NEAL CONAN, host:

Off the coast of East Africa, four Somali pirates continue to hold an American captain hostage. Yesterday, the pirates boarded and seized a cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. But before they got aboard, the U.S. crew disabled the ship.

Exactly what happened next isn't clear, but the pirates took a lifeboat - one of the ship's lifeboats and left. But along the way, they took the captain, Richard Phillips, along as a hostage.

Apparently the lifeboat is out of gas and drifting. The cargo ship has reportedly left to resume its voyage to Kenya, and a U.S. Navy destroyer is on the scene trying to secure the release of Captain Phillips. The Pentagon and the White House are following the situation closely.

Last year, according to the International Maritime Bureau, more than 150 ships were attacked off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden. A few months ago, retired Navy Commander John Patch wrote a piece for Proceedings, the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute, called "The Overstated Threat," where he argued that piracy is over-hyped and confused with terrorism.

If you have questions about the best way to deal with Somali pirates, our phone number is 800-989-8255, email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Retired Navy Commander John Patch, now a professor at the U.S. Army War College. Nice to have to him today here with us in Studio 3A. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor JOHN PATCH (U.S. Army War College): My pleasure.

CONAN: And does this first incident of piracy involving American sailors and an American vessel in 200 years or so changed your assessment?

Prof. PATCH: No, it doesn't. If you look at the numbers involved, the several hundred vessels that have been either approached or attacked in some fashion or actually seized, they're a very small number.

Only two U.S.-flagged incidents. It was the Seabourn Spirit in 2005, a U.S.-flag cruise ship, which have successfully evaded the pirates through anti-piracy preventive measures. And then there was this instance where it was actually sort of a semi seizure.

So, of the percentage of incidents involving the U.S. flag, it's very, very small. So, I think we have to be careful and put it in context. Is it a threatening, a grave national security interest to the United States? Looking at the statistics of how it affects global business, et cetera, the facts are clear - no.

CONAN: And it seems - talk about David and Goliath - you have the USS Bainbridge, a cruiser - excuse me, a destroyer sitting next to a lifeboat with four pirates. The amount of force that is being brought to bear on this situation, the amount of military effort seems entirely out of proportion.

Prof. PATCH: Yes, and hopefully overwhelming in the eyes of the Somalis, as well, so it'll be quickly resolved. My sense is they are seriously under the gun and they realize it. They'd probably figured that out as soon as they realized the crew was American.

They may not have seen the American flag or appreciated the concept of what it means to have American flag in a vessel until too late. And they probably want to just get out of there and get home.

CONAN: There are some of your former colleagues who are saying, look, this situation is not resolved at sea but ashore. If you have a problem with pirates, do what the U.S. Marines did with the Barbary pirates. Send the Marines.

Prof. PATCH: Many people are advocating that. And certainly, military effort could be involved with accomplishing that. However, inland operations - Somali, very problematic, as we've seen in the past. Several U.N. missions with mixed success and potential failures as well. "Black Hawk Down" syndrome, conducting operations ashore in Somali, very fraught with possible problems for the U.S. foreign policy issues, for world opinion - what if there's 100 Somalis killed in the process, most of them civilians and children?

So, very - you have to be very careful and approach it, I think, in a fashion that the current administration is looking at it. From what I can see, from the press, they're looking at a multinational, prudent, slow effort using all the elements in national power not just military.

CONAN: And in fact, you argue in your piece that this is not a military problem. This is a criminal problem.

Prof. PATCH: It is. And in fact, that's one reason why our - the U.S. Navy warship with the guns and missiles is not really appropriate to the problem. The problem starts in Somali territorial waters and, of course, on land, as you've suggested. So we need, in effect, a police force, first, on land and, second, a coast guard that can effectively police their waters and prevent the issue from spilling into international - because until it goes over 12 nautical miles, it's not piracy, it's criminal activity.

Problem is, of course, Somalia has no such government that's viable - a very small non-viable government and no police force whatsoever. But who's going to write the check to create one? That's another problem in and of itself.

CONAN: And indeed, some of these most recent incidents have taken place considerably further offshore after, well, large numbers of naval vessels from around the world started to conduct patrolling operations in the Gulf of Aden.

