How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything
CHAPTER ONE Pirates! Everything Was Strange
Telling people that I was going to work at the Pentagon felt like saying that I was going to work at the Death Star, or that I’d have an office inside the Sphinx. It took me weeks to shake off the slight feeling of unreality that hit me each time I entered the world’s largest office building. Did I work here? How very strange.
Everything about the Pentagon was strange. My mother, visiting me for lunch, gaped at the Pentagon’s food courts, banks, and shops. “The heart of American military power is a shopping mall?” she asked. Once you got past the shops clustered by the Metro entrance, the Pentagon’s corridors were endless and echoing, lined with closed metal doors flanked by keypads and stern printed warnings: “No cell phones, cameras or other recording devices.” Uniformed men and women strode about decisively, heels clicking on the shiny floors. The Pentagon had a unique scent too, some mix of cleaning fluids, wood polish, floor wax, coffee, and human stress, amplified by the canned air protecting its denizens from biological and chemical infiltration. Every time I walked in through the wide doors, the scent washed over me.
The windows in the E Ring’s outward-facing offices, which house many of the most senior officials, were made of a curious green glass. I never learned the details, but I assume the thick green glass was bulletproof, or blast proof, or surveillance proof, or all those things. Regardless, from within, the green glass gave an odd chartreuse tint
to the world outside the Pentagon—the endless acres of parking lots, the yacht basin, the Potomac River—and beyond, the monuments and stately buildings of official Washington. Gazing through those windows, I felt like Dorothy in the Emerald City.
There were peculiar exhibits everywhere: lurid paintings of fighter planes, elaborate dioramas illustrating the life of General Douglas MacArthur, glass-fronted displays of World War II code-breaking machines. The grand staircase leading up from the Pentagon’s elegant River Entrance boasted a vast oil painting—perhaps six feet by ten—of a uniformed airman and his family kneeling at a chapel altar, rapt faces lit from above by a shaft of sunlight coming through a stained-glass window. In case the viewer was particularly obtuse, the inscription beneath the painting clarified the message: “And the Lord God asked, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ And the reply came back: ‘Here I am, send me.’ ” Kitsch—but sanctified kitsch.
When I first started work at the Pentagon, it seemed that I had walked into some kind of permanent Talk Like a Pirate Week. Meetings opened with cries of “Ahoy, matey!,” “Avast, me hearties!,” and merry threats to make latecomers walk the plank. Occasionally, you even saw someone sporting a black eye patch or a rakish bandana.
Whatever I had expected about my new job at the heart of American military power, it wasn’t this. But on April 8, 2009—less than a week before I started my new job in the Office of the Secretary of Defense—four young Somali pirates had boarded the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama, making it the first U.S.-flagged ship to be seized by pirates in nearly two hundred years. They demanded ransom money, but on April 12, Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three of the pirates, rescuing Richard Phillips, the Maersk Alabama’s American captain, and capturing the fourth pirate.
The very next day, I started work at the Pentagon, surrounded by giddy military bureaucrats cracking pirate jokes.
And it was funny—sort of. Pirates! Who’da thunk it? And who could
blame hardworking Pentagon action officers for uttering some celebratory cries of “Avast, me hearties”? For years, the Pentagon had struggled through the bloody and inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After a decade of suicide bombs and dead civilians, how nice to have an uncomplicated success story. How nice to be the good guys, rescuing American citizens and ships from the bad guys.
