Swashbucklers on the Hill

The House Armed Services Committee recently heard testimony about Somali piracy from professionals in the know. But a gander at the transcripts reveals an issue misunderstood on Capitol Hill.

Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command; Daniel Pike, acting principal director of the Office of African Affairs for DoD; Ambassador Stephen Mull, acting undersecretary of state for International Security and Arms Control; and Karl Wycoff, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs discussed combating piracy off the Horn of Africa and the progress made during the two months the U.S. and Combined Task Force 151 have been on station.

In his submitted testimony, Gortney was clear that piracy in the Gulf of Aden off the northern coast of Somalia affects less than 1 percent of the 30,000-plus ships that transit the region each year. Gortney stressed that the Navy’s work on the high seas can keep the sea lanes open but has had little impact on stopping piracy. In his written testimony, he explained that, while the Navy is a part of an international naval presence, it works to improve defensive measures taken by the shipping industry. Regardless, there seemed little disagreement from the panel that the solution to piracy in the region was land-based in the failed state of Somalia.

Pan to lawmakers. Let he cat-herding begin. 

Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) wanted to know if a pirate attack on a U.S. ship was an act of war. (Maybe he’s looking for an excuse to invade Somalia, though most would advise against it.) Amb. Mull seemed to have trouble answering the question, though he might have been thinking, “You’re joking right? Have you heard or read nothing we’ve presented on the issue? This is an economic crime by desperately poor people. The word is out: ‘Steer clear of the Navy sheriff and his international posse.’ ”

John McHugh (R-N.Y.) expressed concern, as others both on and off the Hill have, that the increase in piracy might be a sign of radical Islamist activity. Gortney explained that any connection had been ruled out and that most of the pirates since August 2008 had been narrowed to a new albeit impoverished, Somali clan. 

Committee Chair Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) stated, “We need an international counter-piracy league under the auspices of the United Nations,” We ask, “Why?” Why entangle the Navy with the flotillas of the world as nations continue to hiss and claw under NATO as well as the U.N.? 

Speaking of NATO and the U.N., “cooperation” on this piracy issue seems to have tremendous support. To date, nations involved in the counter-piracy effort are the U.S., U.K., Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, and Yemen. Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Belgium, and Poland are expected to join this party the coming months.

Such collaboration is rare. Why now and why this issue, when challenges like those posed by radical Islam are more pressing?

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