Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pirates, Good Government and Bainbridge's Legacy

The piracy problems off the coast of Somalia illustrate, among other things, the need for good government. Somalia has been lawless for close to two decades and its putative government has effective jurisdiction perhaps to the doors of its offices. Regional warlords have carved out fiefdoms for themselves and their clans; some of those warlords run the piracy operations that have so recently been in the news. There is no government to restrain them. There is no government to foster a healthy legitimate economy that would serve as an alternative to piracy.

For historical reasons, Americans have sought to limit the power of government. But the absence of government can be costly. The reckless mortgage lending and derivatives trading of recent years happened in an atmosphere of regulatory neglect. The Bernie Madoffs of the world can prosper when government is inattentive. While the nation's financial problems don't approach the moral depravity of seizing ships on the high seas and holding sailors and passengers as hostages, rats and other vermin flourish whenever the cat is asleep or away. The Obama administration's regulatory push is good news.

A remarkable coincidence of today's rescue of an American ship captain from Somali pirates is that the first U.S. Navy ship on the scene, the U.S.S. Bainbridge, is named after Commodore William Bainbridge. Commodore Bainbridge spent much of the first decade of the nineteenth century fighting the Barbary pirates of North Africa. Indeed, he was captured in 1803 and held hostage by the Pasha of Tripoli for almost three years. His release came as a result of the first overseas expedition by the U.S. Marine Corps. In 1805, a Marine lieutenant named Presley O'Bannon, together with an American diplomat named William Eaton, led a detachment of eight Marines (not a typo: 8), and some 500 mercenaries recruited in North Africa on a 500 mile trek from Alexandria, Egypt westward to the city of Derna, which was part of the Pasha of Tripoli's domain. Eaton and O'Bannon then led an assault that captured Derna. This achievement, astonishing for the small and weak United States of the time, convinced the Pasha of Tripoli to negotiate a peace treaty with the Americans and eventually release Bainbridge and other American captives. Today's remarkable rescue of Captain Richard Phillips is in keeping with the U.S. Navy's tradition in combating piracy.

Piracy, in purely financial terms, has had a minor impact on overall global commerce. That's why shipping companies and insurers pay ransoms rather than incur the increased cost of routing ships away from dangerous shipping lanes and arming sailors. But as the pirates have accumulated more loot, they've been able to buy better ships with more sophisticated equipment and more powerful weapons. With their armament thusly enhanced, they are able to seize larger and more valuable ships farther out at sea, increase their loot, and buy even more powerful ships and weapons. Piracy is becoming a bubble. The pirates' defeat today at the hands of the U.S. Navy won't be enough to pop the bubble. But it is heartening for a nation beset by recession, rising unemployment and a futile war in Iraq. The world is a better place when, at least once in a while, right prevails over wrong, the good guys win, and heroes get to ride happily off into the sunset.

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