While President Obama battles Republicans in Congress over federal budgets, spiraling debt and out-of-control spending, another out-of-control phenomena - namely piracy, continues to wreak havoc on the world economy with an estimated cost of $15 billion by 2015.
Attacks on shipping have skyrocketed to 142 incidents worldwide just within the first three months of 2011 - 18 vessels were hijacked and 344 crew taken hostage. The United Arab Emirates is holding emergency talks this week with representatives from more than 50 countries to address the continuing menace.
Virtually invisible in the shadow of U.S. “kinetic military action” in Libya and other chaos brought about by the Arab Spring, 13 Somalis and a Yemeni were quietly brought to Norfolk, Va., where they were indicted on piracy charges last month and remain in local jails pending trial later this year.
Even though these same pirates, and four now-dead fellow hijackers, seized the American Yacht Quest off the coast of Oman and executed four American hostages as U.S. Navy destroyer USS Sterett trailed close behind, the Obama administration sees it as a simple civil law issue.
It is certainly not one without risks, though.
Earlier this month, FBI agents braved a mission to Somalia where they nabbed Mohammad Shibin - the man thought to have overseen pirate ransom negotiations in the Quest incident - and whisked him back to the United States for trial.
Sending federal agents into a place like Somalia is a bold move. Especially considering the nightmare of Mogadishu where 18 U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed in a botched raid to catch warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in 1993 during the Clinton administration - popularized by the book and later film, “Black Hawk Down.”
If the Obama administration is going to subject FBI agents to such grave risks on the ground in Somalia, let’s at least capitalize when notable pirates are captured.
Specifically, we should start sending pirates who attack Americans to Guantanamo where they can be thoroughly interrogated and then put on trial by military commission.
In addition to gaining insights into their networks operating with impunity in the Horn of Africa and menacing shipping lanes throughout a million square miles of the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden, this would be a powerful deterrent to other pirates who might otherwise be tempted to attack U.S. citizens.
It’s notable that Somali pirates are becoming increasingly bold and do not respect weakness - some refused to release Indian hostages even after receiving the multimillion dollar ransom last week in an apparent attempt to pressure the release of fellow pirates held in India.
Though a military solution may not entirely halt piracy given the failed states that breed pirates and terrorists alike, adopting more robust measures beyond patrols by the thinly stretched international Combined Task Force-151 - now led by the Singaporean Navy - should be seriously considered by the administration.
Ironically, in Libya - the place where the United States has shown the most recent “kinetic” military leadership - we fought wars in 1801 and 1815 under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to stamp out piracy, famously referenced in the first line of the Marine Corps Hymn, “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.”
But now, rather than being bogged down in Libya’s version of an East versus West showdown with no end in sight, and where U.S. forces are playing a critical support role to NATO’s no-fly zone enforcement, perhaps some of that support ought to be shifted to fighting Somali pirates - and saving American lives.
The Navy just unveiled a powerful laser that should prove a handy foil to pirates, though outfitting ships with this new capability is at least a couple years away.