He Caught a Big Fish
Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly a fair fight: the four Somali pirates were scruffy, undernourished teenage boys. They were poor and untrained: the sole pirate to survive his encounter with the SEALs was Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, the oldest of twelve children from a Puntland family that got by on a few dollars a day. Muse grew up in a one-room home. His mother sold milk at the market; his father herded goats and camels.1
Interviewed after their rescue, members of the Maersk Alabama’s crew recalled Muse’s astonished delight at discovering he had unwittingly gained control of an American ship: “He kept asking, `You all come from America?’ Then he claps and cheers and smiles. He caught himself a big fish.”2
The fish was much too big for Muse, a scrawny kid of 5'2". His family told journalists that he was only sixteen, and had been duped by older criminals into trying his hand at piracy.3
But he had no birth certificate (few Somalis do), and after a medical examination, U.S. authorities asserted that he was probably nineteen rather than sixteen. Either way, Muse and his dreams of a hefty ransom bonanza were no match for U.S. Navy SEALs.
Notwithstanding the jokes, the Navy assault on the Maersk Alabama pirates was in many ways a typical twenty-first-century military engagement. U.S. forces increasingly find themselves fighting nontraditional enemies: pirates, terrorists, insurgents, organized crime networks, and other actors who pose asymmetric challenges to conventional U.S. military power. Today, America’s adversaries rarely engage in battles over territorial control. They’d be fools to do so, given conventional U.S. military dominance. Instead, they use kidnapping,
hijacking, sabotage, theft, propaganda videos, computer hacking, suicide bombs, and IEDs to cause disruption and damage to U.S. interests.
Sometimes America’s adversaries have the overt or covert backing of foreign states; sometimes they are nonstate groups acting alone. Sometimes their motives are ideological or political; sometimes purely financial. The threats they pose are real, but difficult to quantify or categorize and still more difficult to combat. You can “win” a war against Nazi Germany, but how do you win against shifting, inchoate extremist networks with little interest in controlling physical terrain, or roving bands of hungry young African pirates seeking ransom money?
No one at the Pentagon was quite sure, but Congress, galvanized by the Maersk Alabama incident, was demanding answers—and my boss, Michèle Flournoy, was supposed to provide them. In the absence of a designated speechwriter, she turned to me to draft her testimony.
• • •
Although I had worked at the State Department, I had no experience on Capitol Hill, and at that point I had never drafted nor given congressional testimony. But I was an international law scholar, and knew something about the intertwined history of piracy and international law. For sure, I thought, Congress would want to know about this too.
So my draft testimony began with a capsule history of piracy and law, cribbed in part from prior testimony by other DoD officials and embellished with some quick Googling:
Mr. Chairman, piracy is a growing problem, but not a new problem. Since humans first began to travel and move valuables by ship, there have been pirates. In Roman times, Julius Caesar himself was seized by pirates in 75 B.C., and released after ransom was paid. The Vikings, too, were notorious pirates. Historically, the line between piracy and legitimate use of force on the high seas was often blurry; many states—including our own—at times issued letters of marque and reprisal, authorizing “privateers” to attack an enemy’s merchant ships. The Barbary States of North
Africa were particularly entrepreneurial issuers of letters of marque, and by 1800, the young United States was paying about 20% of total federal revenues to the Barbary States, as ransom and tribute.4
International efforts to combat piracy also have an ancient pedigree. Since Roman times, pirates have been deemed hostes humani generis: the enemies of all humankind, and as a matter of customary international law, piracy was a crime of “universal jurisdiction,” meaning that every state had the right and the duty to capture and prosecute piracy on the high seas, even if its own ships or nationals were not involved.
In the middle of the 19th century, the major European powers signed the Declaration of Paris, agreeing to end the practice of issuing letters of marque and reprisal. The United States, though not a signatory to the Declaration, agreed to abide by its principles. Most other states did so as well. As the anti-piracy and anti-privateering principles of the Declaration of Paris were gradually incorporated into successive treaties on the law of the sea, the long era of state-sponsored piracy came more or less to a close.
I handed this to Michèle, who read through it quickly. “This is really, ah, interesting,” she finally said. “But I think we should skip the historical part. I don’t think the Senate Armed Services Committee is going to want to focus on that.”
I went back to the drawing board.
