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Donald Puchala of the University of South Carolina notes that “Reluctance to use countervailing force tended only to encourage the pirates.” He adds that piracy has historically been combated “by a single major power, frequently the hegemon of the era.”
The United States plays that role today.
Many Americans forget or simply do not know that piracy has been a challenge since the very beginning of the Republic. Indeed, it could be argued that pirates are America’s oldest enemy.
The Barbary States in northern Africa required ships traveling near their waters to pay tribute to guarantee safe passage. In fact, when George Washington was inaugurated, as Donald Chidsey observes in The Wars in Barbary, Americans were being held hostage by Barbary pirates. The U.S. paid huge sums in tribute, ransom and naval stores.
Thomas Jefferson bitterly opposed this policy, and he overturned it once he became president. “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them,” he said. Skirmishes, battles and full-scale invasions followed, until a series of U.S. victories finally forced the Barbary States to sign treaties, ending decades of attacks against U.S. shipping. Puchula adds that the French decision to send 37,000 troops to occupy Algiers helped the cause.
But piracy wasn’t confined to the Barbary Coast. CRS notes that between 1801 and 1855, U.S. forces carried out counter-piracy missions in Tripoli, Algiers, Greece, Ivory Coast, Hong Kong and Sumatra. After what President Andrew Jackson called “an act of atrocious piracy” against a U.S. merchant ship in the waters around Sumatra, he deployed the USS Potomac, disguised as a Dutch merchant ship, “to inflict such chastisement as would deter them and others from like aggressions.”
Back in this hemisphere, CRS reports that there were 3,000 pirate attacks in the Caribbean between 1815 and 1823. The U.S. Navy responded in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish Florida and the Yucatan. Konstam notes that President James Monroe even created an “anti-pirate squadron.”
Closer to our times, President Ronald Reagan dealt with a kind of latter-day Barbary piracy, when Libya declared the Gulf of Sidra as its own, in violation of international law. In response, the U.S. Navy repeatedly engaged the Libyan navy and air force, to deadly effect. In 1985, Reagan ordered U.S. warplanes to intercept and divert an Egyptian airliner carrying Palestinian terrorists who had pirated the Achille Lauro and murdered an American. And in 2009, after Somali pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama and took its captain hostage, President Barack Obama authorized Navy SEALs to kill the attackers.
It may be too uncivilized for the EU and the rest of the PC crowd, but the common denominator of successful counter-piracy campaigns throughout history is the use of military force not simply to apprehend pirates, but to target and destroy them, their vessels and their bases.
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