Bail out Somalia to curb the pirates?
Obama, like pre-9/11 Bush, may scorn nation-building. But can the US afford not to do it?
It would be easy to hope, after Sunday's dramatic rescue in the Gulf of Aden, that heroic ship captains, Navy Seal sharpshooters, and an armada of foreign warships will somehow contain pirates off Somalia or keep that anarchic land free of Al Qaeda-friendly Islamists.
But a bit of history: In the early 19th century, it took America and Europe nearly 30 years to defeat the Barbary pirates off the coast of northern Africa, relying on horrific battles and eventually imperialist conquest.
So it's unlikely that President Obama, occupied with two wars and costly "nation-building" at home, wants to get to the root of the piracy problem by fixing the failed state of Somalia with an invasion, occupation, or oodles of foreign aid.
And yet, Somali pirates still hold captive more than 200 foreign sailors and more than a dozen ships. American crew members on passing cargo ships might now be particularly targeted in retaliation for the killing of the three pirates.
What's more, Mr. Obama's defense secretary, Robert Gates, cites weakly run countries as a major threat to the US. In a speech last October, he said: "The security of the American people will increasingly depend on our ability to head off the next insurgency or arrest the collapse of another failing state."
Mr. Gates calls for "enlightened counter-measures" to bolster vulnerable states that harbor violent networks. And this week, after the rescue of the kidnapped Capt. Richard Phillips, he went further to say there is "no purely military" solution to Somalia "unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids."
Yes, kids. The pirates were 17 to 19 years old. While they were greedy for a $6 million ransom, they came from poverty and a clannish community resentful of the way that foreign ships have overfished and polluted Somalia's coastal waters.
Somalia's internal chaos, famine, and wars have boggled four presidents since 1992. The US military's 1993 retreat from the capital, Mogadishu, was one reason George W. Bush scorned the idea of nation-building – until 9/11 pushed him to think he might try it in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama has already decided to wind down US involvement in Iraq and devised a plan to eventually turn over Afghanistan to others. Those are clues to his likely action toward Somalia: Only assert US leadership in order to create a coalition of other nations and groups to solve the problem.
That's a difficult calculation – knowing when a distant threat can be contained or whether to use sufficient resources to avert an attack on Americans, either at home or abroad.
The Pentagon's 2008 national defense strategy called for "building up the capacity of fragile or vulnerable" areas to prevent a haven for terrorists, arms smugglers, and drug merchants (and now pirates).
But for now, Obama sees the threat from Somalia as largely a law-enforcement problem. After Sunday's rescue, he said, "We have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes."
He may have decided, based on the Iraq war, that America first needs to spend its money and energy at home preventing economic and social collapse. After all, only when Rome was weak were the barbarians able to enter.
But without US leadership, it's unlikely that Europe or the United Nations will do more than support beefing up the international naval presence off Somalia's coast. Obama still needs to keep probing for new ways for all concerned parties to solve, or at least better contain, this thorny problem.
Or, as Gates admits, "All I can tell you is I am confident we will be spending a lot of time in the situation room over the next few weeks trying to figure out what in the world to do about this problem."