A ragtag band of pirates has put President Barack Obama in a bind: He commands overwhelming firepower in the form of a growing flotilla of U.S. warships, but he doesn’t want to use it.
Thursday’s decision to turn to FBI hostage negotiators showed Obama reaching for all of his limited options in the high-seas hostage drama. Negotiators in the United States were communicating with the pirates through a Navy destroyer that shadowed the small lifeboat where four pirates held American cargo ship captain Richard Phillips.
The president wasn’t saying a word about the situation in public, though he dispatched aides to reassure the nation that their government was pressing to free Phillips.
“These people are nothing more than criminals, and we are bringing to bear a number of our assets, including naval and FBI, in order to resolve the hostage situation and bring the pirates to justice,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said while Obama remained silent for a second day.
“Piracy may be a centuries-old problem but we are working to bring an appropriate 21st-century response,” Clinton said.
That modern-day response included more warships – a remnant of 20th-century U.S. exceptionalism – as well as high-tech surveillance planes buzzing above the crisis waters.
In private, however, U.S. officials acknowledged there were way too few to counter a rising scourge of piracy along the lawless Somali coast.
Even as more Navy ships, including the guided-missile frigate USS Halyburton, arrive near the Horn of Africa, there will be fewer than two dozen international warships patrolling an area nearly five times the size of Texas.
“It’s a big area and you can’t be everywhere at once,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Thursday.
The Obama administration is also considering changes to an international anti-piracy partnership proposed by the Bush administration in its last weeks.
Outside advisers have recommended expanding the task force mandate to hunt pirate “mother ships” far from shore. These nondescript larger vessels shelter the small speedboats that pirates usually use to quickly close on a commercial ship and scramble aboard.
“We are looking for ways to increase the effectiveness of what we are doing,” Clinton said.
The top U.N. envoy for Somalia, in Washington for previously scheduled talks, said the piracy problem cannot be resolved until proper governance is restored in the country.
“This problem is at sea, but the root causes are on land,” Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah said. He urged U.N. Security Council members to urgently revisit rampant insecurity and instability in Somalia, which has not had a functioning government since 1991.
“We go after rogue states. Why not anarchic states?” he said.
The International Maritime Bureau and the International Maritime Organization said attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia more than doubled from 2007 to 2008.
In 2007 there were 263 attacks worldwide with 41 occurring in the Gulf of Aden or the east coast of Somalia. In 2008, there were 293 attacks worldwide, 111 of them in the Gulf of Aden or Somalia’s east coast.
More than $30 million was paid in ransoms in 2008 alone. The average ransom per successfully hijacked ship is between $1million and $2 million.
U.S. military and counterterrorism officials are scrutinizing the brazen hijackings for any links to al-Qaida or other militant groups operating in East Africa.
So far, they see no direct connection between Somali pirates looking for a fast buck and the Islamic extremists looking to attack America or her allies.
But informal links are there, mired in Somalia’s complex and combative clans, where a man can be a pirate one day and traffic in weapons another.
“I don’t see direct connections,” Army Gen. William “Kip” Ward said. “But, again, if you look at the clan structure, the tribes – to think that there may not be linkages probably is a bit naive.”
Ward, who heads the Pentagon’s Africa Command, said that in a volatile country like Somalia, it is difficult to tell who is a pirate, who is connected to a terrorist group and who is simply a fisherman, until someone is caught in a criminal act.
Anne Gearan covers national security for The Associated Press. Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek, Matthew Lee and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.