The are a number of statements to take issue with in Fred Iklé’s oped on piracy in today’s Washington Post. Let’s focus on one. He writes:
Terrorists are far more brutal than pirates and can easily force pirates – petty thieves in comparison – to share their ransom money. We already know that Somalia is an ideal fortress and headquarters for global terrorist activity.
Lots is possible, but the fact is that there is no connection between the Somalia pirates and terrorists, as I discussed here.
Terrorism “experts” have been heralding Somalia as the next big terrorist haven for years, and few, if any, have arrived. That is because the idea that violent political chaos is generally conducive to terrorism is wrong. Even in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda got comfortable only once there was a somewhat coherent government that allied with them, not amid total chaos. Civil wars are not, it turns out, ideal locales to hatch international terrorist plots.
While we’re here, it’s worth noting the current level of American concern about piracy is overblown. As Peter Van Doren pointed out to me the other day, the right way to think about this problem is that pirates are imposing a tax on shipping in their area. They are a bit like a pseudo-government, as Alexander the Great apparently learned. The tax amounts to $20-40 million a year, which is, as Ken Menkhaus put it in this Washington Post online forum, a “nuisance tax for global shipping.”
The reason ships are being hijacked along the Somali coast is because there are still ships sailing down the Somali coast. Piracy is evidently not a big enough problem to encourage many shippers to use alternative shipping routes. In addition, shippers apparently find it cheaper to pay ransom than to pay insurance for armed guards and deal with the added legal hassle in port. The provision of naval vessels to the region is an attempted subsidy to the shippers, and ultimately consumers of their goods, albeit one governments have traditionally paid. Whether or not that subsidy is cheaper than letting the market actors sort it out remains unclear to me.
These considerations are worth keeping in mind when we discuss the costs and benefits of particular counter-piracy proposals. Iklé suggests blockading Somalia ports, which would require a massive naval force. Condi Rice suggested a UN peacekeeping force on shore, a far more expensive and risky proposition.
Iklé does make one more promising suggestion, which is to create an international law against paying ransom to pirates. In practice this would require member states to enforce the law against payments, probably making it unenforceable, but it is an interesting idea.