The politics of pirates

    The honeymoon is over. Pirates are no longer cool. In the past few years, swashbucklers have done a complete 180, going from Hollywood heroes who provide Disney with box-office booty to global economic menaces who interrupt trade off the coast of Djibouti.

    The International Maritime Bureau reports that, since the beginning of the year, at least 80 ships have been attacked in the waters around the Horn of Africa. According to the Associated Press, some 18 ships and 310 crewmembers are still being held in captivity. Piracy, it seems, has finally stormed out of the 18th century, donned an assault rifle and wrested its image from Johnny Depp. The question is no longer “Do we make a fourth movie starring Russell Brand as Jack Sparrow’s brother?” Now, rather, it is a matter of how the world plans to address piracy’s threat to shipping costs and to global economic stability at large.

    The Somali pirates present themselves as the perfect case study for looking to the past to solve problems of the present. New factors like the existence of advanced weaponry and oil’s status as a valuable commodity will have people wanting to cast the problem of piracy in a new light. But viewing the issue from an historical perspective, however, might well provide answers as to the origins of modern piracy and help hasten us toward its eventual elimination.

    That any historical event, let alone one of ancient times, could reflect the current state of affairs in the Gulf of Aden seems ludicrous. Yet when the Somali pirates of today are compared to pirates who menaced Rome in the 1st century B.C., a strangely congruous silhouette is cast. Looking 2,076 years to the past, we are afforded a view of a Western superpower facing economic instability and maritime terror forced to deal with upheaval for which it is partially responsible. Sound familiar?

    The year was 67 B.C. The place: Rome. Pirates had been making their presence felt across the Mediterranean, taking hostages and making raids both on land and at sea. Fearing further interruption of grain transports from Egypt and the famine conditions that might follow, the Roman Republic was determined to decisively wipe out the pirate threat for good. What wasn’t apparent at the time (and what perhaps is still not apparent today) is that Rome, though a victim of piracy, was partially responsible for creating the conditions which had allowed the raiders to thrive in the first place.

    In conquering Greece and other eastern territories a century prior, Rome had imposed policies intended to extract the most wealth from the conquered lands without directly administering to them as territories. Rome’s supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean aimed at reducing threats but making a profit crippled the region so much that inhabitants turned to piracy as a means of deliverance.

    Is Somalia — a state wracked by years of civil war, the recipient of much aid and a country seemingly incapable of moving a muscle to deal with the roving sea marauders — not another regional power hamstrung by Western interference? Can it not play Greece to America’s Rome? Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed was elected as the head of a Western-backed interim government in 2004. During Ahmed’s term, the United States was accused of “covert operations” and plans to use mercenary companies in Somalia. All this was done to stop Islamist factions from gaining too much ground, something they did anyway when Ahmed resigned his office in December 2008.

    It was in these dual climates of political interference and absent central governance that piracy was bred. Yet in many ways the bursts of buccaneering, both on the ancient Mediterranean and in the modern Gulf of Aden, weren’t necessarily a bad thing considering the circumstances. To the impotent and lawless states of the ancient Mediterranean, piracy brought the kind of law and order only the protection racket can bring. Tom Holland, author of Rubicon: The Last Days of the Roman Republic, notes that some towns even offered pirates their harbors.

    Along the same lines, pirate activity in Somalia has spawned boomtowns and in turn socioeconomic order in parts of a country where chaos usually reigns. It seems piracy — however illegal — apparently has its positives with many Somalis. But try telling that to shipping companies, Barack Obama or Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus — the man in Rome tasked with dealing with piracy back in the day.

    If the origins of Rome’s piracy problem helps us to understand why U.S. presence in Somalia has partially contributed to piracy’s rise in that area, then Pompey Magnus’ campaign against the pirates in 67 B.C. sheds light on what might yet be done about them in 2009. The (Roman) Senate nominated Pompey as commander of a special naval task force comprised of 500 ships and 120,000 men and within three months he had swept the seas of pirates with startling efficiency. Though there is no point to using ancient naval tactics as a template for modern maneuvers, it was Pompey’s decision regarding the defeated pirates that is worth mentioning.

    According to Plutarch, Pompey determined “that man by nature is not a wild or unsocial creature” and that he “grows gentle by a change of place, occupation, and manner of life.” So, instead of crucifying the pirates as would have been customary, Pompey arranged for them to be set up as farmers or integrated into coastal towns. Apparently even Pompey recognized that in order to overcome brigandage on the high seas you had to strike at the root of the problem, that is: lawlessness and lack of place in society.

    So, in the same way Rome exacerbated piracy by bringing social upheaval to the East, the United States has incurred a similar foul in involving itself in East African affairs for the sake of profit (oil) and safety (combating radical Islam). In order to correct the error, it would only be prudent to adopt a Pompeian way of thinking and recognize that piracy will persist until order is brought back to the Somali mainland.

    Yet when addressing issues larger than piracy, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the current economic crisis, politicians continue to urge young Americans to look to the future and not the past. Already with the Federal Reserve resorting to “quantitative easing” to reinvigorate the economy, the United States is turning a blind eye to the historical precedents set by Weimar Germany and, more recently, Zimbabwe after those nations experienced crippling hyper-inflation after similar money-printing policies were embraced.

    To ignore history is like eschewing the answer key the night before a final exam. Gazing optimistically on the future thinking it will somehow be a new golden age is not only naive, but also lazy and potentially harmful. Policies without any regard for the past — especially when it comes to a problem as old as piracy — would prove to be about as operable as trying to run the 100-meter dash while wearing a peg leg. And unless you’re a pirate, that’s a pretty hard task.


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.