War at sea

Our view: Despite the rescue of Captain Phillips, pirates remain a serious threat

April 14, 2009

The surprising thing about the deadly cat-and-mouse game between pirates holding an American sea captain hostage and U.S. warships shadowing them off Somalia's coast was that the outcome remained in doubt so long. The drama ended Sunday, when sharpshooters aboard the U.S.S. Bainbridge killed three of the pirates and a fourth surrendered. But even the safe release of Capt. Richard Phillips, whom the whole world was rooting for, couldn't obscure the irony that for three days a handful of ragtag marauders held the world's most powerful navy at bay.

The standoff exemplifies the challenge of asymmetrical warfare, a threat the U.S. increasingly is encountering in hot spots around the world. From pirates in Somalia to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, adversaries are challenging America's overwhelming conventional military superiority with unconventional weapons and tactics such as hostage-taking, suicide bombs and assassinations. Last week, the fleet's big guns were useless against the pirates' tiny lifeboat because they couldn't shoot while Mr. Phillips was aboard.

And though folks back home were thrilled by the ultimate success of the rescue, the episode also showed how difficult it is to counter such threats. The Navy doesn't have enough ships to protect every vessel; even if it did, the cost would be prohibitive. President Barack Obama, who kept quiet during the standoff, showed toughness and resolve, but he can't be expected to get personally involved after every attack. And continuing to pay huge ransoms for crews and cargos, as shipowners have been doing, will only embolden the marauders.

As it is, they already have vowed revenge. There's not much they can do against U.S. warships, but they could take out their frustration on any Americans among the more than 200 merchant seamen they still hold as hostages, or target U.S.-flagged vessels and crew. On Monday, Somali militants fired mortars at the plane of a visiting U.S. lawmaker in Mogadishu to underscore the threat.

The U.S. needs to turn the pirate captured Sunday over to authorities in Kenya, whose courts have been prosecuting these cases. That would signal this is a global problem that requires a global response. No one wants to contemplate a military incursion to clean out pirate havens on Somalia's coast. But Americans will have to take the lead in formulating a workable strategy to defeat the threat that all the world's navies can get behind.

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