Obama Signals More Active Response to Piracy

Posted in Terrorism | 15-Apr-09 | Author: Peter Baker| Source: New York Times

Crew members of Maersk Alabama arrived to talk to media at the dock in the port of Mombasa, Kenya Monday.

WASHINGTON - President Obama vowed Monday to "halt the rise of piracy" off the coast of Africa following the dramatic rescue of an American merchant captain, foreshadowing a longer and potentially more treacherous struggle ahead as he weighs a series of problematic options.

In permitting members of the Navy Seals to shoot the pirates holding the captain, Richard Phillips, Mr. Obama navigated a crisis that played out in full view of the world. But policy makers and experts said the precision killing of three Somali pirates with three bullets would certainly prove easier than wiping out the larger threat in the shipping lanes or reversing the instability that makes Somalia a breeding ground for pirates and Islamic terrorists.

With the "Black Hawk Down" episode in Somalia still etched in the American consciousness 16 years after two helicopters were shot down and 18 American soldiers were killed, Mr. Obama and his advisers are wary of becoming deeply involved in the region again. That wariness comes at a time when Mr. Obama is already trying to end a war in Iraq and win another in Afghanistan. White House officials on Monday played down suggestions that the United States could attack pirate bases on shore, portraying that as premature at best.

Other options that the administration has before it, according to experts, are deploying more ships to patrol the region, pressing commercial shipping companies to stop paying ransoms and to do more to defend their vessels, get other nations to help capture pirates and bring them to justice, and doing more to build up a fledgling transitional government in Somalia.

"All I can tell you is I am confident we will be spending a lot of time in the Situation Room over the next few weeks trying to figure out what in the world to do about this problem," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told students and faculty members at the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va., according to a military news service. While the national security team discusses the long-term challenge, the Justice Department said it was deliberating whether to try the lone surviving pirate in the United States or to turn him over to Kenya for trial. Mr. Gates said the four pirates were 17 to 19 years old, but he did not give the age of the one who surrendered to Navy sailors before the fatal shootout Sunday.

The rescue of Captain Phillips drew widespread praise for the Navy and Mr. Obama, but some experts warned that it could escalate the campaign by Somali pirates, who have vowed to take revenge on Americans and are holding more than 200 hostages from other countries.

Mr. Obama praised Captain Phillips for his "courage and leadership and selfless concern for his crew," and he said he was "very proud" of the Navy and other American agencies involved in the operation.

"I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region," Mr. Obama said. "And to achieve that goal, we're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks. We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise. And we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes."

Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat and chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on African affairs, sent a letter to Mr. Obama calling for a comprehensive strategy to shore up the new transitional government of Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed in Somalia. Mr. Feingold called central authority the ultimate solution to piracy.

"People are talking about this as a piracy issue," Mr. Feingold said in a telephone interview. "That is not the core issue here. It is a symptom of a disunified government."

Somalia has veered between lawlessness and rule by warlords for most of the past two decades, providing a haven not only for pirates but also for Islamic militants.

Representative Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Africa subcommittee, said any military response would have to be fully supported and sustained.

"We cannot do what we did in Somalia before," he said. "Brave soldiers died. So everyone, especially this administration, needs to be careful before pushing that button."

Bobby Pittman Jr., who was President George W. Bush's senior adviser on Africa, said that finding pirates on the open seas would be akin to hunting for "a needle in the haystack," and attacking camps on the ground would lead to civilian casualties.

"There is no purely military solution to it," Mr. Gates said at the Marine Corps War College. "And as long as you've got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small, there's really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids."