High Stakes on the High Seas

Posted April 14, 2009, at 5:12 p.m.

Three U.S. military sharpshooters saved Capt. Richard Phillips and gave the United States cause for celebration rivaled only by the successful landing of that damaged jetliner in the Hudson River in January. We need a lift like that now and then.

Beyond temporarily reiterating America’s might, however, piracy off the coast of Somalia must be dealt with in a more forceful and consistent manner by the United States and other countries targeted by the increasingly bold outlaws. Since Capt. Phillips’ rescue Sunday, four more ships have been taken hostage.

While many of the current wave of Indian Ocean ship seizures are settled by huge ransom payments — the pirates who briefly held the American container ship Maersk Alabama were demanding $2 million — a brave captain and crew and the Navy snipers settled the matter handsomely without payment of one cent.

Elation over the brilliantly successful outcome of a five-day hostage standoff between four pirates drifting in a lifeboat and warships of the world’s most powerful navy will rightly continue for a while.

Later must come strategic planning and action to get rid of this new plague of piracy. This incident, thought to be the first pirate seizure of an American ship in 200 years, has focused U.S. attention on the growing scourge in the Indian Ocean and centered on the failed nation of Somalia.

President Obama’s resolve to halt the spread of privacy confronts serious obstacles, not the least being its value to the pirates and possibly to Somalia of a big and successful business, estimated at $40 million to $80 million a year.

A first impulse might be to send in the Marines and clean out the pirate nests in Somalia. But, aside from the Marines being fully occupied with a couple of major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the thought of another American military campaign in Somalia has horrifying echoes. When U.S. soldiers went there in 1993 to provide food and humanitarian aid in a civil war, Operation Restore Hope ended in abrupt withdrawal after an American serviceman was dragged through the street. The episode was popularized by a book and movie titled “Black Hawk Down.”

Arming merchant ships presents difficulties. Many nations oppose it, and many seaports refuse entry to armed shipping. It may, however, be inevitable as the current system of unarmed crews watching AK-47 toting pirates scramble about their ship clearly is not working.

Fred C. Ikle, a distinguished scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called for more decisive action in a Washington Post column. The international right of self-defense justifies inspections of boats off the coast of Somalia. Further, those found to be engaged in piracy can legally be seized or destroyed. He also suggests that the United Nations Security Council prohibit all ransom payments and instead authorize military blockades of Somalia until hostages are released.

Capt. Phillips’ dramatic rescue has rightly focused international attention on piracy. Now it is up to governments around the world, including the U.S., to take stronger steps to stop it.

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