Guest Post: An Anti-Piracy Mission Transforms From Interdiction to Strategic Communication

By Chris Tomlinson

Imagine the scene: a U.S. Navy destroyer shadowing a tiny lifeboat carrying four Somali pirates with a U.S. hostage in an Indian Ocean standoff. Most Americans see the USS Bainbridge as the cavalry riding to the rescue. But not everyone will see it that way. The poor and oppressed living in the developing world might see something akin to the lone Chinese civilian standing in front of a Red Army tank trying to reach Tiananmen Square. Where we see a cop stopping a robber, others will see Robin Hood cornered by the sheriff of Nottingham.

Now that the pirates have gotten the attention of the world, a low-profile mission to interdict criminals in the Indian Ocean now is a major strategic communication. Does the Pentagon and the State Deptartment understand that?

As a former foreign correspondent based in Nairobi, I reported on the first pirate attacks back in 2004. I spent 11 years living and working in the poorest countries in the world, including Somalia. I know how these kinds of stories are perceived and relayed in the local media. I have also spent time with the naval officers now involved in trying to deter piracy where the Red Sea opens into the Gulf of Aden. I know that their mission, until now, has been to deter piracy, not end it. No one in the U.S. military wants to try to go ashore and put a permanent end to the problem; the mission is just too risky.

But now there is a new risk. How this standoff ends will communicate important messages about the potency of U.S. military power, the fairness of U.S. foreign policy and what criminal gangs can hope to accomplish at sea.

Of course there are many audiences watching these events, each creating a narrative. Western audiences perceive brutal thugs from a lawless country terrorizing international shipping lanes and extorting huge ransoms. The poor and oppressed see young men – living in desperation because of international neglect - who are forced out to sea in order to provide for their families. Of course, there is some truth to both narratives, but that really isn’t the point. The Navy must recognize that both audiences are out there, both are important and both will learn lessons from what comes next.

Many in America are probably asking: Why do we have a Navy at all, if its most basic mission isn’t to stop piracy? The Somali pirates have operated with near impunity for years without being shut down. If the Navy can’t shut down these organized criminals, then the U.S. military will appear very weak to their core constituents.

In the Horn of Africa, no one is more popular than an underdog. Thousands of children are named Fidel, Mugabe and Khadafy every year, not because those leaders are paragons of virtue, but because they are willing to stand up to the big rich boys. Africans in particular admire the Somalis because they don’t bow to anyone. Just as Americans romanticize Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, most of the world’s poor are likely cheering for the Somali pirates to get away. This audience is important to the United States because the Horn of Africa is one of the most unstable regions in the world and the place where al-Qaida is trying to get a foothold. The United States needs these people on its side.

So what will the Navy’s actions communicate to the world? Will the scrappy Somalis outwit the American war machine and slip away? Will the Navy crush the pirates and appear heavy-handed and inured to the horrible conditions ashore that gave birth to the pirates?

A third audience is those will try to replicate the Somali success story. There are millions of poor, disaffected people living on coast lines around the world. Some will try to start their own pirate franchise. Rebel groups will now consider piracy a potential sideline because the Somalis have proven how easy it is to outsmart NATO. Nigerian militants, Colombian revolutionaries, Guinean crime syndicates could all potentially start their own pirate operations.

So what does America have to say about the piracy problem?

I can tell you that the public affairs operation at 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain has shut down on this topic. I’m still on the PAO’s media e-mail distribution and they have not issued a single press release since the hijacking took place. Shouldn’t the Navy be explaining what they are doing, particularly to the audience in the Horn of Africa? Where is the AFRICOM communication effort? At CENTCOM Petraeus has announced that he is sending more forces to the Horn. The message: “You messed with the wrong ship. America will use force to protect its own. No one else matters.” Doesn’t the United States want to communicate a better message than that?

There are military officers who hope the pirates will surrender, a Kenyan court will prosecute them and the whole problem will just fade away. But as I watch the world’s media, it’s clear that this story has captured the imagination of the world, and as a result the world is watching. The Pentagon’s strategic communication has been anemic and the State Deptartment is virtually silent. What will the world’s take-away be when this is over?

Chris Tomlinson is a freelance writer. He covered the Horn of Africa for The Associated Press from 2000-2007.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and published here to further the discourse on America's global engagement and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.