US policy options for Somalia

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MARCO WERMAN: President Obama made his first public remarks today about yesterday's dramatic rescue operation. He praised the captain, Richard Phillips, for his courage and selflessness ? and he congratulated the US military for its role in freeing him.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region. And to achieve that goal, we're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks. We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise, and we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.

WERMAN: Absent from President Obama's remarks, though, was any broader reference to US policy towards Somalia. And experts say without resolving the chaos in Somalia, there's little hope of stemming piracy in the Indian Ocean. The World's Jeb Sharp reports.

JEB SHARP: The United States has an ignominious history in Somalia. The image of US servicemen being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 still conjures a sense of humiliation and failure. James Dobbins, a nation-building expert at the RAND Corporation, says that history still complicates policy today.

JAMES DOBBINS: Somalia is still toxic as a result of the failed US-led mission in the early 90s, and as a result, there's been a reluctance to become engaged, and Somalia has remained an international black hole where terrorism, criminality, human rights abuses and chaos reign.

SHARP: And that's not likely to change any time soon, says Dobbins. He says in fact the very success of this weekend's operation may lead to the Obama administration to think that tactical naval operations can take care of the piracy issue for now.

DOBBINS: If this had failed rather than succeeded, it might have actually stirred a larger debate. But since the American intervention succeeded, my guess is that if anything, it will simply lead us to refine our naval tactics in the region in an effort to address the piracy at sea rather than on land.

SHARP: Unfortunately, that's not the right lesson to take away from the incident, says Jonathan Stevenson, of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

JONATHAN STEVENSON: It was an audacious operation by the Navy, but even minutes after it happened, it became clear that the deterrent effect was going to be very ambiguous ? that the Somalis, some of them might be deterred by a robust military and security policy on the part of the US and its partners, but other Somalis might just feel antagonized and annoyed by a country that's already viewed by a lot of people in Somalia as heavy-handed.

SHARP: Stevenson is among those who think you have to fix Somalia to solve the piracy crisis. But, he acknowledges, it's not easy to know where to start. Stevenson says it's not just the Black Hawk Down episode that clouds things, but recent US policy as well. The United States backed Ethiopia's military intervention in Somalia in 2006. That operation forced the Islamists from power, but the victory was short-lived.

STEVENSON: Again, a tactical victory from a counter-terrorism standpoint, but arguably not a strategic one, given that Islamist elements have resurged and actually now regained quite a bit of territory and won hearts and minds by providing services and benefits to the Somali population that the secular militias won't provide.

SHARP: In recent years, there have been various international initiatives to stabilize Somalia, but none has worked. President Obama has shown he's not averse to bold moves, but he's made no indication he's ready to ramp up diplomacy or nation building in Somalia. With Iraq and Afghanistan on his plate, President Obama may not deal with Somalia until the costs of not doing so become even higher. For The World, I'm Jeb Sharp.