The Reuters headline put it this way: “Pirates Pose Annoying Distraction For Obama.”
So many distractions, aren’t there? Only a week ago, the North Korean missile test was an “annoying distraction” from Barack Obama’s call for a world without nuclear weapons and his pledge that America would lead the way in disarming. And only a couple of days earlier the president insisted Iraq was a “distraction” â€“ from what, I forget: The cooing press coverage of Michelle’s wardrobe? No doubt when the Iranians nuke Israel, that, too, will be an unwelcome distraction from the administration’s plans for federally subsidized day care, just as Pearl Harbor was an annoying distraction from the New Deal, and the First World War was an annoying distraction from the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s dinner plans
If the incompetent management driving The New York Times from junk status to oblivion wished to decelerate their terminal decline, they might usefully amend their motto to “All The News That’s Fit To Distract.” Tom Blumer of Newsbusters notes that in the past 30 days there have been some 2,500 stories featuring Obama and “distractions,” as opposed to about 800 “distractions” for Bush in his entire second term. The sub-headline of the Reuters story suggests the unprecedented pace at which the mountain of distractions is piling up: “First North Korea, Iran â€“ now Somali pirates.”
Er, OK. So the North Korean test is a “distraction,” the Iranian nuclear program is a “distraction,” and the seizure of a U.S.-flagged vessel in international waters is a “distraction.” Maybe it would be easier just to have the official State Department maps reprinted with the Rest of the World relabeled “Distractions.” Oh, to be sure, you could still have occasional oases of presidential photo-opportunities â€“ Buckingham Palace, that square in Prague â€“ but with the land beyond the edge of the Queen’s gardens ominously marked “Here be distractions…”
As it happens, Somali piracy is not a distraction but a glimpse of the world the day after tomorrow. In my book “America Alone,” I quote Robert D. Kaplan referring to the lawless fringes of the map as “Indian Territory.” It’s a droll jest but a misleading one, since the very phrase presumes that the badlands one day will be brought within the bounds of the ordered world. In fact, a lot of today’s badlands were relatively ordered not so long ago, and many of them are getting badder and badder by the day. Half a century back, Somaliland was a couple of sleepy colonies, British and Italian, poor but functioning. Then it became a state, and then a failed state, and now the husk of a nation is a convenient squat from which to make mischief. According to Chatham House in London, Somali pirates made about $30 million in ransom and booty last year. Thirty mil goes a long way in Somalia, making piracy a very attractive proposition.
It’s also a low-risk one. Once upon a time we killed and captured pirates. Today, it’s all more complicated. Attorney General Eric Holder has declined to say whether the kidnappers of the American captain will be “brought to justice” by the U.S. “I’m not sure exactly what would happen next,” declares the chief law-enforcement official of the world’s superpower. But some things we can say for certain. Obviously, if the United States Navy hanged some eye-patched, peg-legged blackguard from the yardarm or made him walk the plank, pious senators would rise to denounce an America that no longer lived up to its highest ideals, and the network talking-heads would argue that Plankgate was recruiting more and more young men to the pirates’ cause, and judges would rule that pirates were entitled to the protections of the U.S. Constitution and that their peg legs had to be replaced by high-tech prosthetic limbs at taxpayer expense.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy, which over the centuries did more than anyone to rid the civilized world of the menace of piracy, now declines even to risk capturing their Somali successors, having been advised by Her Majesty’s Government that, under the European Human Rights Act, any pirate taken into custody would be entitled to claim refugee status in the United Kingdom and live on welfare for the rest of his life. I doubt “Pirates of the Caribbean” would have cleaned up at the box office if the big finale had shown Geoffrey Rush and his crew of scurvy sea dogs settling down in council flats in Manchester and going down to the pub for a couple of jiggers of rum washed down to cries of “Aaaaargh, shiver me benefits check, lad.” From “Avast, me hearties!” to a vast welfare scam is not progress.
In a world of legalisms, resistance is futile. The Royal Navy sailors kidnapped by Iran two years ago and humiliated by the mullahs on TV were operating under rules of engagement that call for “de-escalation” in the event of a confrontation. Which is to say their rules of engagement are rules of nonengagement. Likewise, merchant vessels equipped with cannon in the 18th century now sail unarmed. They contract with expensive private security firms, but those security teams do not carry guns: When the MV Biscaglia was seized by pirates in the Gulf of Aden last year, the Indian and Bangladeshi crew were taken hostage but the three unarmed guards from “Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions” in London “escaped by jumping into the water.” Some solution. When you make a lucrative activity low-risk, you get more of it.
As my colleague Andrew McCarthy wrote, “Civilization is not an evolution of mankind but the imposition of human good on human evil. It is not a historical inevitability. It is a battle that has to be fought every day, because evil doesn’t recede willingly before the wheels of progress.” Very true. Somalia, Iran and North Korea are all less “civilized” than they were a couple of generations ago. And yet in one sense they have made undeniable progress: They have globalized their pathologies. Somali pirates seize vessels the size of aircraft carriers flying the ensigns of the great powers. Iranian proxies run Gaza and much of Lebanon. North Korea’s impoverished prison state provides nuclear technology to Damascus and Tehran. Unlovely as it is, Pyongyang nevertheless has friends on the Security Council. Powerful states protect one-man psycho states. One-man psycho states provide delivery systems to apocalyptic ideological states. Apocalyptic ideological states fund nonstate actors around the world. And in Somalia and elsewhere nonstate actors are constrained only by their ever increasing capabilities.
When all the world’s a “distraction,” maybe you’re not the main event after all. Most wealthy nations lack the means to defend themselves. Those few that do, lack the will. Meanwhile, basket-case jurisdictions send out ever bolder freelance marauders to prey on the civilized world with impunity. Don’t be surprised if “the civilized world” shrivels and retreats in the face of state-of-the-art reprimitivization. From piracy to nukes to the limp response of the hyperpower, this is not a “distraction” but a portent of the future.