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Why we should not negotiate with pirates

By Jim Camp
web posted April 13, 2009

It is good news and a happy outcome that the Somali pirates holding Captain Richard Phillips have been killed and he has been rescued unharmed. This is quite literally the only way to deal with pirates.

It's not as if the United States of America hasn't got a lot of experience dealing with pirates. Ironically, the U.S. Constitution came about in part because the earlier Articles of Confederation left the new nation unable to respond to the attacks on our merchant ships by Barbary pirates.

The Barbary pirates, operating out of the northern part of Africa, had for centuries controlled the shipping trade in the Mediterranean. They were, in fact, less interested in the cargo than in the crews who they would capture, ransom, or sell into slavery. Nations could avoid this by paying tribute to each of the Barbary States. It was a common practice of European nations as well as Great Britain to pay such tribute, including the protection its American colonies until they declared independence.

Long before he became President, Thomas Jefferson had hated the idea. "There is no end to the demand of these powers, nor any security in their promises." When it became obvious that it cost as much or more to pay off the pirates than to build an American fleet, Jefferson personally authorized an undeclared war on them. In 1802, Congress passed an Act for the Protection of Commerce and Seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan Corsairs.

After a successful engagement led by Stephen Decatur in 1804, it was hailed by all of Europe and Britain's Lord Nelson. Several years would pass, but on June 28, 1814, as related in Michael B. Oren's Power, Faith, and Fantasy, "Omar Pasha, Algiers's new dey, awoke to the sight of ten American warships debouched in his harbor." The expedition effectively ended three decades of North African piracy.

Jefferson said, "The United States, while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none."

The French have demonstrated the same resolve as Thomas Jefferson. In 2008, they captured at least 5l Somali pirates in a half-dozen incidents. On April 10, 2009, the French Navy launched an operation to free five hostages aboard of civilian yacht, the Tanit, seized in the Gulf of Aden. Two pirates were killed and three taken prisoner while one hostage was killed and four were freed. A year earlier they had completed a comparable rescue.

The Somalis have discovered how lucrative piracy is. It is estimated that piracy generated some $80 million in ransom payments last year. The Saudi supertanker, Sirius Star, was hijacked in November 2008 and released in January after pirates reportedly received $3 million. Justice was served when five of the pirates drowned with their share of the ransom money after their boat capsized in a storm.

Somali pirates rarely release a captured vessel and its crew, though a Yemeni cargo ship and crew was released after having been held for weeks. It is believed that local intervention by tribal elders was instrumental in this rare act.

So the question for Americans and their leaders is whether we should negotiate with the pirates?

As a negotiations coach who has worked with governmental and corporate entities around the world, my answer is no.

To put it another way, Thomas Jefferson was right. It is not a negotiation when ransom is involved. It is thievery, combined with the threat of death for captured crew members. Pirates who engage in it should be subject to the penalty of death.

While piracy falls short of being an act of war, it deserves the same status and clearly the French government regards it as such. Even at the possible cost of the lives of hostages, the French have made it clear that any vessel, to include privately owned yachts under its flag, will receive full protection.

Americans have grown squeamish over the loss of life in combat. Much of the opposition to the war in Iraq, despite the remarkably low number of deaths in battle, compared to the remarkable outcome, one that even President Obama now describes as extraordinary.

Compassion for the single life of a brave American merchant captain is admirable, but it would have constituted nothing but weakness in the eyes of the Somali pirates and, beyond them, to those who would challenge America's military superiority.

The U.S. Navy, arguably the finest in the world, has demonstrated to the world the willingness of Americans to defend themselves, their allies, and, in this case, the merchant ships that ply the waters of the world under the protection of our flag.

It is paramount that we take the war to them where they reside. We must hunt them down, find them, fix them and then destroy their ability to hurt innocent citizens of the world. We must strike them at their bases on land and at sea.  This is not a negotiation; this is no different than the shores of Tripoli. ESR

Jim Camp is CEO of the Camp Negotiation System, and the author of two best selling books on the science of negotiation. © Jim Camp, April 2009

Other related says:

  • Lawrence of Africa by Steven Martinovich (June 6, 2005)
    Steve Martinovich will admit some bias: Richard Zacks is one of his favourite writers. Despite that, you can trust his opinion that The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, The First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 is a rousing success

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