November 25, 2008AfricaForeign Affairsinternational relationsjihadismaritime securitynavypiracyRealismrealpolitikterrorismUnited States

The curious incident of the US Navy in Somalia

Tackling piracy off Somalia might not be in US interests

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

One of the points that came up in recent off-blog discussions with a fellow INI blogger was the rather curious surge in piracy off Somalia’s coast during a period when the US Navy had a significant deployment in the region. Yesterday’s post suggested that the US navy’s reluctance to take a more forceful stand against Somali pirates is intriguing.”

Some cynics responded by saying that this is so that American private military companies can benefit by providing security services to the world’s shipping companies. Beyond that ready explanation—it is traditionally used to explain most US foreign policy decisions—the question is whether there are deeper strategic reasons motivating the US Navy’s posture in this theatre.

Galrahn at Information Dissemination (one of the best blogs on naval affairs) offers a realist explanation. He argues that Somali piracy is not counter to US interests in Somalia.”

The United States is essentially allowing Somalia to remain an ungoverned country because the status quo gives us more freedom of action in fighting al Qaeda and other extremist terrorism allies in Somalia. Piracy is a side effect, and not necessarily a terrible side effect, of that strategy…The pirates are not only commercial in nature, but they are enemies of the Islamic extremists that represent the enemy of the United States. It sounds crazy to say, but the pirates are essentially the secular, liberal capitalists of Somalia, and the United States would prefer to deal WITH not AGAINST those types of people.[Information Dissemination]

On the face of it, this is a reasonable conclusion. It explains why the Pentagon spokesman held forth about a holistic approach, when a case can easily be made that piracy can be contained by purely military means. But it is unclear why the United States is so sure that piracy will remain the domain of liberal, secular capitalist Somalis. As a tactic, piracy can help the Islamist militias to secure funds and weapons. As a strategy, it could help open a new front in al-Qaeda’s war against the West. Unless the US Navy can be selective and calibrate its go-easy policy on pirates, there could be unpleasant, unintended consequences for its own interests.

But Galrahn’s other point—that the go-easy policy makes other countries realise the need to update international law to tackle the such threats in the twenty-first century is more valid. But it is hard to accept that American attitudes are driven by grand strategy. For any sufficiently advanced grand strategic explanation is indistinguishable from post-fact rationalisation.

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