Getting the testimony just right proved harder than I had thought: the trick, it turned out, was to offer a little something to everyone on the committee, with enough caveats to avoid committing the Defense Department to anything that might come back to bite us. Here, we had a dual challenge: convincing any congressional skeptics that it was, in fact, entirely appropriate for the Defense Department to put resources into fighting a bunch of scruffy teen pirates (rather than solely into, say, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), while at the same time convincing any counterpiracy hawks that no, the entire U.S. Navy could not be
sent indefinitely to patrol the Somali coastline. In the end, I came up with this:
Mr. Chairman, we are currently seeing a dramatic upswing in reported pirate attacks, particularly off the coast of Somalia. . . .
Freedom of the seas is critical to our national security and international commerce, and it is also a core principle of international law. . . . From a Department of Defense perspective, our strategic goals with regard to Somali piracy include deterrence, disruption/interdiction, and prosecution. But achieving these goals will be challenging for several reasons.
First, the geographic area affected is vast. . . . When not actively engaged in piracy, pirate vessels easily blend in with ordinary shipping. . . . Second, the root causes of Somali piracy lie in the poverty and instability that continue to plague that troubled country. Third, serious gaps remain in the international community’s ability to create an effective legal deterrent by prosecuting pirates for their crimes. . . . Fourth and finally, many in the merchant shipping industry continue to unrealistically assume that military forces will always be present to intervene if pirates attack. As a result, many have so far been unwilling to invest in the basic security measures that would render their ships far less vulnerable. . . .
Although Somali piracy currently appears to be motivated solely by money, not ideology, and we see no meaningful links between Somali pirates and violent extremist groups, we must ensure that piracy does not evolve into a future funding source for terrorism.
Most of this draft survived. We went on to offer up a range of DoD responses to piracy: we promised that we would be “working closely with other Agencies and Departments to develop comprehensive regional counter-piracy strategies,” “working directly with merchant shipping lines to undertake vulnerability assessments and disseminate best practices,” working “with allies and regional states to develop their capacity to patrol the seas and protect their own shipping,” and continuing
“to address the root causes of most regional piracy: the ongoing poverty and instability in Somalia.”
What the testimony didn’t do—and couldn’t do—was resolve the core underlying questions: Is the twenty-first-century U.S. military the right institution to take on ragtag bands of impoverished Africans preying on private shipping? Which U.S. institution was going to address Somalia’s “ongoing poverty and instability”? At what price?—and what would constitute “success”? What rules should govern military counterpiracy operations, and how should we conceptualize them? Were they “war”? Law enforcement? Both? Something else altogether?
Today, these questions remain unanswered, but the U.S. military continues to play an expansive role in global counterpiracy operations. Navy ships patrol the waters off the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, and the number and locations of Navy patrols change in response to shifting patterns of piracy. For the most part, these patrols occur in the context of multinational counterpiracy efforts: the United States participates in Combined Task Force 151: Counter-Piracy with states ranging from Turkey and Pakistan to South Korea and Australia; and in Operation Ocean Shield with other NATO states.5
These counterpiracy patrols play a preventive role and also have a quick response capability of the sort used in the Maersk Alabama rescue.
Many U.S. military counterpiracy efforts are more indirect, focusing less on military action and more on building the capacity of partner governments to effectively patrol their own coastlines. Through a maritime security exercise called Obangame Express, for instance, U.S. forces have helped train the navies and coast guards of Gulf of Guinea nations to conduct boarding operations.6
Other U.S. military initiatives focus on providing African states with improved sensing and communications networks to enable better tracking of coastal areas. In Nigeria and Djibouti, the U.S. Navy has funded new multimillion-dollar radar systems that use “an automatic identification system and ground-based radar and sensors to enhance awareness of maritime traffic.”7
military donates ships to partner nations and provides training in everything from boarding techniques to “small boat maintenance.” And that’s not all. The military also supports counterpiracy strategic communication programs on Somali radio stations and develops training manuals to help local law enforcement officials conduct counterpiracy investigations.8
The effectiveness of these efforts is difficult to judge. On the one hand, piracy off the Somali Coast has dropped sharply in the last couple of years, and it seems reasonable to attribute the decline to stepped-up multinational counterpiracy programs, with the United States playing a leading role. On the other hand, piracy is up sharply on the other side of the African continent, where attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Guinea have become both more frequent and more lethal.9
It’s hard to determine causation: Is Somali piracy down because of U.S. military activity, or because of slightly improved stability and economic opportunities in Somalia? And if Somalia is more stable today, is that because of U.S. assistance, or internal factors unrelated to the United States?
