Sunday, April 12, 2009

Piracy, Highway Robbery, Logic and Methods

Much media attention has been paid to the piracy situation off the coast of Somalia. I was directed to a blog post claiming that the pirates are essentially modern-day Robin Hoods.

Some things about this post didn't add up right away:
  1. The situation in Somalia is chaotic; in fact, it's as close to a state of pure anarchy the modern world has ever seen.

  2. In the absence of a government, there’s no entity to protect the interests of the people inhabiting the territory formerly considered to be the country of Somalia. Ergo, there’s a huge power vacuum.

  3. ‘Vacuum’ can be translated as ‘opportunity’ for the more ruthless actors in pursuit of self-interest (however defined). This includes European and Asian companies who dump toxic & nuclear waste off the coast of multiple developing countries (including Africa & the Middle East); European fishing fleets that are depleting the fishing stocks off the coast of Somalia; and various actors with various motives, ranging from protest against these practices to naked self-aggrandizement, who engage in piracy.

  4. Yet Johann Hari’s article & the post based on it both portray the pirates primarily as modern-day Robin Hoods.
I have no problem with the proposition that some of the pirates are acting on noble motives; however, the notion that an opinion poll in Somalia in the current context (How would anyone get access to enough people in that chaos to develop a statistically meaningful sample? What methodology was used?) could have an iota of validity in concluding that 70% of the public held opinion X is laughable. It is true that Hari couches his argument by saying “No, this doesn't make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters.” However, the thrust of his argument, in essence, is this:
  1. Privateers in the “Golden Age of Piracy” were acting in rebellion against hideous conditions.

  2. Somalis face hideous conditions.

  3. Ergo, Somalis who engage in piracy (not all, but by implication, most) are also rebelling against hideous conditions.
The argument, in short, makes a leap in logic between b & c above. The two situations are, in some important respects, similar. Does that mean they’re the same?

There’s no doubt in my mind (how could there be?) that the conditions faced by Somalis are hideous—they have been for quite a long time. But I seriously doubt that Hari or his pollster have any way of determining how many pirates are acting out of a sense of injustice, how many are in it for the considerable financial rewards, how many out of plain hunger, how many because they’re career criminals who’ve found a new opportunity, etc.

None of this, btw, means in any way that European companies aren’t dumping toxic wastes off the shores of Somalia or depleting Somalia’s fish stock. There’s plenty of evidence of both. I just question whether, in a context of total anarchy and violence, it is logic or even honest to claim knowledge of the motives of an unknown number of social actors (most of whom, one would assume, having a strong motive not to reveal themselves at all).

So what is the situation in Somalia, anyway?

At a 3/10/09 Center for Strategic and International Studies (C.S.I.S.) conference: “Challenges for Renewed Engagement in Somalia,” Michael Weinstein argued the following:
  • There are multiple narratives in re Somalia:

  1. US terrorism narrative

  2. The narrative of Somalis in the various factions involved in the conflict

  3. European chemical/nuclear dumping offshore

  4. Bottom line: There are multiple actors & no one interest-backed narrative prevails..

  • There is no government on the ground in Somalia.

  1. Current conflict not a government vs insurgency situations; instead, multiple parties, each controlling its own portion of territory.

  2. Aggregation of different interests within various territories, revealing a situation of decentered civil conflict.

  • We need to look at all the narratives of all the different actors in the situation.

  1. If political orientation and balance of power among the various regional actors remains as it is now, Somalia will be dominated by Islamic political formulas.

  2. If civil conflict & power centralization within the various regions continues, most likely result will be cantonization.

Here's Weinstein’s analysis of the competing narratives at CSIS Conference.

Here's a detailed outline of the political situation on the ground.

Here's a detailed discussion of waste dumping problem, particularly as relates to Lebanon, but making clear the dumping is by developed countries & the targets are developing countries. This includes countries in the Middle East as well as Africa, btw. No mention of South America or Asia, but it would be valuable to know if those areas are subjected to this as well. Part 1 of 2.

What are European motives in re waste dumping?

Here's an article from Al Jazeera about the pirates’ motives.

Who are the pirates? Here's a BBC story containing anecdotal evidence of non-altruistic motives.

Here's a series of articles about the pirates (scroll down).

What's the bottom line on all this? The situation is miserable and not likely to get better any time soon. It is highly doubtful that the U.S. will do anything about the dumping or fish stock depletion, resorting only to military force in response to acts of piracy. I leave it to others to comment on European responses to the situation. The Obama administration continues to see Somalia through the frame of terrorism, as did its predecessor (although, thankfully, Obama is not stupid, deluded nor insane, so we’re not likely to see a repetition of Bush administration efforts that made the situation even worse than it was at the outset). Additionally, Obama faces multiple crises across the board. Somalia is very low on the list. Ergo, little to no change can be expected.

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