Saturday, April 11, 2009

Terrorism and piracy: Criminal or national security matter?

There's a good article in the Wall Street Journal by Mackubin Thomas Owens which draws parallels between global terrorism and the ongoing piracy problem off the east coast of Africa and the Obama administration's approach to both issues.

From the very words the new administration uses to describe events and the parties involved we learn much about how Team Obama views the problems:
It seems that our new president is desperate to do everything he can to distance himself from his predecessor, which is why his team has launched a campaign to rebrand the War on Terror. The results are mystifying. "Overseas contingency operations" [See note below. --ed.] is the new name for the war, while "man-caused disasters" is a euphemism for terrorist attacks.

[ ... ]

Instead of calling the detainees enemy combatants, the administration has opted to refer to them as "individuals captured in connection with armed conflicts and counterterrorism operations," or "members of enemy forces," or "persons who [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for the September 11 attacks."

Though these changes might seem superficial, unfortunately, they represent a substantive shift. They signal a return to the policy mindset that existed before 9/11, and the consequence will be material harm to U.S. security.
Which of course is exactly what many of us warned of during the campaign; namely that Obama, along with most Democrats, don't take very seriously the threat of international terrorism and have resumed a 9/10 way of thinking about the problem.

Owens then gets to the heart of the matter in terms of how to classify those who are caught engaging in illegal (by international norms) warfare or in hijacking (pirating) vessels exercising their rights of maritime navigation:
As the eminent military historian Sir Michael Howard argued shortly after 9/11, the status of al Qaeda terrorists is to be found in a distinction first made by the Romans and subsequently incorporated into international law by way of medieval and early modern European jurisprudence. According to Mr. Howard, the Romans distinguished between bellum (war against legitimus hostis, a legitimate enemy) and guerra (war against latrunculi, pirates, robbers, brigands and outlaws).

Bellum became the standard for interstate conflict, and it is here that the Geneva Conventions were meant to apply. They do not apply to guerra. Indeed, punishment for latrunculi, "the common enemies of mankind," traditionally has been summary execution.

Though they don't often employ the term, many legal experts agree that al Qaeda fighters are latrunculi -- hardly distinguishable by their actions from pirates and the like.
I said as much in this post nearly two years ago:
In fact, under international law, their legal status is closer to that of sea pirates.
Now, about that "overseas contingency operations" thing.

A "contingency operation" is a generic military term for any real-world operation carried out by our military in response to an event. It can range anywhere from humanitarian relief operations to evacuation of US embassy personnel during times of civil unrest to invading a country and replacing its government.

Nobody dreamed up the term "overseas contingency operations" to replace "Global War on Terror". My guess is someone in the Pentagon was preparing a paper for the new kid in the White House and was advised that the new kid didn't like the Bushism "Global War on Terror" and simply replaced such references to it with the generic term "overseas contingency operations". Imagine a memo with the line "operational costs associated with the Global War on Terror" modified to read "operational costs associated with overseas contingency operations" and you get the picture.


Charles said...

Maybe it's time to issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal. I'll bet a lot of freelancers would jump at the chance!

Eric said...

These pirates aren't even all that heavily armed. All they really need to do is let the crews carry sidearms to keep these scurvy dogs at bay.

Maybe a .50 cal deck gun or two for good measure.

joe six-pack said...

Good article. This is along my line of thinking as well, but I didn't approach it as well. Thanks.