The New Privateers

by Benjamin Domenech on 7:14 am April 16, 2009

What the global community faces in the waters off Africa isn’t just a minor problem or distraction, but an explosion of violence that threatens the distribution of foreign aid and the growth of commerce in regions desperate for prosperity. It’s time for an 18th Century solution. It’s time for the New Privateers.

Leave it to a man whose entire ideology resides in the 18th Century, Congressman Ron Paul, to push the idea forward on Capitol Hill. This isn’t the first time Paul, whose unique ideological cocktail of anti-war libertarianism and paleoconservative beliefs made him by far the most entertaining sideshow candidate in the Republican presidential primary, has spoken publicly about the lessons of the piratical past; he made reference to Thomas Jefferson’s response to the Barbary Pirates during a 2007 debate which prompted some rather entertaining mockery on the internet.

But now, as pirates equipped with rocket launchers and speedboats instead of flintlocks and oars continue to attack American and European vessels, it may be that the lessons of the United States’ response to the lords of piracy in the early 1800s could provide some guidance for how to respond to this spiraling problem.

By refusing to bow to the demands of the Islamic Barbary states, which required ransom payments as bribes to keep them from attacking the merchant ships along flourishing trade routes (to a point that in 1800, the federal government was paying 20% of all its revenues to Africa), President Jefferson put the fledgling American navy in a very difficult predicament. To give you some perspective on what I mean by the term “fledgling,” during the war of 1812, America only had 17 seaworthy ships, while Great Britain had 1,048 — but to make up for the disparity, the United States deployed more than 500 privateers, civilian ships equipped with letters of marque, to help even the score.

The problems Jefferson faced in these pirates in many ways resemble the challenges before President Obama today:

Jefferson’s plan for an international coalition foundered on the shoals of indifference and a belief that it was cheaper to pay the tribute than fight a war. The United States’s relations with the Barbary states continued to revolve around negotiations for ransom of American ships and sailors and the payment of annual tributes or gifts. Even though Secretary of State Jefferson declared to Thomas Barclay, American consul to Morocco, in a May 13, 1791, letter of instructions for a new treaty with Morocco that it is “lastly our determination to prefer war in all cases to tribute under any form, and to any people whatever,” the United States continued to negotiate for cash settlements. In 1795 alone the United States was forced to pay nearly a million dollars in cash, naval stores, and a frigate to ransom 115 sailors from the dey of Algiers. Annual gifts were settled by treaty on Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli.

When Jefferson became president in 1801 he refused to accede to Tripoli’s demands for an immediate payment of $225,000 and an annual payment of $25,000. The pasha of Tripoli then declared war on the United States. Although as secretary of state and vice president he had opposed developing an American navy capable of anything more than coastal defense, President Jefferson dispatched a squadron of naval vessels to the Mediterranean.

Congress authorized military action by Presidents Jefferson and Madison in multiple statutes, including March 1804 legislation which authorized the use of force to “protect the commerce and seamen of the United States against the Barbary powers,” acknowledging the Constitution’s War Powers Clause giving the Congress the power to “grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”

In the 18th Century, the incentive for privateers was the ability to take whatever plunder they wanted from the enemy ships they destroyed. This time around, they’d probably need a better financial incentive. A bounty hunter solution, as odd as it seems, shouldn’t be dismissed offhand:

“If we have 100 American wanna-be Rambos patrolling the seas, it’s probably a good way of getting the job done,” said Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow and security expert Eli Lehrer. “Right now we have a Navy designed mostly to fight other navies. The weapons we have are all excellent, but they may not be the best ones to fight these kinds of pirates. The only cost under letters of marque would be some sort of bounty for the pirates.”

The idea of the New Privateers method of dealing with the current surge in piracy against the United States and Europe has already attracted its share of critics. The crux of the argument from PoliGazette’s Jason Arvak is that privateers would not be viewed as security-focused mercenaries, but in the same context as Blackwater contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan — and that their actions would be tied too closely to the United States in the view of the international community (he also envisions conflicts and command issues emerging between legitimate privateers and US naval units, but considering the significant differences in armament and the lack of any real need for a command structure in this case, I have a hard time seeing it).

Yet even acknowledging that this is a problem, as it is with all calculated hirings of mercenaries, the high seas have far less of a potential for civilian collateral damage than the neighborhoods of Baghdad. At some point, doesn’t the United States and the world community have to make a decision about a coherent solution to not just escort and protect merchant ships — the convoy method is the standard method for that — but to effectively eradicate the menace of piracy that threatens all seagoers?

Deploying the New Privateers as a blunt instrument against the Somali pirates has some downsides. But I’m unconvinced that these enemies can be negotiated with or stopped without the deployment of an innovative solution — in this case, one that’s a throwback to the era these thieves come from. The cost, difficulty, and risk of a dozen more Maersk standoffs has to be weighed. We shouldn’t be satisfied with better protections for ships, hoping that the pirates will grow bored of their revenge streak, and reorienting our naval force in the region to combat this enemy will take time. Instead, President Obama and the Congress might consider encouraging those individuals who can to solve the problem in their own way — as messy as it may be — so that these seaborne brigands wake up on a morning soon to find their sands are run.

Read more and comment at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.

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