Monsters vs. Aliens  

Posted by Big Gav in

TomDispatch has an interesing look at Somali pirates and the US military budget - Monsters vs. Aliens.

In the comic-book imagination of some of our leading pundits, the two headline threats against U.S. power are indeed on the verge of teaming up. The intelligence world is abuzz with news that radical Islamists in Somalia are financing the pirates and taking a cut of their booty. Given this "bigger picture," Fred Iklé urges us simply to "kill the pirates." Robert Kaplan waxes more hypothetical. "The big danger in our day is that piracy can potentially serve as a platform for terrorists," he writes. "Using pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of certain nationalities thrown overboard."

Chaotic conditions in Somalia and other countries, anti-state fervor, the mediating influence of Islam, the lure of big bucks: these factors are allegedly pushing the two groups of evildoers into each other's arms. "Both crimes involve bands of brigands that divorce themselves from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves; both aim at civilians; both involve acts of homicide and destruction, as the United Nations Convention on the High Seas stipulates, 'for private ends,'" writes Douglas Burgess in a New York Times op-ed urging a prosecutorial coupling of terrorism and piracy.

We've been here before. Since 2001, in an effort to provide a distinguished pedigree for the Global War on Terror and prove the superiority of war over diplomacy, conservative pundits and historians have regularly tried to compare al-Qaeda to the Barbary pirates of the 1800s. They were wrong then. And with the current conflating of terrorism and piracy, it's déjà vu all over again.

Misreading Piracy

Unlike al-Qaeda, the Somali pirates have no grand desire to bring down the United States and the entire Western world. They have no intention of establishing some kind of piratical caliphate. Despite Burgess's claims, they are not bent on homicide and destruction. They simply want money.

Most of the pirates are former fisherman dislodged from their traditional source of income by much larger pirates, namely transnational fishing conglomerates. When a crippled Somali government proved incapable of securing its own coastline, those fishing companies moved in to suck up the rich catch in local waters. "To make matters worse," Katie Stuhldreher writes in The Christian Science Monitor, "there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali waters. That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of AK-47s."

Despite their different ideologies -- al-Qaeda has one, the pirates don't -- it has become increasingly popular to assert a link between radical Islam and the Somali freebooters. The militant Somali faction al-Shabab, for instance, is allegedly in cahoots with the pirates, taking a cut of their money and helping with arms smuggling in order to prepare them for their raids. The pirates "are also reportedly helping al-Shabab develop an independent maritime force so that it can smuggle foreign jihadist fighters and 'special weapons' into Somalia," former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn has recently argued.

In fact, the Islamists in Somalia are no fans of piracy. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had some rough control over Somalia before Ethiopia invaded the country in 2006, took on piracy, and the number of incidents dropped. The more militant al-Shabab, which grew out of the ICU and became an insurgent force after the Ethiopian invasion, has denounced piracy as an offense to Islam.

The lumping together of Islamists and pirates obscures the only real solution to Somalia's manifold problems. Piracy is not going to end through the greater exercise of outside force, no matter what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may think. (In a recent column lamenting the death of diplomacy in an "age of pirates," he recommended a surge in U.S. money and power to achieve success against all adversaries.) Indeed, the sniper killing of three pirates by three U.S. Navy Seals has, to date, merely spurred more ship seizures and hostage-taking.

Simply escalating militarily and "going to war" against the Somali pirates is likely to have about as much success as our last major venture against Somalia in the 1990s, which is now remembered only for the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. Rather, the United States and other countries must find a modus vivendi with the Islamists in Somali to bring the hope of political order and economic development to that benighted country. ...

The failure of the U.S. Navy to stamp out piracy has led to predictable calls for more resources. For instance, to deal with nimble, low-intensity threats like the speedy pirates, the Pentagon is looking at Littoral Combat Ships instead of another several-billion-dollar destroyer. The Navy is planning to purchase 55 of these ships, which, at $450-$600 million each, will come in at around $30 billion, a huge sum for a project plagued with costs overruns and design problems. With the ground (and air) war heating up in Afghanistan and the CIA in charge of operations in Pakistan, the Navy is understandably trying to keep up with the other services. The Navy's goal of a 313-ship force, which boosters champion regardless of cost, can only be reached by appealing to a threat comparable to terrorists on land. Why not the functional equivalent of terrorists at sea?

Pirates are the perfect threat. They've been around forever. They directly interfere with the bottom line, so the business community is on board. Unlike China, they don't hold any U.S. Treasury Bonds. Indeed, since they're non-state actors, we can bring virtually every country onto our side against them.

And, finally, the Pentagon is already restructuring itself to meet just such a threat. Through its "revolution in military affairs," the adoption of a doctrine of "strategic flexibility," and the cultivation of rapid-response forces, the Pentagon has been gearing up to handle the asymmetrical threats that have largely replaced the more fixed and predictable threats of the Cold War era, and even of the "rogue state" era that briefly followed. The most recent Gates military budget, with its move away from outdated Cold War weapons systems toward more limber forces, fits right in with this evolution. Canceling the F-22 stealth fighter aircraft and cutting money from the Missile Defense Agency in favor of more practical systems is certainly to be applauded. But the Pentagon isn't about to hold a going-out-of-business sale. The new Obama defense budget will actually rise about 4%.

George W. Bush's Global War on Terror, or GWOT, turned out to be a useful way for the Pentagon to get everything it wanted: an extraordinary increase in spending and capabilities after 2001. With GWOT officially retired and an unprecedented federal deficit looming, the Pentagon and the defense industries will need to trumpet new threats or else face the possibility of a massive belt-tightening that goes beyond the mere shell-gaming of resources.

The War on Terror lives on, of course, in the Obama administration's surge in Afghanistan, the CIA's campaign of drone attacks in the Pakistani borderlands, and the operations of the new Africa Command. However, the replacement phrase for GWOT, "overseas contingency operations," doesn't quite fire the imagination. It's obviously not meant to. But that's a genuine problem for the military in budgetary terms.

Enter the pirates, who from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp have always been a big box-office draw. As the recent media hysteria over the crew of the Maersk Alabama indicates, that formula can carry over to real life. Take Johnny Depp out of the equation and pirates can simply be repositioned as bizarre, narcotics-chewing aliens.

Then it's simply a matter of the United States calling together the coalition of the willing monsters to crush those aliens before they take over our planet. And you thought "us versus them" went out with the Bush administration...

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