the region. Put another way, the politically logical response to Somali piracy will undermine broader U.S. national security strategies in the region, but a response which privileges national strategy priorities could come at a high cost in domestic politics. This is the trap.
Every U.S. administration faces this tension between political expediency and long-term national security interests, and every administration has its political pitbulls who gladly sacrifice the national interest in pursuit of narrow partisan political victories. The real battle over Somali piracy is not between Hawks and Doves, but between short-term political logic and long-term strategic interests. Let us hope that statesmanship will prevail.
If it does, the administration should go on the political offensive. It needs to make the case to the American public clearly and boldly that the U.S. has more important strategic interests in Somalia; that reducing Islamic extremism and the threat of terrorism in Somalia and reviving a functional central government there is our top priority; and that anti-piracy measures must be subordinated to those objectives. Partisan critics need to be placed on the defensive, cast as reckless and irresponsible opportunists whose narrow obsession with pirates risks undermining U.S. counterterrorism and state-building policies in the region.