I have heard spotty coverage of the hostage drama being acted out in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa over the last few days. In summary, pirates based out of Somalia have attempted to hijack a US Flag cargo vessel operating approximately three hundred miles from the African coast. The crew resisted the attempt and the final result appears to have left the Captain of the vessel being taken by four pirates from the vessel in a lifeboat from the vessel, the Maersk Alabama. The US licensed maritime captain apparently voluntarily accompanied the pirates to prevent any violent injury to his crew.
Although there have been any number of high profile cases of piracy in this area (six in the last week), this is the first incident in my memory of a US Flag freighter being seized by sea-going bandits in about two hundred years. The situation is complicated by the lack of an effective central government in Somalia to control the lawless activities of the privateers operating from Somalia ports.
There is some irony in the presence on scene of the USS Bainbridge (destroyer class vessel on the scene for the Navy). It was the victories of Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur against Algiers in 1815 that stopped the activities of the Barbary Pirates in the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastal areas of Northwest Africa. It was Thomas Jafferson who first intervened in the area with Naval power more than a decade earlier. It is significant that Jefferson - who had opposed the build up of US Naval forces under Adams – did not hesitate to use the Navy to enforce US interests in the area when he was President.
We can only hope that there is an historian at the White House to advise the President these days. The news coverage has not been specific. But there are indications that President Obama is not meeting this challenge with decisive action. He must recognize that any attempt to pay these pirates or to fail to intervene with military power may result in countless new crimes on the high seas and will endanger additional US interests and citizens in the future.
There has been a tendency of Democrat Presidents to view the acts of terrorism in the world as a law enforcement problem. President Bush has created some controversy by viewing international terror as a military problem – and the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are the result.
We all share the concern for the safety of Richard Phillips, Captain of the Maersk Alabama. But the delay in responding to the situation may complicate his situation. Four ships, currently in the hands of the pirate groups and loaded with hostages are responding to the very busy piece of ocean where they hope to act as a humanitarian screen to recover the pirates and their hostage from the lifeboat and bring them to the relative safety of Somalia until a ransom for the Captain can be negotiated.
The tactical situation is not easy. The lifeboat with the four pirates and the hostage (Captain Phillips) is approximately 28 feet in length and is equipped with food and water for 34 people for 10 days. The lifeboat has a weather cover obscuring the occupants from view and making sniper fire difficult.
The legal jurisdiction is also fuzzy as the incident is taking place in international waters without the convenient proximity of US Courts to officiate.
I expect that the arrival of bandit reinforcements with additional hostages as a defensive screen will complicate the situation and may leave the President wishing he had concluded this operation while he had the chance. Captain Phillips is still at risk and now other attacks on US flag carriers will be likely.
Where is Thomas Jefferson when we need Him.