Why Piracy Remains a Threat

The United States dodged a bullet last week when American sailors and Navy Seals foiled Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. But pirates never give up easily. The possibility that they will capture more Americans there and elsewhere remains. And that possibility presents real dangers for the Obama administration.

Why should the world’s greatest superpower worry about small groups of pirates? Because, while the military threat may be minimal, public reaction to a prolonged captivity crisis could derail the administration’s foreign policy. That’s exactly what happened 200 years ago, when African pirates last held Americans for ransom.
Back then the culprits were from the Barbary coast of North Africa, not Somalia. But like today’s Somalis the North Africans hoped to turn substantial profits by ransoming American and European prisoners.
Then, as now, the United States was coming out of a long and costly war (with England). Then, George Washington and others hoped to shrink the military and enjoy a period of peace. Today, President Obama hopes to reduce American military commitments abroad as the Iraq war winds down. Pirate seizures were fatal to Washington’s vision. They could also kill Obama’s.
In 1785, Algerian pirates captured two American ships and their crews in what seemed, like recent events, to be a minor incident. But, as the crisis dragged on, bitter public complaints about America’s ineptitude became a factor leading to implementation of a stronger form of government under the Constitution of 1789.
When Algerians captured 11 more ships and more than 100 American sailors in 1793, the United States remained too weak to force the Algerians to free the sailors and too poor to ransom them, despite the new Constitution. In an earlier era these events might not have had much impact beyond the family circles of the captives. But the 1790s marked the beginning of the modern public media, and, like today, that media and the public it served were fascinated by piracy.
Just as Maersk Alabama Captain Richard Phillips became a household name across the worldwide web, the captive Americans became celebrities. Their letters home were picked up by newspapers, and some captives even wrote tell-all books. Playwrights and novelists soon dramatized them in popular fictions. Such accounts further stoked public outrage.
In response to the uproar, Congress established the U.S. Navy to free the captives. The anti-militarism of the 1780s gave way to a more nationalistic spirit, but as a concession to older attitudes the navy was to be disbanded after the crisis ended. Pro-Navy congressmen ignored this law, and the Navy continued to grow, partly in response to a second Barbary crisis, which led to the War with Tripoli (1801-05). Eventually, after yet another crisis with Algerian pirates, culminating in 1816, the enlarged Navy prevailed, forcing the Barbary states to end their practice of capturing United States ships.
While much has changed over two hundred years, the media’s fascination with pirates and captives remains. If Somalian pirates capture more Americans and hold them for ransom, television cameras, cell phones, and You Tube will prompt at least as powerful a reaction as during the Barbary piracy. The resulting outrage would could force the president to commit the military to new adventures and endanger his goal of reducing American military engagements abroad, just as the reaction to Barbary piracy pushed an initially reluctant new nation into overseas military adventures.
Paradoxically, despite overwhelming American military might, victory in a war against Somalian pirates would be more complicated than in the Barbary wars. Barbary pirates were really state-sanctioned privateers whose profits went into national treasuries. Because Somalian pirates are not attached to any state, there will be no enemy government to sign treaties ending a war against piracy, so it could become a long and costly struggle to identify and eradicate every small group of pirates.
Hence the need to avoid such a struggle by avoiding further captures. During the Barbary crises American diplomats valiantly attempted to inform American captains of the location of pirates and urged American vessels to sail in convoys with armed protection. Slow communications and military weakness hampered these efforts. Today, with modern communications and a powerful Navy to protect convoys, avoiding captures will be easier than it was 200 years ago and more likely to prevent the horrors of captivity and the inevitable public backlash.

Lawrence A. Peskin is an associate professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore and author of “Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785-1816” (2009).