Thursday, April 09, 2009

Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead

In May of 1904, a sometime American citizen by the name of Ion Perdicaris was kidnapped by one Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli while living in Tangier.  Since a US citizen was believed to be in danger, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a fleet of seven ships and a small marine* detachment to demand that the Moroccan government obtain his release.  (This Wikipedia article had a decent description of the facts at 11:30 am today.) At the Republican convention in 1904, the Secretary of State famously said, “This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”

Today, we have a civilian from a US-flagged ship being held hostage by Somali pirates.  With any luck, the situation will be resolved without the loss of innocent lives, but since this situation might recur or deteriorate, I think it would be well to consider a longer-term policy.  I submit that Roosevelt’s solution is the correct one.

The Wikipedia article previously mentioned goes on at some length (in rather sniffy tones) about how the US was just pressuring the Moroccans to accede to the kidnapper’s demands.  What that article fails to consider, however, is the value of forcibly changing the ownership of this sort of problem—what I’ll call “Big Jake diplomacy"**.

In 1904, the US didn’t particularly care about Moroccan politics or the justice of the claims of a “rebel”.  The US cared about the safety of its citizens and about future credibility in the eyes of the world.  To that end, one of three results was acceptable: Perdicaris released, Raisuli killed, or Morocco punished (in pretty much that order of preference).  The policy was simple: the safety of people in Morocco was the responsibility of Morocco, and if Morocco did not see to the safety of US citizens, it would pay.  How the safety was secured was the responsibility of Morocco.

The same calculus should apply in “Somalia”.  The Somalis would like the world to consider the lands they claim and the waters off their coast as their territory.  If that’s the case, anything that goes wrong there, anything at all, is their responsibility.  They can stop the pirates (possibly with the assistance of other nations), abjure responsibility for the territory entirely (and thus allow others to police it), or be punished.  There should be no fourth option.

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