Emotional Rescue: Praise for Sea Victory Could Presage Carnage
April 14, 2009
Everyone is glad that Captain Richard Phillips emerged unscathed from his capture by the Somali pirates who seized his ship on its way to bring food aid to Kenya. But the nature of his rescue -- still shrouded in ambiguity -- is a troubling portent. And its potential aftermath could be catastrophic indeed.
It is of course a harrowing business to be captured and held at gunpoint, and Phillips is to be lauded for his selfless courage in offering himself as a hostage in place of his crew. But despite the manifest difficulty and criminality of the situation, it is unlikely that his life was in imminent danger. Since the upsurge of piracy off the Somali coast began, there have been almost no fatalities in the raids, and so far every hostage taken by the pirates has been released unharmed.
What's more, as McClatchy reports, the pirates who had taken Phillips were apparently out of ammunition and adrift in shark-infested waters by the time U.S. Navy ships caught up with them. They offered to give Phillips back to the Americans in exchange for their own freedom -- but were shot dead instead. Navy sharpshooters said they killed the three Somali men when one of them pointed a gun at Phillips' back -- apparently in the belief that the pirates were about to kill the captain. This seems at bit strange, to say the least; if the pirates were negotiating with the Americans, it seems odd that they would suddenly shoot their only bargaining chip while they were in the crosshairs of two massive Navy warships and a squad of snipers. It also seems unlikely that they had not had a gun -- an empty gun, as it turns out -- pointed at their captive throughout the standoff.
Of course, it was a dicey situation all around, and no one who wasn't there can know exactly what happened. McClatchy pieces together the various claims and fragments of information available:
The SEALs felt Phillips's life was in "imminent danger," Gortney said. The White House said that President Barack Obama had given the Pentagon a standing order to use force if necessary to save Phillips's life.
The sharpshooters "took it that the pirate was ready to use that weapon" and opened fire within seconds, Gortney said in a telephone briefing from Bahrain, headquarters of the Fifth Fleet.
President Obama was told that Phillips had been rescued 11 minutes after the shots were fired, according to Pentagon and White House chronologies of events....
According to Somalis with knowledge of the discussions, the pirates, who at one time had demanded $2 million for Phillips's release, had grown desperate with their situation — adrift under a searing sun in waters infested with sharks, staring at two massive Navy ships armed with guided missiles, running low on fuel and having spent their ammunition.
A relative of one of the pirates, who said he spoke with the men by satellite phone at about 3 p.m. — four hours before the Navy opened fire — said they "were getting scared" and trying to persuade the Americans to let them go in return for the captain's release.
"They were trying to save their own lives," said the relative, Hassan Mohammed Farah, speaking by phone from Haradheere, a coastal town in central Somalia where pirates are known to operate. "The only thing they could bargain with was the captain, but the Americans would not accept."
And so the incident ended as it was surely destined to. The moment I heard that an American ship had been raided by Somali pirates, I knew that someone would have to die for it; nowadays, American leaders -- and broad swathes of the public -- demand blood for the slightest perceived outrage against the nation's dignity. And once a hostage was taken -- by a bunch of rag-tag, Muslim darkies, no less -- a fatal ending was assured.
Barack Obama, who had given the shoot-to-kill order (if necessary, of course, only if necessary; American operatives have never fired a shot in anger anywhere in the world unless it was absolutely necessary), was keen to stand tall in what the commentariat had dubbed a major test of his commander-in-chief mettle. Thus the C-in-C was duly informed of his triumph while the oozing blood of the dead was still warm.
And a triumph it was. Quickly, the White House released details of Obama's omniscient control of the situation -- and was duly rewarded with rapturous PR, especially from his liberal "base," happy to see the hardnosed, blood-drawing president slap down the rightwing critics who forever castigate him for being "soft." Dennis Perrin reports on some prime examples of this he-man hero-worship at Huffington Post. And Juan Cole -- whose insights into the realities of the Middle East have been invaluable, but who now seems to be channeling Arthur "Camelot" Schlesinger at his mythologizing worst -- showers embarrassing accolades on "the deft young president."
Cole approvingly notes that Obama was quietly "making preparations to whack someone" even while Rush Limbaugh and other rightwing blowhards were slamming the Deft One for his presumed inaction. Obama "took the heat, but he took it like a man," while carrying on with "17 separate briefings" on the crisis. Cole then spends an inordinate amount of time castigating the witless blather of Limbaugh and the blowhardniks, before ending in a paroxysm of praise for the cool, competent, deft young leader:
Reminds me of the Carly Simon Bond theme, "Nobody does it better/ Makes me feel sad for the rest."
As we noted here the other day, the most shameless Bush-worshippers of yore would be hard-pressed to match Obama's dazzled acolytes in their gushing, emotional tributes to the Commander.
But the blogosphere reaction is just a bemusing sidelight. Far more serious are the potential ramifications of the incident, and the policies it could be used to justify.
It almost certainly makes a direct American military strike on Somalia much more likely. This of course would be nothing new; as we noted here time and again (to almost no effect or resonance anywhere), the United States was directly involved in the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia in late 2006: a murderous "regime change" operation by forces funded, armed and trained by the United States. The invasion and occupation, which ended in January 2009, killed thousands of Somalis, ruined and dispossessed hundreds of thousands of others, and plunged the already broken country even deeper into chaos, civil war and ruin. American forces bombed fleeing refugees, launched missile strikes into villages, captured refugees and "renditioned" them to Ethiopia's notorious torture chambers, and, perhaps most chillingly, sent in death squads to "clean up" after missile attacks.
