Things are getting hairier off the coast of Somalia on this Holy Saturday. The pirates still hold hostage freighter Capt. Richard Phillips in a drifting lifeboat while three U.S. warships are in the area keeping a watchful eye. Meanwhile, in a separate incident, an Italian tugboat has been seized by pirates with 16 hostages aboard. An Italian warship is en route and calls to the tugboat have not been answered. This is in addition to the French commando rescue of four pirate hostages yesterday off the coast of Somalia, which tragically resulted in the death of one of the hostages on the hijacked yacht Tanit. The pirates in this case had refused several offers and had hinted at taking their French hostages ashore, a red line that when crossed triggered the special forces mission. The same criteria also triggered two successful French commando rescue missions last year.
The hijacked American ship Maersk Alabama has returned to port at Kenya being treated by the FBI as a crime scene, with one crew member calling their captain a hero. At the same time, a Navy vessel from the Bainbridge attempted to approach the lifeboat and received gunfire in response. And in a troubling sign of further escalation, more pirate ships are converging on the area with more foreign hostages to give their compatriots leverage.
The response of the Obama administration has been decidedly low-key, which Ed Morrissey argues is the correct response for right now. A fist-pounding death threat from the President isn’t what’s needed at present, although I’d personally prefer some sort of firmer statement than what we’ve yet seen. In the meantime, the administration debates what to do in a larger sense with Somali extremists groups unrelated to piracy like al-Shahab who have attracted international converts and are trending in troubling directions but so far have been limited to activity within Somalia. To be sure, as HotAir states, we’re dealing with asymmetric warfare with pure greed as the motive, as opposed to being driven by religious zealotry.
Nonetheless, this is Obama’s first major foreign policy test, and after the seemingly ineffective G20 summit and all the hubbub over the bow to the Saudi king, it’s important to show a strong and effective response. The Wall Street Journal has an excellent editorial examing how this piracy crisis challenges Obama’s pre-9/11 mentality. To be sure, we don’t need more foreign war operations, but at the same time, neither America nor global commerce in general can afford to let the pirates believe they have achieved a victory. It will only lead to more egregious and more flagrant hijackings, putting more lives at risk and putting global trade around the Horn of Africa in greater peril. In a very real sense, the debate is very similar to the question of dealing with terrorism. In both cases decisive action is needed, for the opposition will do nothing by thrive on perceived weakness.