The rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips from the clutches of Somali pirates is a welcome bit of news in a world that's otherwise been short on happy developments. However, the enormous skill of the Navy SEAL snipers who pulled off the extraordinary feat merely throws into relief the extent to which combating piracy solely at sea is destined to be a difficult endeavor with poor prospects for success. The ocean is extremely large, and the number of people who can successful execute a boat-to-boat sniper shooting is very small. The international antipiracy fleet is heavily clustered in the immediate vicinity of Somalia, but as the journalist Xan Rice has observed, the Indian Ocean is “ an area too large for foreign navies to cover effectively."
Meanwhile, not all daring antipirate rescue operations have such happy endings. The French, who've been the most aggressive pirate-fighters of all, recently suffered an incident in which one of the men they were seeking to rescue was killed during the rescue process.
Fighting pirates at sea is bound to fall short but it's the best thing we can do until a coherent government emerges in Somalia.
This has led some to call for the U.S. and its allies to invade Somalia and fight the pirates on land. Impatience with half-measures at sea is understandable, but any realistic land options are likely to further plunge Somalia into chaos and make the piracy problem worse in the long term.
Bloomberg reported on Monday that the U.S. military is weighing options for a land assault. Meanwhile, hawks such as John Bolton who are looking to paint Barack Obama as "soft on piracy" are raising the rhetorical temperature arguing that "unless we go in and really end this problem once and for all, we will simply see it grow over time" so a "coalition of the willing" should storm in and put a stop to things.
Before rushing into an invasion of Somalia, Americans would do well to try to understand the broader context in which the piracy problem has emerged—15 years of anarchy following the hasty collapse of a U.S.-led peacekeeping effort in the early 1990s. Pirates thrive in conditions of political fragmentation, a scenario that certainly describes contemporary Somalia and, importantly, a situation to which recent U.S. military intervention has contributed.
For the past 15 years, the closest Somalia got to a period of stable governance was a roughly six-month period in which an outfit calling itself the Islamic Courts Movement seemed on its way to consolidating control over the bulk of Somali territory. The ICM was not a particularly friendly or humane bunch, but nobody is in Somalia, and they offered the prospect of something resembling governance. Unfortunately, in a little-noticed decision, the Bush administration also decided that they represented a threat to American national security. Thus, while Americans were tuning out the news during the week between Christmas and New Year's in 2006, the administration chose to green-light an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, aimed at installing the powerless de jure government in Mogadishu as a puppet regime backed up by Ethiopian troops.
The Ethiopians would likely have wanted to invade anyway, but the United States is a major supplier of military aid to Ethiopia so we probably could have restrained them. Instead, bolstered by overblown claims of ties between the ICM and al Qaeda, we egged Ethiopia on and offered indirect military support to the Ethiopian invasion.
This was accompanied by loud cheers from conservative pundits, but as veterans of other recent efforts by Christian powers to invade and occupy Muslim lands could easily have predicted, the result was a popular backlash and a violent Islamist insurgency.
The long-term upshot of the invasion has been a more radicalized Islamist movement in Somalia that's now more likely to ally with jihadists against American interests, as well as a return to the general climate of chaos out of which the pirate problem has emerged.
If the U.S. really wants to engage with the piracy problem on the ground, we would need to do more than take potshots at pirates; we would need to intervene in a way that helps resolve the underlying chaos. And our record in this regard is not good. As Jeffrey Gettleman wrote in an excellent survey of Somalia's tragic recent history for Foreign Policy, "The United States has been among the worst of the meddlers: U.S. forces fought predacious warlords at the wrong time, backed some of the same predacious warlords at the wrong time, and consistently failed to appreciate the twin pulls of clan and religion." Consequently, "Somalia has become a graveyard of foreign-policy blunders that have radicalized the population, deepened insecurity, and pushed millions to the brink of starvation."
Unless over the past 15 years we've somehow become more knowledgeable about the intricacies of internal Somali politics, or more willing as a country to commit to decades-long nation-building operations in obscure portions of Africa, further intervention is likely to do more harm than good. A reasonable approach begins with the observation that anarchy never lasts forever, and Somalia's almost certainly would have ended before today had not past meddling knocked the country off the path to stability. Fighting pirates at sea is bound to fall short, too, but it's the best thing we can do until a coherent government emerges in Somalia. Further clumsy intervention will most likely only push that day further into the future.
Matthew Yglesias is a Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.