Pirates and Poverty

It all worked out in Pirate Alley. Or did it?

A brave American captain saves his ship and crew by putting his own life on the line. An untried American President deals with the crisis with wisdom and restraint, negotiating for days even as the standoff risks becoming an international embarrassment for his country. Then a team of skilled Navy snipers kills all the captors in a single burst of fire, knowing that even one wounded pirate would surely kill their American captive. The next day President Obama gives a tough speech vowing to “halt the rise of piracy” off the coast of Africa.

So why do I feel so uneasy about this triumph?

Because it increases a false trust that American military power will always destroy those who attack us. Because shooting pirates solves a short-term problem, but the emotions it generates help blind us to the need for better, longer-term solutions to 21st century security threats.

Piracy off the Somali coast has become a major growth industry for this failed state. While the pirates are hardly Al-Queda, they’ve learned from Al-Queda’s example the enormous power of the clever use of simple weapons.

But there’s a more important parallel here than tactics. Piracy in Somalia, like terrorism, is an act of violence fed not just by ideology or greed, but by the indifference of the developed world to the fate of poor, distant, lawless places where desperation grows unchecked.

Piracy and terrorism do not exist in a vacuum. They grow and thrive in failed states, like Somalia, like Afghanistan under the Taliban, like the border regions of Pakistan and next, perhaps, in parts of Saharan Africa. It’s easy in places like these to convince young men that taking on the US Navy in lifeboats or strapping bombs to their waists is an option.

What’s to lose for a young man in those places? There’s no job and no economy that might create one. Members of your family have died from malnutrition and disease. Your guidance comes not from a school but from the hateful bile of anti-American ideologues or the cunning blandishments of warlords and professional criminals.

America at times has acted with great generosity and far-sightedness in the world. But as a former American diplomat working in developing countries, I know that too often there has been a disconnect between the basic goodness and sense of justice of the American people and the policies enacted in our name. Given our resources, America does very little to combat global problems of hunger, ignorance, violence and disease, while every day, tens of thousands of lives are lost quietly to these scourges all over the earth, but mostly unseen and unnoted here. The gap between the world's rich and poor grows; television and the Internet make even the most squalid camps and villages aware of that disparity.

And in these camps and villages young men with nothing to lose listen to the ideologues and warlords and criminals, and we become the targets.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have promised a new strategy toward the developing world.

In my view, that strategy should include three things:

First -- take the lead in helping developing countries feed their people and eliminate preventable diseases like dysentery and cholera.

Second--promote global trade, aid and investment policies that help developing countries strengthen and diversify their economies and improve education. Corporations must understand that they exist to serve not only the providers of capital, but also the providers of labor and the communities in which those laborers live.

Third -- strengthen international and regional organizations and push them to take active and effective roles in dealing with regional violence and its causes. Be prepared to act unilaterally if these organizations fail. No more Rwandas.

Bloviating bullies on the right will oppose any of these efforts. And the need to focus on the economic crisis will exert enormous pressure to shove them down the priority list, certainly in Congress.

Americans must understand that a new partnership between America and the developing world flows not just from our collective sense of caring and fair play. It flows from the most level-headed assessment of our national security. Terrorist cells and pirates’ nests feed on the anger generated by despair. And they depend on many other people who share that anger, and as a consequence provide shelter, information, resources and recruits. It’s not enough to hunt down the pirates and terrorists, so long as the conditions that breed them continue to exist.