The excitement at sea this past week is shaping up to be a regular case study in decision making. For those reading this in 2053 or from outer space, I’m referring to the wildly popular, at least in the US, rescue of Captain Phillips by various elements of the US Navy, including Navy SEAL sharpshooters.
The players in the drama shape up like this.
The Pirates: This started out as a bunch of fisherman turned vigilante. Half the world’s fishing fleets have been vacuuming up the catch from within site of the coastline of the tribal fiefdoms formerly known as Somalia. The locals got pissed off and began rousting the small fry. It turned out to be a surprisingly easy game. It didn’t take long before it turned into a regular enterprise with an $80 million annual gross, board meetings, spokesperson, hangers on, plunder, bribes, and everything else that goes with what for Somalia is their first multi-national business. Key decision criteria: It’s all about the money.
The War Lords. It’s all about the money. Next.
The Shipping Companies. I only know what I read, but the party line is that:
- It’s easier and cheaper to pay the ransom.
- They don’t want to incur the “liability” costs of arming their crews. Instead, they apparently do pay for “rapid response” units to come to the rescue.
- They don’t want to interrupt global commerce, which I gather is code for not wanting to hang around waiting to convoy up with other ships under the protection of a war ship.
Keep in mind that figuring out what really goes on with shipping, shipping companies, flags of convenience, and all the rest is nearly impossible and has been since it became possible to push a boat out of site of land. I figure everything they say is a ruse to hide something else.
Key decision criteria: It’s all about the money.
The Real Bad Guys. There isn’t any evidence that Al Queda is in on the fun. but given all the visibility this has gotten, that seems like a foregone conclusion. Key decision criteria: It’s all about the attention.
The French. They’ve been beating the crap out of the Pirates at least since mid last year. We hear about some of it, but I’m betting there’s more going on than we hear. [This just in, the French have just attacked one of the Pirate “mother ships” and grabbed 11 of their guys. ] Key decision criteria: The French get pissed off about the oddest things.
The Obamas. They’re dealing with a bad hand to begin with. They’re watching Pakistan come apart because a couple of thousand people, tops, have exposed the government as weak, corrupt, and ineffective. The piracy game has moved out of the pre season and into the big time. We’ve seen this movie before. Key decision criteria: Changing the rules of the game while it is still possible.
We The People. Let’s face it, the Piracy beat is fresh meat for a populace worn out by Wall Street and the miserable state of the economy. It’s a great diversion to read about Pirates, Navy SEALs, and heroism at sea. Key decision criteria: A good story.
Which brings us to The Bed Wetters. The chattering class is in full throat about the dangers of escalation, how the root causes of this go back to Adam and Eve, how there isn’t a purely military solution to this, why Obama was wrong not to get a Rescue Dog, and all the rest. Key decision criteria. Something to talk about.
I have already tipped my hand on where I am with this.
The shipping companies have played out a text book case study of the tragedy of the commons. By optimising for their own perceived self interests, they have collectively contributed to the creation of a rogue navy, however shabby and poorly equipped, that is now doing the thing nobody wants, which is to endanger shipping in the most crtical shipping lane in the world (a significant part of our fleet and Navy budget is allocated to keeping very big ships right there). Worse, it hass become a fist class advertisement for the next great terrorist playground. What did they think was going to happen?
I have read and listened to a lot of “experts” on the subject, and the firest and easiest thing to do is to make the ships harder to board and take. Apparently our Navy has been hectoring the shipping companies for some time on this subject. It doesn’t sound like they have had much success in that area thus far.
Assume for a second that Al Queda or the like isn’t behind this, its objective has already been accomplished: Drawing the US into yet another assymetrical conflict. While the nation held its breath over the fate of Captain Phillips, the US Navy spent a serious chunk of change to bring him home alive. The cost to the other side? This will sound callous, but the death of three men who wouldn’t have lived another five years as it was.
Candidly I don’t see that the US has a choice but to be involved at this point (as we have been, we just don’t read about it). Another example of private actors running for protection to the public arms, the same public that they have avoided paying taxes to and following regulations of. The obvious question is how. As the French are demonstrating right now, attacking the Pirates at sea is a big game changer.
Students of history, and there are a few left out there, recall how this played out last time. If there was something worth blowing up, it would have taken several seconds for the Navy to oblidge. My guess is that the Obamas are going to try some other moves for now, and yes, the men who do their best work at night will be part of the mix.
Tags: Pirates, Somalia, Tragedy of the Commons, Navy SEALs, Barbary wars