Then in 1985, President Ronald Reagan -- at the behest of his chief of staff, Don Regan -- met personally with the families of Americans taken hostage in Beirut. After hearing directly from the anguished wives, children and other loved ones of those being held, we were ordered to "do what's necessary" to obtain their release. That meant paying ransom. And that's what we did, not directly to the hostage holders but to those who controlled Hezbollah: the Iranians.
Though the initiative resulted in the release of three of the hostages, it also reinforced the idea, begun in the 1700s, that Westerners in general -- and Americans in particular -- will pay ransom for their citizens. That lesson has been learned well by pirates armed with AK-47s and RPGs sailing from lawless, chaotic Somalia.
Thus far this year, there have been more than 300 attacks against merchant ships and commercial fishing vessels off the Somali coast. Sixty-five craft have been hijacked, and more than 300 crewmen have been taken hostage. Shipping companies and insurers are estimated to have paid out more than $40 million in ransoms for the release of ships' crews and cargoes, and insurance rates have reached more than $30,000 per day. NATO, the Indian navy, the Persian Gulf powers, Russia and the U.S. all have deployed combatants to the area. It hasn't worked. In fact, the piracy is getting worse. On Nov. 18, the same day an Indian naval frigate sank a pirate "mother ship," three other vessels were hijacked.
The U.N. Security Council has resolved to impose new sanctions on "those who support piracy." The European Union promises to dispatch a naval task force in December to the Gulf of Aden. Unless shippers and commercial fishermen agree to convoy their vessels, these measures are all but meaningless. Everyone knows that the only reasonable long-term solution to the piracy problem is re-establishing the rule of law in Somalia. And everyone -- including the pirates -- knows that's unlikely to happen for years. Advocates of using military force to "clean out the pirates' nests ashore" apparently have forgotten global media opprobrium over collateral damage and civilian casualties. Posting a battleship offshore might send the right message, but we don't have them anymore.
The only reasonable short-term solution is having well-armed security personnel on merchant ships plying these dangerous waters. Because there are insufficient numbers of these men in the armed forces of the nations involved, it will have to be "privatized." Insurers and shippers may not like it, and the global disarmament lobby may find the concept of armed "security contractors" offensive, but until pirates have to pay a terrible price for trying to seize a vessel at sea, they are unlikely to stop.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.