Cliff May

Not long after achieving independence, the United States faced its first foreign threat: pirates off the coast of Africa seizing American merchant ships. As Michael Oren recounts in Power, Faith and Fantasy, his sweeping history of America’s involvement in the Middle East, beginning in 1784, American vessels were abducted, their crews enslaved and held for ransom. One local despot, Hassan Dey, paraded his American captives “past jeering crowds” and “spat at them, ‘Now I have got you, you Christian dogs, you shall eat stones.’”

This crisis, Oren writes, “raised fundamental questions about the nature, identity, and viability of the United States. …Would Americans imitate Europe and bribe the pirates, or would they create a revolutionary precedent and fight them?” George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both believed it was right and necessary to use military force. But not until 1794 would Congress vote to create a navy. And not until 1805 would U.S. Marines fight on the “shores of Tripoli.”

Today, American ships are again under siege by pirates off the African coast. This time, however, the buccaneers are setting sail from Somalia rather than from the territories that are now Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Today, the U.S. has the greatest navy the world has ever seen. But the debate is exactly what it was more than 200 years ago: Do we have the will to fight? Or would we prefer to submit to blackmail – to pay tribute to sea dogs?

Just last week, Somali pirates seized a vessel that was being sailed around the world by two American couples who were stopping along the way to donate Bibles to far-flung churches and schools. As American naval officials attempted to negotiate their release, all four were murdered.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded by saying the Obama administration was “deeply saddened and very upset…” She called the murders a “deplorable act” that underscored the need for increased international cooperation. “We've got to have a more effective approach to maintaining security on the seas, in the ocean lanes, that are so essential to commerce and travel.” Ya think?

At this moment, Somali pirates are holding more than 30 vessels and more than 600 hostages. They have been collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom – the figure has been growing year after year. As Tara Helfman and Dan O’Shea report in the February issue of Commentary, these pirates are not “merry brands of lucky amateurs. They are organized militias with informants in foreign ports, and networks of ransom negotiators, money launderers, and arms runners abroad. Moreover there is mounting evidence of collaboration between militant Islamists and pirate militias.”

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.