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Prez Pledges Piracy Action; Experts Say US Forces Not Suited

Everyone is feeling fine about the three good shots by the SEALs that took out the pirates and freed the captain of the Maersk Alabama. And President Obama pledged this afternoon to "halt the rise of piracy" But almost certainly more hostages will be taken, either at sea or on land, and there really isn't much the US Navy or the SEALs can do to prevent that happening, according to two experts at the Naval War College in Newport, RI.

And the US probably should not spend more or do much more to combat a problem that is, in national security terms, relatively insignificant -- though emotionally laden. (For example, consider how much US treasure and blood is worth being spilled to combat men such as the fella in the picture.)

"The Navy is not designed to provide hostage rescue or prevent ships from being hijacked. SEALs are focused on counterterrorism operations in Iraq. The Marines are focused on counter-insurgency ops in Afghanistan," argues Derek Reveron, a professor of national security affairs in Newport.

The Somalis demonstrated their unusual talent for stupid revenge by trying to mortar Rep. Donald Payne, as he left their country, only to kill or injure almost 20 of their countrymen. Payne certainly deserves kudos for taking his job as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa seriously enough to risk capture or death. Having travelled to Somalia and its neighbors often during almost six years in East Africa I can tell you just how stupid and cheap life and death can be when some sub clan becomes aggrieved or a clan leader thinks you've offended him.

That gives weight to Reveron's assessment that, overall, piracy is a relatively unimportant national security problem. "Since piracy is a small nuisance, resources should not be redirected to confront a small problem where self defense by merchant ships is best solution," he says, adding that military action in Somalia to try and trim the pirates' sails "would be relatively ineffective and undermine US efforts to reassure partners in Africa."

So, as often happens with highly irritating but newsy problems such as piracy and the more virulent forms of terrorism, the question is how do we accept the problem without encouraging it and manage it to ensure its impact on US and allied interests remains at the really itchy level. We have to scratch it occasionally but most of the time we can ignore it or spread soothing oils on it.

Obama's declaration today that he will halt piracy's rise may fit within the itch management spectrum or it may signal mission creep in the face of success, something Naval War College professor Nikolas Gvosdev cautions against: "It's the classic problem: you have a success and then you widen the mission."

Also, for the US to take a more active role in piracy to protect ships that do not fly the American ensign may raise the uncomfortable question of why are we spending our national treasure to protect ships flying Liberian, Panamanian or other flags.

"Over time, Obama is going to have to justify why he has to spend money to protect [shipping] companies" that fly flags of convenience to save money on standards and crews and are not, under both US and international law, entitled to the protection of US warships.

One potential solution I have heard discussed is deploying Coast Guard units to Djibouti and Mombasa to patrol the Somali coast as they do the US coast and parts of the Caribbean looking for drug smugglers. But Gvosdev says the Navy is very uncomfortable with deploying Coasties to the region at a time when the service's basic roles and missions and budget are all being debated.

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