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The United States Should Avoid "Grand Schemes" in Somalia

Interviewee: Bronwyn E. Bruton, International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Stephanie Hanson, News Editor, CFR.org
April 13, 2009

This weekend, U.S. Navy forces killed three Somali pirates in an operation to rescue a U.S. ship captain they were holding hostage. CFR's International Affairs Fellow Bronwyn Bruton says the conflict should have been avoidable, but with the hostage situation playing out so publicly, President Barack Obama didn't have many options. "He didn't want something like a headline saying 'Somali Pirates Escape with American Captain,'" she says. The military operation the United States launched is "at best a Band-Aid," she says. "Unless we are really willing to blanket the area, we can't hope to prevent pirates from taking ships."

Bruton suggests that the recent military operation could cause the pirates to become "more violent than ever before." She explains that Somalis will view U.S. military action as a challenge, and could respond by raising the stakes of their operations. Meanwhile, the Somali public remains largely supportive of the pirates because they are the only group in Somalia that is fighting back against international ships that have been illegally fishing Somalia's waters for years. "Somalis have watched their livelihoods melt away because of this practice," she says. If the United States focuses on piracy too much, it will "increase the backlash against America in Somali minds and ... that will increase radicalization in Somalia and detract from our efforts to bring peace to that country."

Bruton believes that the United States should avoid grand schemes when it attempts to tackle piracy in Somalia. There is an almost unlimited pool of potential pirates in Somalia, and whole villages are surviving on the pirate industry. She suggests that working with local organizations is the only way to influence events on the ground in Somalia. "We have a limited capacity to influence events in Somalia ... but we have an almost unlimited capacity to mess things up," she says.

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