The savage Ethiopian-American invasion was "justified" under the usual rubric of "fighting terrorism." It was ostensibly intended to oust a broad coalition of Islamic groups which had given Somalia its first semblance of stability in many years. The results of this "counter-terrorism" operation were entirely predictable: it weakened or destroyed moderate forces, while radicalizing many Somalis and empowering the most extreme and violent groups, led by the al-Shabab faction. In the end, the Terror Warriors had to admit defeat; the hand-picked, American-backed interim government, which included former warlords in the pay of the CIA, collapsed -- and the leader of the ousted Islamic coalition government became the new president, with the West's reluctant blessing. The entire war had been for naught.
But as noted, the more extreme elements of the former coalition were greatly empowered by the invasion and subsequent chaos, while the new government is compromised by its association with and dependence upon the West. So savage internal conflict still rages in Somalia, despite the withdrawal of the Ethiopians -- who still linger ominously across the border. Chaos reigns, lawlessness is rampant, criminal gangs and sectarian militias clash, combine, fall out, and oppress the population. Western corporate interests have destroyed one of the very few viable enterprises in Somalia: the fishing industry. As Katie Stuhldreher noted in the Christian Science Monitor last year (via Antiwar.com):
The problem of piracy in Somalia originated about a decade ago because of disgruntled fishermen. The headless state had no authority to patrol its tuna-rich coastal waters and foreign commercial vessels swooped in to cast their nets. This proved a slap in the face for Somalis, who saw these vessels as illegal and raking in profits at the expense of the local impoverished population. To make matters worse, there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali waters.
That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of AK-47s.
Needless to say, the accelerated death and ruin following the "regime change" operation has only driven more men into piracy, and made more communities dependent on the practice for their survival.
This then is the present context for all the talk about renewed American attacks on Somalia. The capture of Captain Phillips has highlighted previous plans and calls to root out the pirates with military strikes on their bases. As we noted here last year, the UN Security Council, following America's lead, has already voted to turn Somalia into a global free-fire zone, giving other nations carte blanche "to conduct military raids, on land and by air, against pirates plying the waters off the Somalia coast," as the Washington Post reported. All they need is permission from the Somali government -- which, as we noted, is dependent on Western nations for its survival.
Meanwhile, as the Washington Post reported earlier this month, the Obama Administration is considering plans to strike at the al-Shabab insurgent group in Somalia, which Washington has long claimed has vague "ties" to al Qaeda. Indeed, it was these same nebulous connections -- literally involving a handful of people -- that the Bush administration cited as its reason for supporting the overthrow of the Somali government in 2006. Now powerful voices in the Obama administration are urging the deft young president to extend his wide-ranging "continuity" with Bush's Terror War policies to Somalia.
In any case, the current chaos -- and the new pressures that will inevitably be brought to bear on the pirates after their yanking of Uncle Sam's beard -- will doubtless see the further meshing of interests between at least some of the pirate groups and the extremists. Already, al-Shabab is proclaiming its solidarity with the pirates, lauding the mercantile group as fellow "holy warriors," as Garowe Online reports. This public linkage will only make it easier for American militarists to urge attacks on Somalia; surely it won't be long until we see officials trotting out the formula "Piracy=Terrorism."
If so, it will be self-fulfilling prophecy. For if they come after the pirates with all guns blazing, with ground assaults and air attacks, the pirates will turn to the Islamist insurgents for muscle. The Islamists will then draw on pirate money to fund their own operations. The pirates will become more and more radicalized -- as will the surrounding population hit by the strikes, thus strengthening the radical Islamists.
Meanwhile, Western corporations will continue their destruction of the Somali fishing industry, driving even more people into piracy, or into the hands of the radical Islamists. All of this increased violence will draw an ever more violent response from the United States: more attacks, more bombs, more shootings -- which will, in turn, lead to more radicalization, more hatred, more violence. A self-perpetuating dynamic will be established. The end result -- or rather, the never-ending result -- will be what it has always been for decades: more death, suffering, chaos and poverty for the Somali people.
As I noted last year:
But let us not succumb to American exceptionalism in this case. The UN Security Council resolution is a virulent product of a global militarism, the universal warlordism that finds expression sometimes in ragged bands of fighters in desert, mountain or jungle enclaves – and sometimes in the clean and carpeted halls of vast nation-states and international institutions. With this resolution, the entire world – the entire world – has turned its back on the people of Somalia. They have been abandoned as utterly, completely – and officially -- as any people in history. At least there was some opposition in the Security Council to the American rape of Iraq; but this declaration of open season on Somalia – this universal license to kill Somalis, granted to every government on earth – passed unanimously. Without demur, without protest, with no objection.
Are there pirates in Somalia? Yes. Have they hindered some commercial operations? Yes. Are there criminal organizations in the United States, in Europe, in Russia, in China, in the Middle East? Yes. Do they hinder some commercial operations? Yes. (And far more violently and extensively than the Somali pirates, we might add.) But only the Somali people are subjected to the murderous strictures of the UN's draconian edict. Only the Somali people are being condemned to die – by the United Nations – for the actions of criminals within their borders.