Pirates menace the world's sea lanes the way predatory lenders stalk a housing market. You need an able regulator to police the latter, just as you need a committed maritime power to eliminate the former. Overwhelmed by the collapse of property values, the US government has finally recognised the need for a robust regulatory framework to protect home buyers from dodgy lenders. Yet with brigands disrupting commercial shipping along the Horn of Africa, Washington has apparently forgotten the most important responsibility of a superpower: protect the world's sea lanes.
With pirate raids intensifying on cargo vessels and oil tankers, shipping companies last week began steering their vessels clear of the Red Sea in favour of the southern coast of Africa, a route that has been plied rarely since the Suez Canal opened in 1896. Their retreat was driven by rising insurance fees in response to the capture of a Saudi Arabian supertanker carrying US$100 million (Dh367m) worth of oil.
With shippers voting with their rudders - and the price of commodities and manufactured goods likely to rise as a result - the rest of the world pursued their own solutions: Saudi Aramco, the Saudi national oil company that owns the hijacked tanker, considered a reported $25m ransom demand; the UN Security Council voted to impose sanctions on anyone contributing to violence and instability in Somalia; and an Indian frigate, one of dozens of warships from several countries protecting the sea lanes off the Horn of Africa, attacked and sank a Somali pirate ship after coming under fire.
Meanwhile, the US Navy has responded to the crisis in the Gulf of Aden by hardly responding at all. It's not as if the US doesn't have a sizeable military base perched on a waterway that is as strategic as it is pirate-infested. This month's hijackings took place under the nose of Camp Lemonair, home to a massive US military deployment in Djibouti. Fort Lemonair is an old US marine base that was expanded in 2003, when it was feared al Qa'eda elements would nest among Djibouti's lawless neighbours. When that threat failed to materialise, the base's mission was redefined as a staging area where its 1,800 personnel could engage in "stability operations" - non-combat activity that ranges from training armed forces of friendly governments to wooing nomadic tribesman with new schools, hospitals and water supplies. The task force still has ample air and sea capability, and could deliver a blow at least as devastating as that landed by the Indian frigate last week.
In an interview on Monday, the commanding officer of Camp Lemonair, Rear Admiral Philip Greene, said the US was playing a supporting role in the crisis together with such regional and international actors as Nato, the EU, Russia, several Asian countries and the International Maritime Organisation. He said: "Ultimately, to the extent the US will participate [in anti-pirate operations], as a participant or as a rallying element, [depends on] whether the international community chooses to be in the lead on this."
Camp Lemonair is only one unit of American armed might. It is not for Admiral Greene to decide to take a direct role in protecting Red Sea commerce the way it did Gulf shipping during the Iraq-Iran conflicts of the mid-1980s. Should Washington order him to go after pirates, no doubt he would do so. If US naval units in the Gulf have not been deployed, it is because policymakers in Washington have decided to keep them bottled up.
It would be a stretch to imagine the Bush administration, even in its twilight, has embraced the kind of multilateral solution to the piracy issue as sketched out by Admiral Greene. A Pentagon policy directive issued in 2005 identifies "stability operations" as "a core US military mission [of] priority comparable to combat operations". The objectives of such operations include "to provide the local populace with security, restore essential services, a viable market economy, rule of law, democratic institutions and a robust civil society".
While these are laudable goals, it is fair to ask why a defence bureaucracy that has committed itself to rebuilding electricity grids and establishing independent judiciaries is flinching at its most basic imperative. After all, what's so intimidating about a superpower that can't police the world's crucial waterways? email@example.com