By Alan W. Dowd
October 28, 2014
As U.S. military forces continue the long war against ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, it’s tempting to view these stateless, ruthless enemies as unlike anything America has ever faced. After all, by striking America’s military nerve center and attacking America’s largest city, al Qaeda crossed a line the Red Army never even attempted to breach. And by waging a transnational war against the very idea of civilization, ISIS is dismembering ancient norms of behavior and challenging the nation-state system. Yet this new enemy has much in common with America’s oldest enemy.
What ISIS and al Qaeda are to us, pirates were to the America of Washington and Jefferson: Terrorists and pirates alike flourish in failed states; detest order; use fear to prey on their victims; employ asymmetric methods; flout the norms of civilization; and are unresponsive to reason or rational remedies. As author Douglas Burgess has argued, pirates are “a species of terrorist.”
Indeed, almost a century before Christ, Cicero labeled pirates hostis humani generis—“enemies of all mankind”—and it’s difficult to find a more fitting label for ISIS. After all, ISIS has united Shiites and Sunnis, Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus, Persians and Arabs, Kurds and Turks, postmodern Europe and pre-modern tribesmen, liberal democracies like America and revisionist autocracies like Russia, reactionary monarchies like Saudi Arabia and revolutionary theocracies like Iran, technocracies like the EU and thugocracies like Syria, into perhaps the strangest enemy-of-my-enemy coalition in history. Sometimes overtly, sometimes tacitly, sometimes purposely, sometimes coincidentally, the members of this de facto alliance are cooperating “to dismantle this network of death,” as President Obama calls it.
This is not unlike how America and the world responded to pirates in centuries past.
Rameses III, for instance, used massive military force to eliminate the pirate threat to Egypt some 3,000 years ago. When Rome emerged as the primary Mediterranean power, Pompey the Great employed 500 ships, 120,000 troops and “the equivalent today of half the U.S. budget and armed forces” to fight piracy, as Angus Konstam details in his book Piracy: The Complete History. Pompey sank 500 pirate ships, razed 120 coastal bases and killed 10,000 pirates. “The whole operation lasted approximately three months,” Konstam reports.
As Donald Puchala of the University of South Carolina adds, “wars against piracy” were waged in the 15th century in the Baltic and North Seas, and in the Caribbean between 1500 and 1750. “Might did in fact repeatedly set things right,” Puchala explains. “Reluctance to use countervailing force tended only to encourage the pirates.”
The same holds for our terrorist enemies. “The moment they cease to be fought against, they grow,” as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently observed.
Jefferson understood this fundamental truth about aggressors, but it took a while for his countrymen to come to that conclusion. The Barbary States in northern Africa required ships traveling near their waters to pay tribute to guarantee safe passage. In fact, at the time of Washington’s inauguration, as Donald Chidsey observes in The Wars in Barbary, Americans were being held hostage by Barbary pirates. The U.S. paid huge sums in tribute, ransom and naval stores to win release of those being held—and to avoid further piracy.
Jefferson bitterly opposed this policy as secretary of state, and he overturned it once he became president. He initially proposed an anti-piracy coalition with Europe “to compel the piratical states to perpetual peace.” But as Gerard Gawalt of the Library of Congress explains, “Jefferson’s plan for an international coalition foundered on the shoals of indifference.” (Sounds familiar.) So, Jefferson launched a unilateral war on piracy. “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them,” he concluded.
Skirmishes, battles and full-scale invasions followed—Chidsey calls it “the great pummeling”—until the Barbary pirates finally ended decades of attacks against U.S. shipping.
But piracy wasn’t confined to the Barbary Coast. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports there were 3,000 pirate attacks in the Caribbean between 1815 and 1823. The U.S. Navy responded in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish Florida and Mexico. Konstam notes that President Monroe even created an “anti-pirate squadron.” After a brutal act of piracy against U.S. shipping in the waters around Sumatra, President Jackson deployed the Navy “to inflict such chastisement as would deter them and others from like aggressions.”
