Amidst all the angst and astonishment about those wild and crazy Somali pirates, we seem to have forgotten that we’ve been through this movie before. It was more than two centuries ago when Muslim pirates were, after England, perhaps the most serious foreign threat bedeviling the new American republic. And the policy response too, is instructive today, though the issues raised are more complex.
Speaking to the Atlantic Council last Thursday, CIA director Michael Hayden declared that, "although Al-Qaeda has suffered serious setbacks, it remains a determined and adaptive enemy" and vowed that, while the American people have grown naturally complacent about the threat, he and his colleagues remain vigilant every day, motivated by the fact that the country "never faced an enemy so committed to our destruction."
"What can be done about the growing threat of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden?" seems to be the question of the week. Saturday's seizure of the Saudi ship Sirius Star, an oil tanker carrying about $100 million worth of cargo, set off a wave of pirate activity this week, culminating with news that an Indian frigate sank a pirate vessel late Tuesday.
The latest seizure of a Saudi oil tanker by Somali pirates presents an opportunity to improve relations between Russia and NATO. Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, has called for an international ground military operation to better combat rampant piracy in the region. "It's up to the European Union, NATO and others to launch a coastal land operation to eliminate the pirates…naval action alone will not be enough to liquidate the threat of piracy." Rogozin is right: there are limits to providing armed escorts or security teams for merchant ships.