The problem with pirates off Somalia's coast did not begin with the kidnapping of an American ship captain, Richard Phillips. Nor did it end with his dramatic rescue when Navy snipers killed his three captors — with another American ship being fired upon Tuesday and the French holding 11 pirates Wednesday. Now the Obama administration must work quickly and methodically toward a systemic solution — part military, part political — in cooperation with the international community.
One answer was the quiet formation early this year of Combined Task Force 151, a multinational group led by Tampa-based Central Command's 5th Fleet that has one mission: Deter and defeat pirates. Twenty nations, from Turkey to Singapore, contribute intelligence and ships to the effort. The U.S. destroyer Bainbridge, which rescued Capt. Phillips, was part of this force.
The United States, as the world's remaining superpower, has the responsibility to coordinate a joint effort to keep these major sea lanes open to commerce, but America should not strike out on its own. The limits of a purely military approach are clear. Ultimately, the conditions in Somalia that make piracy lucrative have to change. But the prospect of resurrecting a failed nation-state are daunting to improbable.
With the first pirate taking of a U.S. ship in two centuries, it is tempting to believe the game has completely changed. And with the foiling of the attempt, it is beguiling to believe that the United States has suddenly gained the upper hand. The reality is much messier.
More than 280 sailors on 15 ships are still being held hostage by pirates off the Somalia coast. That makes it the world's fight, but one that the United States is best qualified to coordinate. Having to rescue an America captain simply confirms that the United States needs to redouble its efforts to lead the fight — geopolitically as well as militarily — on land as well as at sea.