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Pirate Parallels

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News flash: Cocky Muslim pirates prey on merchantmen from small boats and ships. Crews and cargoes are held for ransom. Powerful warships are ill-suited to intercept elusive raiders. A shore sanctuary for piracy is frustratingly immune.

No, this news isn't just about 21st Century Somalia. The same scenario was Barbary piracy at the dawn of the 19th Century, and fighting it marked the coming of age of the American navy.

"There's nothing new under the sun," Ecclesiastes observes, and the proverb certainly applies to Somalia. Just as Napoleon Bonaparte's 1798 invasion of Egypt experienced many of the military and political problems that would plague America's invasion of Iraq, Somali piracy is an echo of the irritation that in 1805 drew American Marines "To the shores of Tripoli."

If we don't want to repeat history, we could learn from it.

Piracy thrived in the Mediterranean in 1802 because tolerating thievery was cheaper than fighting it. The powerful French, British and Spanish fleets fought back just enough to win immunity (sometimes by paying tribute as well) for their own merchant vessels. The vessels of weaker nations had no protection. This gave the flag vessels of the great powers a competitive advantage.

Like Somali pirates, the Barbary pirates did not sail forth in search of galleon treasure. They were more interested in capturing people than loot, because people could be enslaved or ransomed for what the Muslims really wanted: money, food, and ordnance. The Barbary States filled outrageous shopping lists, such as cannon to protect their harbors from the very people they were extorting.

In 1802, tribute was far cheaper than naval expeditions. Merchant captains learned surrender meant the possibility of ransom, while resistance meant death.

Somali pirates likewise have found ransoming sailors to be as lucrative and compelling as ransoming captured ships. By the end of 2009, 12 ships and 263 crewmembers were being held hostage, and those ransomed had paid for homes, hotels and businesses through million-dollar payouts, according to the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Center.

In other words, simple surrender has historically made things worse.

All successful pirates need a secure land base. In the Caribbean it was the island of Tortuga and the English colony of Jamaica, from which pirates like Henry Morgan could sally forth to sack the Spaniards.

In North Africa, port cities such as Tripoli and Algiers bristled with artillery. The larger Western ships drew so much water that they were in danger from fringing reefs. While America pledged "millions for defense but not one cent for tribute," its frigate Philadelphia went aground off Tripoli and had to be burned.

Somalia depends on its reputation as a failed state and the memory of the butchered Americans of "Black Hawk Down" to dissuade far more powerful nations from trying to engage pirates ashore. Meanwhile, Somalia's own patrolling navy consists of five small boats manned by sailors outgunned by the pirates.

Controlling the land is hard. When European powers seized parts of Africa to fight the Barbary pirates, they found the task wearying. Portugal controlled Tangiers for two centuries but never profited, gratefully giving it to England as part of a princess dowry. England, harassed by the Muslims, tired of ownership in a generation. It was cheaper to pay the sea-going Muslim mafia off, just as shipping companies are doing in Somalia today.

The United States was a special case. In 1784, American ships lost the protection of the British navy because of independence and the Barbary pirates were emboldened by the Algerian repulse of a Franco-Spanish fleet. Piracy worsened, American ships were seized, and in 1795 the United States agreed to a humiliating $600,000 tribute to Algiers. Tunis and Tripoli soon demanded similar extortions, and Thomas Jefferson won election in 1800 in part by promising to fight instead.

The result was a seesaw war with an ambiguous "victory" over Tripoli purchased for a ransom of $60,000. That didn't end the piracy, however, and the American navy launched another punitive attack against Algiers in 1815. Britain did the same in 1816. Only the colonization of North Africa that France began in 1830 eliminated Barbary piracy once and for all.

What lessons can be drawn?

Piracy is a risk vs. reward calculation that flourishes when sailors are desperate and retribution is rare.

Sustained piracy needs a land base, meaning the ultimate solution is usually ashore, not at sea.

And paying ransom usually leads to more extortion.

Is the solution a Marine march to the shores of Somalia? This only had temporary success in the Barbary wars. As ship owners begin fighting back, however - one pirate was killed and others captured recently when a ship with private security personnel finally resisted - the success rate of Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden has fallen from one in three attacks to one in 10, the European Union's naval force estimates.

But what Somali pirates ultimately need is a realistic alternative. In the 19th Century, Europeans "nation-built" through colonization. In the 21st Century, a new means has to be found to bring failed states like Somalia back into the world economy that makes an honest living safer, and better-paying, than piracy. Otherwise this sorry history repeats again and again.

William Dietrich is a journalist, professor, and the author of a dozen books, including the new novel, 'The Barbary Pirates.' (Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, March 30, 2010).