Prof. PATCH: And I would argue that that is an example that - an evidence that shows the current anti-piracy efforts by regional military, U.S. Naval forces central command that are warning ships to stay several hundred miles off the coast, those efforts are working. Because if they have to go 300 miles out to get a target, that means there are not targets closer to shore, so the efforts to remove the low-hanging fruit from the pirates' grasp have, I think, effectively worked.

CONAN: There are some fishing vessels that have reportedly been taken over by some of these pirate organizations that are being used as mother ships to launch the high-speed small craft which overtake freighters in these open waters.

Prof. PATCH: That is a problem too, because how do you identify whether it's actually a legitimate fishing vessel with a civilian crew, perhaps even significant issues if you have a foreign flag that you don't necessarily want to tangle with.

Most of those fishing vessels are Asian flagged. Most of them are fishing illegally within Somalia's 200-mile exclusive economic zone, because there's no regulation of it. You don't need to pay anybody any fees to go fish in their waters. So it's a real problem.

The Indian navy opened fire on one of those fishing vessels and sank it some months ago. And there is - there are some allegations in the media that perhaps civilians were killed in that process, and maybe there wasn't even pirates on board. So you can see where a U.S. Navy ship has to be very careful on identifying a threat before using force.

CONAN: And the other thing is that the - you would think maritime law on piracy, which is, of course, stretches back centuries, would be pretty clear-cut.

Prof. PATCH: It is. However, some of the problems are that not everyone adheres to the U.N. Law of the Sea, UNCLOS. In fact, the U.S. has not ratified the treaty; that is one problem. When we try to have that moral ground in a common framework of understanding, even the definition of piracy itself, which is out of UNCLOS, the 1982 treaty, we haven't ratified it, so we have trouble justifying our position with other nations.

However, I think that the current - the policy that - last policy I saw from December 2008 has the clear effort to engage internationally to make sure that that regime of international law that supports the rule of law is moved forward. And I see signs that that's happening.

CONAN: Now, let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Again, our guest is retired Commander John Patch, U.S. Navy, now a professor at the U.S. Army War College and the author of a piece in Proceedings magazine called "The Overstated Threat." 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org.

Paul is on the line from Kansas City.

PAUL (Caller): Yeah. People are missing the boat, pardon the pun, on the lessons of history on this piracy. In the Second World War, and I think in the First World War also, the British had Q ships, the Germans had commerce raiders disguised as freighters. And say a German submarine approached, like a freighter, down would come the camouflage, out would come the guns.

I think (unintelligible) a few Q ship-like freighters in the Somali area, you'd first of all have somebody - if they try to approach the boat and demand the boat would be aborted, that's evidence of piracy. Out come the guns - they have cameras on board filming the whole thing. And then blow, you know, blow the pirates out the water and take them prisoner. That might take care of the problem.

CONAN: If I remember my history correctly, Paul, more effective in the First World War than in the Second, when it was quickly abandoned. But anyway, what's your opinion, John Patch?

Prof. PATCH: Well, I'm no lawyer, you know, full disclosure. But the Q ship is a tactic that has worked very well in the past. That's usually under very strict issues of war. A terrorist is one thing, and a foreign adversary state trying to conduct commerce raiding, et cetera, is one thing.

A criminal on the high seas is another. The rules of engagement for the U.S. Navy and frankly any force are very different on how you handle criminal activities than how you handle legal - what is essentially a legal war, or the war on terrorism.

War on terrorism and legal war, conventional war - the ability to open fire easily without any permission from anybody is very clear and it's there. Not the case with piracy. You can seize and detain pirates committing acts on the open seas, but there is no clear rules of engagement to open fire and kill before asking the questions.

PAUL: You know, I think we need some clear rules of engagement, and it still seems like (unintelligible) it still seems like at least - to arm the ships that are being attacked to have some kind of defense on board would make a lot of sense these days. At least in that area - not everywhere in the world. But hopefully it doesn't spread. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Paul.

And one of the things you do mention in your article is that companies like Blackwater and some of the other private security agencies are making forces available if companies do want to put armed forces on their ships.

Prof. PATCH: Yes. But those forces are very expensive to maintain and pay and equip, et cetera. So you know, businesses are looking at a bottom line, and when it's too expensive they won't do it.

