[DEHAI] Monsters vs. Aliens

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From: wolda002@umn.edu
Date: Thu Apr 23 2009 - 20:03:47 EDT

Monsters vs. Aliens

John Feffer | April 22, 2009

Crossposted with TomDispatch.com

In the comic books, bad guys often team up to fight the forces of good. The
Masters of Evil battle the Avengers superhero team. The Joker and Scarecrow
ally against Batman. Lex Luthor and Brainiac take on Superman.

And the Somali pirates, who have dominated recent headlines with their
hijacking and hostage-taking, join hands with al-Qaeda to form a dynamic
evil duo against the United States and our allies. We’re the friendly
monsters -- a big, hulking superpower with a heart of gold -- and they’re
the aliens from Planet Amok.

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.

Diplomacy and development, however lackluster they might seem up against a
trio of dead-eyed sharpshooters, are the only real hope for Somalia and the
commercial shipping that passes near its coastline.

>From the Shores of Tripoli

It would have been the height of irony if the sharpshooters who took out
the three Somali youths in that lifeboat with their American hostage had
been aboard the USS John Paul Jones, a Navy guided-missile destroyer.
Considered the father of the American Navy, Jones was quite the pirate in
his day. Or so thought the British, whose ships he seized and looted.

We are left instead with the lesser irony of the sharpshooters taking aim
from the USS Bainbridge. This ship was named for Commodore William
Bainbridge, who fought against the Barbary pirates in the battles of
Algiers and Tunis during the Barbary Wars and was himself taken prisoner in

The parallels between the pirates of yesterday and today are striking.
Then, as now, American observers miscast the pirates as Muslim radicals. In
fact, as Frank Lambert explains in his book The Barbary Wars, those pirates
actually served secular governments that were part of the Ottoman Empire
(much as Sir Francis Drake plundered Spanish ships on behalf of Queen
Elizabeth in the sixteenth century or Jones served the United States in the
eighteenth). Then, as now, the pirates resorted to preying on commercial
shipping because they’d been boxed out of legitimate trade.

The Barbary pirates took to looting European vessels because European
governments had barred the states of Algiers, Tripoli, and Morocco from
trading in their markets. Back then, the fledgling United States accused
the Barbary pirates of being slavers without acknowledging that the U.S.
was then the center of the global slave trade. Today, the U.S. government
decries piracy, but doesn’t do anything to prevent the maritime poaching
of fishing reserves that helped push pirates from their jobs into risky but
lucrative careers in freebooting.

The most improbable link, however, involves the conflation of terrorism and
piracy. In the aftermath of September 11, pundits and historians identified
the U.S. military response to the Barbary pirates as a useful precedent for
striking out against al-Qaeda. Shortly after the attacks, law professor
Jonathan Turley invoked the war against the Barbary pirates in
congressional testimony to justify U.S. retaliation against the terrorists.
Historian Thomas Jewett, conservative journalist Joshua London, and
executive director of the Christian Coalition of Washington State Rick
Forcier all pointed to those pirates as Islamic radicals avant la lettre to
underscore the impossibility of negotiations and the necessity of war, both
then and now.

The battle against the Barbary pirates led to the creation of the U.S.
Marine Corps (“...to the shores of Tripoli”) and the first major U.S.
government expenditure of funds on a military that could fight distant
wars. For historians like Robert Kagan (in his book Dangerous Nation), that
war kicked off what would be a distinguished history of empire, which he
contrasts with the conventional wisdom of a United States that only
reluctantly assumed its hegemonic mantle.

Will the current conflict with the Somali pirates, if successfully linked
in the public mind to global terrorism, serve as one significant part of a
new justification for the continuation of empire and a whole new set of
military expenditures needed to sustain such a venture?

The New GWOT?

The United States has the most powerful navy in the world. But what it can
do against the Somali pirates is limited. Big guns and destroyers are
incapable of covering the necessary vast ocean expanses in which the
relatively low-tech pirates operate, can’t respond quickly enough to
pin-prick attacks, and ultimately aren't likely to intimidate what
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has quite correctly termed “a bunch of
teenage pirates” with little to lose.

“The area we patrol is more than one million square miles and the simple
fact of the matter is we just can't be everywhere at once to prevent every
attack of piracy,” says Lt Nathan Christensen, of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in
Bahrain. Last year, approximately 23,000 ships passed through the Gulf of
Aden. Pirates snagged 93 of them (some large, some tiny). Yet, in part
because these trade routes are so crucial to global economic wellbeing,
this minuscule percentage struck fear into the hearts of the most powerful
countries on the planet.

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

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

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...

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.


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