Dealing with Somalia and Its Piracy

Recent dramatic increases in piracy along the coast of Somalia, plus the near collapse of Somalia's government, highlight the continuing instability throughout East Africa. African Union leaders are holding emergency meetings on Somalia, but unfortunately, from Zimbabwe to Sudan, disarray threatens even governments that have so far escaped crisis. Although President-elect Barack Obama wishes to focus on our current economic downturn, Somalia's turmoil is yet another compelling example that the rest of the world will not stand idly, waiting for America to solve its domestic problems.

Unfortunately, neither the African Union nor the United Nations seem able to deal with Somalia's instability or the threat of high-seas piracy. In fact, too many statesman and analysts are insisting that the two problems be solved together, thus guaranteeing that neither one will be addressed effectively. Even more unfortunately, the Bush administration accepts this linkage, and recently advocated two resolutions in the U.N. Security Council, one to insert a peacekeeping force into Somalia to stop the ongoing, multi-sided civil war, and one to authorize the use of force against the pirates, both at sea and against their land bases.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent visit to New York to advocate these resolutions had all the trappings of her tireless "legacy project," designed to burnish her reputation in history as her tenure as secretary winds down. Ironically, the Security Council outcome is likely to have the opposite effect.

Ridding Somalia of pirates would by no means solve all of Somalia's problems, but it is the absolutely necessary first step.

First, Rice's proposal for a U.N. peacekeeping force in Somalia went nowhere, and rightly so. The suggestion ignored Somalia's unfortunate 1993 experience in "nation-building," where "peacekeepers," including U.S. forces, deployed under vague and conflicting mandates, faced numerous militia forces and warlords in shifting coalitions and rivalries. This wrongheaded humanitarian intervention ultimately resulted in the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" tragedy for American troops in Mogadishu, and the collapse of the entire U.N. effort. Naive and ill-planned, assertive multilateralism so proudly touted by the new Clinton administration, arguably worsened conditions in Somalia, turning U.S. and other international attention away from the problem rather than trying to address it more pragmatically and incrementally.

U.N Secretary General Ban Ki-moon himself argued against Rice's proposal for U.N. peacekeepers, making one of his strongest statements in his two years in office, especially noteworthy because he was critical of a U.S. initiative. Ban rightly said "if there is no peace to keep, peacekeeping operations are not supposed to be there." This is basic U.N. peacekeeping doctrine, fashioned by hard experience over many decades, including past efforts in Somalia, not the ritual incantation of soothing but treacherous mantras such as the "responsibility to protect."

Second, Security Council Resolution 1851, authorizing force against the Somali pirates, is largely blue smoke and mirrors. It applies only to cases where the collapsing interim Somali government has notified the U.N. secretary general in advance of potential military action! Given the Somali government's fragility, the odds of its being able to keep such a request secret are negligible, thus guaranteeing that the pirates will be long gone from any location targeted for military force. Better that this resolution had not been adopted, since without it nations could act on their own without any U.N. or Somali government role. Fortunately, the resolution does not purport to preclude other approaches, so we are left free to do just that.

Neither of Rice's proposals was serious in the Somalia context. The plain if highly unpleasant truth is that elements for a lasting Somali political settlement do not currently exist, and will not for some time. Conflict and anarchy have lasted too long for that. The experienced U.N. mediator, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, is doing what he can to facilitate political reconciliation, piece by fractious Somali piece, but his work will not be advanced by massive outside "humanitarian" intervention, or yet another misplaced exercise in nation-building. Instead, piracy and terrorism are Somalia's most tangible international threats, and must be addressed immediately.

Ironically, Western military authorities, including Washington, are reluctant to take on the pirates, in part because they fear accusations of violating the pirates' human rights! Even more paradoxically, NATO officials contend that the pirates are part of a larger societal problem that cannot be addressed in isolation.

This, of course, is a radical departure from America's attitude toward piracy 200 years ago. Then, worldly wise European governments were content to pay tribute to North Africa's Barbary pirates, but the young United States decided to use force to stop attacks on its commerce. America was right then, and it would be right today to use force to destroy the Somali pirate bases and ships.

Hopefully, our NATO allies would also participate, and perhaps others such as India and China, demonstrating that this is not another example of dreaded American "unilateralism." Obviously, we must be deeply concerned not to endanger the innocent, since the pirates, terrorists that they are, will try to use civilians as shields. But avoiding the hard reality that force is required will simply extend the pirates' threat into the indefinite future by allowing them sanctuaries.

Ridding Somalia of pirates would by no means solve all of Somalia's problems, but it is the absolutely necessary first step. Concurrently and thereafter, Ould-Abdallah and others can work on a Somali political settlement, with support from the outside world. Trying to have the outside world resolve the anarchy in the first instance, however, would simply prolong the agony.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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