Some analysts also question whether the decline in Somali piracy will be enduring,10
noting that although there have been fewer attacks overall, those that have occurred have been more sophisticated and successful. It may be, they argue, that improved counterpiracy methods just motivate pirates to develop more sophisticated piracy methods. Brandon Prins, a professor at the University of Tennessee who has studied piracy for the Office of Naval Research, isn’t optimistic about the long-term prospects: “As long as abundant targets sail in waters bordered by weak states full of jobless people, piracy will continue.”11
That is: as long as there are hungry young men like Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, piracy will continue.
Adding to the difficulty is uncertainty about costs. Much of the military training and equipment the United States provides for counterpiracy purposes serves other purposes as well, and is divided under multiple budget lines. In fiscal year 2009, for instance, U.S. Central Command spent an estimated $64 million on counterpiracy, including Navy ship steaming days and air support for ships. In calendar year 2011, the Defense Department estimated that it spent $274.5 million on
antipiracy programs; in 2013, that dropped to $69.4 million. It is hard to know what is included (and what is not included) in these figures, however, and in a 2014 report, the Government Accountability Office noted that “U.S. agencies have not systematically assessed the costs and benefits of their counterpiracy efforts.”12
Needless to say, military counterpiracy efforts also carry opportunity costs: each Navy ship or plane patrolling the Gulf of Aden or the Gulf of Guinea is a ship or plane that’s unavailable for other operations, and every dollar spent on counterpiracy is a dollar that can’t be spent on other threats.
“Peace Thro’ the Medium of War”
In some ways, U.S. counterpiracy operations represent the new face of American warfare—and such operations wouldn’t look very familiar to those steeped in World War II movies, grown accustomed to thinking of war as battles between tanks, submarines, or fighter planes.
But in other ways, military counterpiracy operations are nothing new at all. Indeed, as I suggested in the portion of Michèle Flournoy’s draft testimony that she very sensibly cut, piracy is one of America’s oldest military problems.
Go back in time to the days of the early American republic. The rebellious colonists had successfully cast off the British yoke—largely by doing what the weak have always done, and employing unconventional methods of asymmetric warfare against Europe’s most powerful military. Flush with victory, the scrappy American rebels soon found—like so many insurgents before and after—that it’s one thing to rebel, and another thing to run a nation. Before the American Revolution, British naval power had protected the thirteen colonies’ shipping from predation by the state-sponsored pirates of Africa’s Barbary Coast, and French assistance did the same during the Revolutionary War. After the war, the young nation found itself on its own. Without a real Navy (Congress sold off the last American warship from the Revolutionary War in 1785), America’s merchant ships were easy prey for the Barbary pirates.
At first, America came to the same conclusion many shipping companies still come to today: Why fight when you can just pay the pirates to leave you alone? Fighting the pirates—a frighteningly efficient lot, backed by the leaders of Tripoli, Morocco, Tunis, and Algiers—might seem more “manly,” noted John Adams, who had been appointed by Congress to negotiate with the Barbary States in 1784, but those who favored military action had “more spirit than prudence.” War, Adams believed, would be far costlier than simply paying tribute to the Barbary States in exchange for safe passage for American shipping: it would not be “good economy” to spend “a million annually” on naval warfare “to save one gift of two hundred thousand pounds.”13
But the tab grew and grew. In 1784, Moroccan corsairs captured the U.S. brigantine Betsey; Congress authorized the payment of $80,000 for the release of the Betsey and its nine-member crew. A few weeks later, Algerian pirates seized the Cádiz-bound schooner Maria and the Philadelphia-bound Dauphin.14
More tribute was paid, though congressional unwillingness to authorize a sum beyond $40,000 meant that the twenty-one crew members of the Maria and Dauphin languished in captivity for years.
