The world's only superpower has a responsibility to help keep the world safe for trade. When major sea lanes are threatened, so is international commerce, particularly when one of those strategic waterways carries a third of the world's fuel supplies.
So when Somali pirates capture a supertanker as big as an aircraft carrier, it is time to ratchet up the response. This tanker, which was bound for the United States with $100-million in crude oil aboard, is only the latest casualty. This year, Somali pirates have attacked 92 vessels. And they still hold captive 14 ships, including the supertanker. Remember that big ship chock-full of tanks and other heavy weapons? Pirates still have that one, too.
These are not the play pirates of Gasparilla. These are cold-eyed opportunists in it for the cash: $500,000 to $2-million per ship seems to be the going ransom rate. But the price is rising with every successful seizure. The pirates want $25-million for the tanker. "We always charge according to the quality of the ship and the value of the product,'' one of them told Bloomberg News by telephone.
At a moment when the United States is trying to rebuild its reputation abroad, here is a clear chance to make a difference and to lead where others actually will want to follow. It's time for international forces, led by the United States, to put a stop to these ever more brazen attacks.
The United States bears some responsibility for what has happened. When U.S. forces abruptly left Somalia in the mid '90s, the country fell further into anarchy, giving an opening to pirates who were held back by no law. In fact, back on shore, the pirates are hailed by some Somalis who see their plunder as the only way to a better life in a country that has been virtually abandoned by the world. This is an object lesson in the boomerang effects of failed foreign policy.
But until the conditions that promote piracy change, more must be done to stop it. The private ships and their owners bear some responsibility for protecting themselves, using evasive maneuvers and not straying from established sea lanes, among other things.
But international law and action is the best answer. India has aggressively stepped up its efforts with one warship successfully escorting dozens of commercial vessels; that same warship sank a suspected pirate "mother ship" this week. Arab nations are interested in securing the waterways, as is the European Union, the Russians and almost everyone else.
With Tampa-based Central Command and its 5th Fleet in charge of security in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, it's time for the United States to devote the energy and resources necessary to keep shipping lanes safe and open. The United States has the surveillance and the high-tech capabilities to coordinate a coalition effort to combat the pirates.
With a proud tradition and mindful of the memory of the USS Constitution — built as part of the nascent U.S. Navy to fight the Barbary Coast pirates two centuries ago — it should get started.