Forget "Accountability" for Somali Pirates

The word "accountability" has a nice ring to it. Who can be against "accountability?"

I can. I am against "accountability" in any context where the likely overall cost of proposed actions to promote "accountability" outweigh the likely benefits. And so should every other rational person be.

Americans are very happy that the American captain was successfully freed, and grateful to the Americans who successfully freed him. The Americans had their orders, which they executed faithfully, cautiously, and patiently, which included instructions to fire if they believed the captain's life was in imminent danger; they made that determination, and based on the available information, I wouldn't second-guess that.

But this shouldn't blind us to the probability that every opportunity for a nonviolent resolution of the standoff was not exhausted by the Obama Administration. Judging from press accounts, President Obama made every reasonable effort to resolve the standoff without violence - subject to the constraint that the U.S. insisted that the pirates give themselves up to arrest and prosecution.

But that begs the question of why the U.S. should have insisted on this constraint. An alternative course would have been to trade freedom-for-freedom: freedom for the captain, freedom for the pirates.

Note that the cost of insisting that the pirates give themselves up for incarceration included a significant risk to the captain's life. Rescue operations, no matter how careful, skilled, or well-trained those carrying them out, do not always work. A recent French operation killed one of the captives.

This risk will now be even greater in any future standoff: any Somali pirate in such a situation in the future is going to be less likely to trust the U.S., and more likely to harm an American captive, and to minimize opportunities for safe rescue.

So, if you are going to be rational, you have to ask the question of whether the insistence that the three Somali pirates give themselves up for incarceration was worth the risk to the captain's life, and the increased risk to any American captives of Somali pirates in the future.

And it's hard to see a rational argument that it was worth the risk, when officials acknowledge that there is no military or international enforcement solution to the problem of Somali piracy. There are too many potential pirates, with the potential of operating over too wide an area, while the economics of piracy are too attractive to poor young men without other economic opportunities, in a country without an effective government that controls the country.

As Senator Feingold wrote to President Obama - echoing the repeated statements of officials and experts from the United States and Europe - the only solution to Somali piracy is to support the establishment of effective government in Somalia.

Ironically, it was in the course of efforts to support the new government in Somalia - which now includes part of the former Islamist opposition, and which has made some progress in defusing the country's Islamic insurgencies - that Representative Payne went to Mogadishu, against the advice of the State Department, where several mortar rounds exploded near his plane.

To his everlasting credit, Rep. Payne opposed the Bush Administration-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, which removed a government that largely put a stop to piracy.

Americans should support the efforts of Senator Feingold and Representative Payne to assist the coalition government in Somalia in defusing the insurgency and taking effective control of the country. The last thing Somalia or the United States needs is another ill-advised American military adventure. We should close our ears to the siren song of military force coming from the right-wing punditocracy, and even more ominously, from parts of the Pentagon.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that some in the Pentagon are pressuring the Obama administration to approve air strikes against insurgent training camps in Somalia, despite the lack of evidence that Somali insurgents have any dispute with the United States. As of the time the article was written, the Obama administration was wisely resisting the pressure. It would be a terrible tragedy if media hysteria about Somali piracy encouraged the Obama administration to capitulate to those in the Pentagon demanding an escalation of violence.

As in Pakistan, whatever benefit is presumed to derive from "targeted strikes" has to be weighed against the likely cost of destabilization, a cost that in this case will be primarily paid by the long-suffering people of Somalia.

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