As more ships were seized, Thomas Jefferson, who had been appointed along with Adams and Ben Franklin to seek diplomatic solutions, grew impatient: ransom and tribute payments, he declared, constituted “money thrown away,” for “there is no end to the demand of these powers, nor any security in their promises.”15
America should always prefer peace to war, concluded Jefferson—but when it came to the Barbary States, “it would be best to effect a peace thro’ the medium of war.”16
By 1794, Congress was beginning to agree. The Naval Act of 1794 created a standing Navy and provided funds for the construction of six ships, and in 1801, when Jefferson took office as president, he sent four of these new ships to the Barbary Coast under the command of Commodore Richard Dale. (Setting what would also become a precedent, Jefferson didn’t take the trouble to request congressional authorization before sending Commodore Dale out to make war.) Dale’s instructions were simple: he was to protect U.S. ships in the region through any
means necessary. As for the Barbary pirates, Dale was instructed to “chastise their insolence . . . by sinking, burning, or destroying their ships and vessels wherever you shall find them.”17
It worked, more or less. Surprised by America’s new naval ferocity, several of the Barbary States quickly agreed to waive further tribute requirements. By 1805, only Tripoli still held out. When a U.S.-led land force consisting of eight U.S. Marines and several hundred mercenaries successfully occupied the city of Derna, however, the ruler of Tripoli agreed to end the war and return the remaining captured American sailors, in exchange for a onetime ransom payment.
This didn’t entirely end the era of the Barbary pirates, who resumed their attacks on U.S. shipping during the War of 1812 while the Navy was once more engaged in fighting the British. In 1815, however, the United States launched another successful offensive against the Barbary States. This time, the pirates were vanquished—until piracy off the coast of Africa accelerated again in the twenty-first century.
Piracy had never fully disappeared from the world’s shipping channels, of course, and the Navy has fought pirates from the Caribbean to the South China Sea over the last two centuries. The nature of piracy has changed significantly since America’s first foreign military adventure, however.
Fearsome as the Barbary pirates were, they operated largely under the control of the Barbary States, making diplomacy a viable adjunct or alternative to war. State-sponsored piracy was common until the mid-nineteenth century, and the major European powers all made extensive use of privateers. The young United States embraced the practice as well: the Constitution gave Congress the power to grant “letters of marque and reprisal,” and Congress did so liberally during the War of 1812. Piracy was part and parcel of state-on-state conflicts until 1856, when the major powers signed the Paris Declaration to end privateering.
Today, piracy is prohibited under international law, and state-sponsored piracy is rare. Modern piracy is engaged in largely by nonstate actors, from sophisticated international criminal networks operating off the coast of Malaysia to opportunistic teens and fishermen
operating off the coast of Somalia.18
This creates new challenges: states can use diplomacy to negotiate with other states, but it’s far more difficult to negotiate with scores of individual pirates united by nothing more than a desire for money.
Technology too has proven to be a double-edged sword. Automated modern ships can operate with minimal crews—even vast oil tankers capable of holding two million barrels of oil can operate with a crew of twenty—but this makes them sitting ducks for small groups of pirates with guns and explosives. What’s more, the same tracking and communications technologies governments and shipping companies use to monitor the safety of maritime traffic can be used by pirates to locate targets. For the U.S. military, the implications are clear: counterpiracy operations are probably here to stay.
As they say in the Pentagon, “Argghhh!”