All told, between 1801 and 1870, as CRS details, U.S. forces waged a far-flung war on piracy in Tripoli, Algiers, Greece, Ivory Coast, Hong Kong, Sumatra, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, America’s war on piracy lasted the better part of a century. Moreover, the United States still has to deal with relapses from time to time, as pirates and pirate states probe civilization for weaknesses.
President Reagan, for instance, responded to a kind of latter-day Barbary piracy when Qaddafi’s Libya declared the Gulf of Sidra as its own and launched terror attacks against U.S. targets.
To address the former, Reagan ordered the Sixth Fleet to defend freedom of the seas. When Libya’s air force challenged the American Navy, U.S. F-14s responded with deadly force, making it clear to Qaddafi there would be high costs for flouting international norms.
To address the latter, Reagan ordered large-scale airstrikes—call it the “second great pummeling”—against Qaddafi’s military, intelligence and terror-training machinery. Qaddafi finally got the message.
Nor was Reagan’s war on piracy limited to Libya. In 1985, he ordered U.S. warplanes to intercept and divert an airliner carrying Palestinian terrorists who had hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro and murdered an American citizen.
When Iran began attacking commercial ships in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, Reagan had Kuwaiti oil barges reflagged with the Stars and Stripes and ordered U.S. warships to escort Kuwaiti ships, again to defend freedom of the seas. After an Iranian mine ripped through a U.S. vessel, Reagan launched a series of punishing military strikes against Iran. While most Americans forget this war on the Gulf, Tehran doesn’t. On a single day in 1988, the U.S. crippled Iran’s pirate navy. “By the end of the operation, U.S. air and surface units had sunk, or severely damaged, half of Iran’s operational fleet,” a Navy report recalls.
Even today, the U.S. Navy continues to thwart piracy flare-ups off the Horn of Africa.
The point here is threefold.
First, the United States and other members of the civilized world can defeat or otherwise marginalize uncivilized behavior like piracy and terrorism. But it takes time, focus and patience.
It may be difficult for this land of FedEx and fast food to grasp, but 13 years into the war on terror, we are still much closer to the beginning than the end.
Second, the common denominator of successful counter-piracy and counter-terrorism campaigns is the use of military force to destroy these enemies of humanity.
Our ancestors knew this intuitively. Untainted by moral relativism, they never entertained the notion that pirates, terrorists and other thugs need to be understood—or that all violence is somehow the same. Instead, they realized that the use of force to protect innocents, uphold the law, maintain order and defend civilization served a greater good. We could learn from their example.
Third, the use of military force presupposes, well, using the military. If the president wants to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS using airpower alone—a tall order—he must allow his generals to wage an unfettered air campaign. Pinpricks won’t work.
As DefenseNews reports, the U.S.-led coalition is averaging just 25 strike sorties per day in Operation Inherent Resolve. By way of comparison, a similar air-only campaign over Serbia and Kosovo in 1999 averaged 138 strike sorties a day. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the coalition conducted 1,600 strike/attack sorties per day. And at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the coalition carried out 1,700 air sorties and missile launches against Saddam Hussein’s regime—on a single day.
“Airpower needs to be applied like a thunderstorm, and so far we’ve only witnessed a drizzle,” explains Gen. David Deptula (USAF RET), who led the initial air campaign against another enemy of humanity, Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.
Moving from the tactical to the strategic, if America wants to keep the enemy on the defensive, Congress and the president must reverse sequestration’s devastating cuts, which are systematically lopping off vital elements of U.S. military power:
- Pentagon documents leaked to USA Today indicate sequestration will produce an Army at “high risk to meet even one major war.”
- The Air Force has announced plans to reduce its fleet by 286 planes. In 2013, the Air Force temporarily stood down 31 squadrons due to funding constraints.
- At the height of Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s fleet numbers 289 ships, with experts predicting the Navy will ebb to just 240 ships. These numbers aren’t even close to America’s maritime needs. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
That gap has real-world implications: When Obama ordered warplanes from the carrier USS George HW Bush to blunt the ISIS advance in northern Iraq, Greenert admitted “they stopped their sorties” over Afghanistan to do so.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose.