Obama navigates Somalia’s troubled waters

By Eurasia Group analyst Philippe de Pontet Last week’s standoff between a handful of pirates and the U.S. Fifth Fleet had threatened to become a full-blown foreign-policy crisis before the dramatic rescue of Captain Richard Phillips gave President Obama a clear political win. Pirates are now less likely to target U.S. ships, but the White ...

By , the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
586733_090415_boatB2.jpg
586733_090415_boatB2.jpg


By Eurasia Group analyst Philippe de Pontet

Last week's standoff between a handful of pirates and the U.S. Fifth Fleet had threatened to become a full-blown foreign-policy crisis before the dramatic rescue of Captain Richard Phillips gave President Obama a clear political win. Pirates are now less likely to target U.S. ships, but the White House is well aware that this episode won't do much to deter piracy elsewhere in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.


By Eurasia Group analyst Philippe de Pontet

Last week’s standoff between a handful of pirates and the U.S. Fifth Fleet had threatened to become a full-blown foreign-policy crisis before the dramatic rescue of Captain Richard Phillips gave President Obama a clear political win. Pirates are now less likely to target U.S. ships, but the White House is well aware that this episode won’t do much to deter piracy elsewhere in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.

Just hours after Phillips’s rescue, Somalia made headlines again. On Monday, Islamist insurgents in Mogadishu launched a mortar attack on a plane carrying Congressman Donald Payne (D-NJ), underscoring the multifaceted threats posed by state failure in that country. Piracy is one symptom of the problem; Islamic extremism is another. The attack by al-Shabaab fighters within 24 hours of the end of the piracy incident ensures that Somalia will remain on the Obama administration’s front-burner — and that the White House will face growing pressure to “get tough” on militants and pirates who use the failed state as a safe haven.

So, flush with its success and aware that the larger problem has not been solved, will the Obama administration up the ante by targeting pirates onshore in Somalia?

Probably not. It will likely focus instead on near-term efforts to bolster multilateral naval patrols (with more aggressive tactics) in the waters where pirates have attacked in the recent past, because the probable costs of onshore strikes would outweigh the likely benefits.

First, a direct, onshore U.S. strike on pirates would have only a limited impact on the broader piracy problem. Second, it could undermine efforts to contain Islamist militants by inviting them to tap into wounded Somali national pride, one of a very few forces that can unite divided clans. (Somali nationalism provided the Islamist movement with early legitimacy in the struggle to expel U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops from the country.) Third, it would weaken transitional President (and moderate Islamist) Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a potential force for stability in a country that badly needs it.

African and Gulf governments and U.S. counter-terrorism officials are well aware that strikes could drive extremism in the region and help militants recruit local youth. But there’s another risk: Pirates in Puntland, a region in Somalia’s northeast where most of the pirates are based, have already threatened to kill some of the 270 hostages they now hold-hostages from countries all over the world, some of them key U.S. allies.

Targeted attacks remain under consideration. The UN Security Council approved a resolution late last year that would allow targeted military action against pirates on Somali territory. But for now, the Obama administration will likely opt for a lower-risk approach that keeps the focus offshore, while reviewing policy options and deepening intelligence on Somalia.

The pirates have now attacked enough private and commercial vessels to create a sense of vulnerability and frustration within many governments around the world. Washington will try to use this opportunity to ramp up multilateral patrolling operations in the Gulf of Aden, while giving U.S. warships greater latitude to launch offensive action against pirates at sea-including on identified “mother ships.”

This policy carries risks of its own, including the creeping militarization of the Gulf of Aden and the waters of the Indian Ocean further from Somalia’s shores. But this option will offer both security and political benefits while limiting the risk that another U.S. administration hits the rocks that lie just beneath Somalia’s troubled waters. 

STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images 

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer

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