Cliff May

The “international community” has taken no serious actions to curb these international outlaws. Helfman and O’Shea write: “Whereas the Romans used to crucify pirates and the Carthaginians used to flay them alive, the UN Security Council’s crowning achievement in its campaign against piracy is a recent report detailing the successful ‘business model’ adopted by Somali pirates (or, as the report termed them, ‘shareholders’).”

Such dithering is emboldening the pirates. Last week, one of their spokesmen – yes, they are media savvy -- issued new threats specifically against Americans in reaction to a New York court sentencing Somali pirate Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse to 33 years in prison for the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama.

Major General Tom Wilkerson USMC (ret) is CEO of the U.S. Naval institute. He told me he believes it is high time for a new approach. The U.S., he says, along with a coalition of the willing, could and should raise the risks of piracy and lower the rewards. That means taking the offensive: killing pirates at sea, in the harbors where they dock their vessels (and those they seize), and in what are now their safe havens and homes in the coastal areas of the northern Somali province of Puntland.

“Anytime you give your enemies places where they can rest and re-group, where they can’t be attacked, you cede the initiative to them,” Wilkerson said. “This doesn’t require putting boots on the ground. We have demonstrated that we have the technology” for both surveillance and remote attacks.

Would taking the war to the pirates be a violation of international law, as some proponents of inaction and appeasement claim? Wilkerson said it would not: “Two UN resolutions, 1851 and 1897, allow hot pursuit” at sea, into port and onto land.

Other measures could be implemented as well. There could be expanded and coordinated naval patrols in the area, drawing from all nations whose ships, cargoes and crews are threatened. Under current law, insurance companies are actually incentivized to pay ransom. New legislation could be introduced to encourage shipping companies to defend their vessels and crews with less fear of being sued for “violating the rights” of brigands. An international tribunal could be set up to prosecute captured pirates. Somali nationals could be trained as a constabulary force to prevent piracy, once suppressed, from being reestablished.

“The point is you have to decide on a goal and a strategy to achieve it,” Wilkerson argues. “But if we don’t do something there will be more opportunities for innocent deaths like we saw last week.”

Helfman and O’Shea add: “Seen from the perspective of an Islamic world that is testing the will of the democratic West to prevail over terrorism, the spectacle of captured pirates being allowed to slip through the cracks of international law is proof that Islamists are poised to prevail.”

We know what Washington and Jefferson would do. The question now: What will Obama and Clinton do?

Cliff May

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