Huffington Post, April 9, 2009

It is the often the nature of a national security challenge that a government does not have the luxury to prepare specifically for the event that causes the crisis to escalate. But the hostage drama in the Horn of Africa was particularly jarring, coming as it did on the heels of President Obama’s breathtaking charm offensive through Europe, Turkey and Iraq. The president was barely airborne, heading home in time for Easter, when Africa managed to stealth its way to the top of the national security agenda. And yet, while he was gone, General Scott Gration visited Darfur to report the absolutely grim truth about Sudan’s deteriorating humanitarian situation. A recruitment tape from the Somali extremist group Al-Shabab surfaced this week starring a blue-eyed American jihadist, Abu-Mansur al-Amriki, calling on mothers to send their boys to fight Muslim holy war. Also in the last week, were six armed attacks by pirates whose workplace is the million square miles of open sea beyond the Horn of Africa. Problems in Africa were on a slow simmer this week when finally, they boiled over on the Maersk Alabama.

 

There is much still to be learned about the taking of the American ship. But it was likely just a matter of time before our number came up in the Indian Ocean’s vast shipping lanes. and in Africa. And perhaps inevitable that the “scourge” of piracy would become more so as it became America’s problem, too. It is Captain Phillips’ misfortune that it came on his able watch. It is also more terrible luck for the millions of recipients of urgent food aid, for whom the cargo of the Alabama was headed. More hunger, more hopelessness and very likely, more piracy. What else is there for them?

 

This crisis off Somalia will further test new paradigms in diplomacy and international relations. Like terrorists, the pirates are non-state actors, free agents with their own — probably not political — agenda. Whom are the FBI interlocutors negotiating with? Do we drop a sack of money on the lifeboat, and hope that Capt. Phillips is returned unharmed, while a couple of pirates return happy and rich to shore or their mother ship and prepare to strike again somewhere else — tomorrow? What kind of leverage and guarantees do we have in such negotiations? There is no government in Somalia to speak of, and the pirates are self-governing anyway. It is dramatic, challenging – a surprising and odd place for a test of America’s strength in the post-Bush world. President Obama wisely kept the details — if not yet worked out, certainly ongoing — from the questioning media. If there is a plan in place, it is likely to change — these negotiations will not be traditional or predictable.

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