faced with an 'overseas contingency operation'
Our view: President must deliver harsh message to pirates
President Barack Obama is facing a serious foreign policy challenge with the attack on an U.S.-flagged cargo ship by Somali pirates. How the president responds will likely set a pattern for future reaction to aggression by his administration.
This is not a time for the delicate nuances of diplomacy and negotiations. The United States is at its core a naval power. And nations whose security depends on control of the seas cannot tolerate piracy.
Last week Somali pirates operating off the east coast of Africa seized the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, laden with food aid destined for Kenya. Pirates have been harassing shipping along the busy trade route for month, holding vessels, cargo and crews for ransom.
The crew of the Alabama, many of them New Englanders, eventually repelled the pirates, but not before they took the vessel's captain as a hostage. The pirates are holed up with Capt. Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt., on one of the Alabama's lifeboats. They are being shadowed by a destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, which is attempting to prevent the pirates from reaching shore, where they could disappear with their captive into the lawlessness of Somalia.
President Obama must look to history for instruction in dealing with piracy. Our experience with pirates goes back to the nation's earliest days.
Then, merchant sailors from the new nation's busy ports of Salem and Boston were under constant threat from pirates based in the Barbary states of Africa's Mediterranean coast. Pirates would seize the ships steal their contents and sell the crews into slavery. To buy protection from the pirates, the U.S. government paid tribute to the rulers of the Barbary states. At one point, such tribute consumed 20 percent of federal expenditures.
But in 1801, newly inaugurated President Thomas Jefferson chose a new course. He declined a demand for tribute from Tripoli and instead sent a naval squadron to the Mediterranean. Jefferson believed, rightly, that it was cheaper in the long run to pay for the construction of a navy than to continue to pay tribute to the pirate states.
The strategy was to attack the pirates' bases of operations — in Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli — to deny them sanctuary and popular support. It is from these operations that our Marine Corps hymn contains the line "... to the shores of Tripoli."
The United States fought two campaigns against the Barbary states — the first from 1801-1805, the second in 1815 — before finally bringing the piracy to an end. Jefferson's decisive action bought us nearly 200 years of freedom from large-scale piracy.
Now, the time again has come for action.
Payment of ransom to pirates will only encourage more attacks on U.S. shipping. Attacks on the pirates and their bases of operations will make the marauders pay for their actions. When the price becomes too high, the piracy will stop.
Debates about American strength or weakness in the face of aggression are not mere academic exercises. They have real consequences for our nation and for individual Americans. Ask the crew of the Maersk Alabama.
President Obama must deliver a harsh message here. Pirates cannot be allowed to prey on American shipping with impunity.