President Barack Obama’s promise that the United States and its allies will put an end to Indian Ocean piracy had the forceful ring to it that good American citizens like to hear, like the statement by Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, in 1953 when the president agreed to an armistice to end the Korean War, leaving the country divided. Dulles protested that the Chinese and North Koreans had to be given “one hell of a licking” if Washington wanted to maintain American “credibility.”

Eisenhower, according to an anecdote recently recalled by the distinguished biographer Jean Edwards Smith, replied that if such was Dulles’ view, “I’m in the wrong pew.” He overruled Dulles, and in less than four months the armistice was signed. As Smith notes, during the following seven and a half years of his presidency, not one American serviceman was killed in action. It goes without saying that thousands if not hundreds of thousands of potential Cold War enemy combatants also lived.

President Obama says that the U.S. “with our partners” will work “to prevent future attacks, be prepared to confront them when they arise … and assure that those who commit piracy are held accountable for their crimes.” (Why do “we” have to do this? Doesn’t President Obama have enough on his hands right now? Why not let Britain and Italy lead the anti-piracy campaign; after all, Somalia in the past belonged to their empires.)

Somalian piracy is a nasty little affair in which hundreds of foreign seafarers have been made prisoner, but the only ones who have died did so during efforts to rescue them.

But things are getting out of hand. The pirates now threaten revenge. They haven’t killed anybody. At this writing, they hold some 200 hostages. As Obama indicated, half the NATO navies seem on the way to chase fishing boats in Somalian waters and the Gulf of Aden.

Quoting the encyclopedias on Barbary pirates and U.S. Marine Corps lore about the Tripolitan War makes good newspaper stories. But the Marines, and the Tripoli war’s settlement in 1805, did not put an end to piracy on the Mediterranean Barbary Coast; American commerce was being raided as late as 1815. Maybe somebody should tell the president about that.

Why is there now piracy off Somalia? If you listen to the pirates, it is retaliation against the piracy of the international fishing industry. Their story is that they were peaceful fishermen until industrial fishing vessels, mainly from Asia, began raiding their waters and sweeping up all the fish, mainly tuna, that provided their principal exports. (Other Somalian exports at the time included cattle, goats, hide products, skins, bananas and clarified butter — ghee.)

They had no government to speak of to defend them, or go to the international courts to protest about the theft of their fish. Somalia’s independence in 1960 had been followed by territorial and irredentist struggles with most of Somalia’s neighbors. There was war with Ethiopia and then Kenya between 1964 and 1967. Then there was a “revolutionary” military coup, and the Cold War being fought by the mighty Soviet Union and the U.S. in the region brought a pro-Soviet regime — until Moscow supported Ethiopia against a Somalian invasion of Ogaden in Ethiopia. The Somalians found a new backer in the United States.

Then there was guerrilla war, refugees, drought, famine affecting a third of the nation, U.N. relief efforts harassed by warlords, and U.S. support for the U.N. relief mission, leading to an American military effort to sort all of this out, leading to the famous “Black Hawk Down!” episode, which made a good movie — after which, the U.S. checked out for a few years.

A Muslim fundamentalist movement grew up half a dozen years ago, which actually pacified the country. But the U.S. war on terror frowns on Muslim fundamentalism, and the United States paid Ethiopia to once again invade Somalia. But Somalian chaos, nationalism, religion (the Ethiopians are mostly Christians), warlords and general disorder drove the Ethiopians out last year.

In the meanwhile, a hungry fisherman, watching the ships go by, said what about piracy? Fantastic! Great idea! Within months the fishermen were millionaires. The money poured in. They didn’t have to hurt a fly, merely to cut the victim ships’ fire hoses. They treated the crews chivalrously, locked them up, fed them nicely, gave them videos and television to watch, and shook hands all around when the money arrived.

American diplomats today are reported to be keen to take over from the military in putting order back into the world. Why not a big international effort to get an EU, U.N. or NATO-policed agreement governing who can fish in Somalian waters, along with one more try to put together a provisional government? And how about an agreement by the big countries and Somalia’s neighbors to keep their hands off and to let the Somalians be Muslim fundamentalists if that is what they want? And a big international fund set up by the world’s principal shipping companies to help the Somalians get back into the export business?

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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