Monday, April 13, 2009

US Navy To The Rescue

When you are a history buff like me, you see parallels to the past to the past in current events. Everything that's happened has happened before.

So I marvel at, but am not surprised by, the rescue of American merchant captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates by the United States Navy.

Fighting pirates was one of the original tasks of the U.S. Navy when it was established in 1798.

What struck the buff in me is that the USS Bainbridge (DDG-96) was the nexus of the Navy's effort to confront the pirates. The Bainbridge is the fifth naval vessel named for Commodore William Bainbridge, USN, whose legacy as one of the fathers of the U.S. Navy rests on his confrontation with pirates and other accomplishments.

Bainbridge's 1800-'01 experience against the Barbary Coast pirates included the payment of bribes, under orders, to the Dey of Algiers. His stay would lead to serving as de facto ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople, now Istanbul.

Bainbridge's success with the Sultan led to his return to Algiers with orders from the Sultan for the release of 400 prisoners captured by the pirates.

In 1803, while commanding the 44 gun frigate Philadelphia, Bainbridge ran the vessel aground and was captured by the Tripoli pirates. The Navy, in an action led by Lieut. Stephen Decatur and a contingent of US Marines, was obliged to burn the vessel rather than see it fall in the hands of Tripoli.

Bainbridge and his men were held captive for 19 months. He was acquitted by a Court of Inquiry for the action that led to the loss of the Philadelphia. As with most captains who run their ships aground, Bainbridge was assigned to shore duty at the New York navy yard.

Professor of history Thomas Jewett would call Bainbridge America's Unlucky Sea Captain.

History wasn't done with Bainbridge. With the declaration of war against Britain in 1812, Bainbridge was given command of a naval flotilla consisting of the frigates USS Constitution, under his personal command, USS Essex, under Capt. David Porter and the sloop Hornet, under Capt. James Lawrence.

Bainbridge would face and defeat the 49 gun British frigate Java in December 1812. His squadron achieved such extraordinary accomplishment so that Constitution, Essex, Hornet, and Bainbridge, remain valorous names in American naval lore. All but Constitution, have been the names of several U.S. naval vessels.

In 1815, Bainbridge commanded a powerful squadron in a show of force off Tripoli where the rulers again resorted to piratical acts against American merchantmen in the Mediterranean.
His namesake vessel seems to have come full circle with its role in the Somali adventure.

History teaches several lessons.

Payment of bribes to pirates is ultimately self-defeating. Modern day shipping companies and their insurers have resorted to paying ransom to Somali pirates for captured merchant ships and crew.

Even when the payments are are a mere percentage of cargo value, rewarding lawlessness only begets more lawlessness. It's simple human nature.

Somalia is a backward, largely ungoverned, land whose citizens have an unclear understanding of the value of the cargo contained on the ships they capture. But they are learning fast that shippers will pay much more than they've been asking to get cargo and crew back.

Both the number of incidents and the extortion demands are rising.

The feel good story of Capt. Phillip's rescue gives the immediate satisfaction of "don't mess with the U.S." It's as likely to drive the Somalians to shoot first next time, or worse, to tie themselves to bin Laden.

As was William Bainbridge's experience, military and naval power is insufficient without an equal diplomatic component.

There is no pan-Muslim Sultanate to negotiate with as Bainbridge did. That's fortunate. An anti-Western Caliphate is exactly what Osama bin Laden would like to re-establish. We don't want to negotiate with him.

The world won't solve the problem of Somali pirates until it solves the problem of Somalia. An Iraq style regime change is not the best course of action. The solution lays in a better way than piracy for the Somali to make a better living.

There are sure to be setbacks in this campaign. Occasional failure no predictor of an ultimate defeat.

William Bainbridge could tell you that.
Photo Credits.
1. USS Bainbridge by MCPL Kevin Paul, The Maple Leaf, from here.
2. Com. William Bainbridge, USN,
3. “Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804.” Oil on canvas by Edward Moran (1829-1901).

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