Also, very risky to start arming private citizen on merchant vessels mainly because if you get into a shootout, you could have dead crew members, dead adversaries, damaged cargo, damaged ship, liabilities, fines, fees. It's too risky, too dangerous. They would rather just put their hands in the air and write the ransom check.

CONAN: One of the things that we tend to overlook in this - pirates, we have this image of - well, not only the swashbuckling buccaneer but also ruthless pirates. This is a situation where these pirates are behaving much more like businessmen. They're doing criminal activity, there's no doubt about that, but nevertheless, very few if any people have been hurt.

Prof. PATCH: And all accounts show that they're very, very reluctant to use force. They want the check, and they'll get on the satellite phone and talk to the company and say, we're not going to harm your crew unless, you know, if we get the check it's no problem. They're not butting people's heads with Kalashnikovs. They're not killing people and throwing them over the side.

The only time you really have - that I've noted there's been significant violence is when the members of the ship try to repel the boarders or use force. You may recall a few years ago a North Korean merchant ship was boarded by pirates and there was essentially a shootout with several pirates killed.

CONAN: We're talking with Commander John Patch, U.S. Navy retired, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, the author of "The Overstated Threat," which is published in the Proceedings magazine in December 2008, with us here in Studio 3A.

If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail from Tony. I'm a captain in the U.S. Merchant Marine. When studying naval law at the California Maritime Academy in 1970, we learned that the reason for the creation of the U.S. Navy was to protect the sea lanes for commercial vessels.

We spend billions on the U.S. Navy. Can they no longer fulfill their original intended purpose? Is commerce less important today than it was in the 18th century? That the Navy cannot escort U.S. merchant ships in the sea lanes that are plied by pirates is unconscionable.

Prof. PATCH: Well, I would argue that the benefits of commerce, the profits of commerce and free market economy on the globe are a result of free and open sea lanes. Everybody profits from it, international companies in all countries. I think there's an equal responsibility for all countries and international organizations to pay some of the price to keep those sea lanes open.

The U.S. - in my humble opinion, not the U.S. government opinion perhaps - has broken the bank trying to keep those sea lanes open. And we've - our navy has shrunk down to some 280 ships. We simply don't have enough assets to guard every sea lane across the globe. And when you rack and stack national security interest and threats, in my assessment, piracy is extremely low on that. There is much more important things for the U.S. Navy to be doing with these high-end conventional warships than chasing a handful of bad guys on a small boat.

CONAN: Are other vessels more appropriate?

Prof. PATCH: Absolutely. I would argue that those are Coast Guard and law enforcement vessels. The problem is equally with the new post-9/11 security regime, the Coast Guard is over-tasked and under-resourced with hulls, and they have lots of home security duties that they have to do here at home. They support operations in the Northern Arabian Gulf and elsewhere.

There's just isn't enough law enforcement personnel and Coast Guard hulls to do everybody else's job for them. They're very good at it, and in the few cases where they've been involved against piracy, we've actually gotten piracy's prosecuted (unintelligible) court when they were - when the film was made by the Coast Guard, the law enforcement detachment took evidence, biometrics, you know, fingerprints of the detainees.

That was a good solid case that was built against these guys, and they're in prison now. If warriors, sailors, are shooting up ships and gathering dead and detainees, much more problematic than how you prove these are actually the guys that did it and who's guilty, et cetera.

CONAN: Let's get Abdi(ph) on the line. Abdi with us from Tempe, Arizona.

ABDI (Caller): Yes. With respect, I disagree with your host. None of them talked about solution would be for my country. They only talk of their own solution. If you go back two years ago, all these problems created by the American politics by supporting (unintelligible) to invade my country.

The other thing that I want to know is where were they for the last 16 years, those people (unintelligible), sending warships for my country rather than they should have started those huge ships that are looting Somali country.

CONAN: Which ships are looting the Somalian country?

ABDI: Yes. There are a lot of, you know, fishing boats that come to Somalia shores and…

CONAN: I get your point…

ABDI: …from Germany, Italy, those countries. Now they are - the only reason that these people are doing this is to stop those people to loot our shores, take our, you know, the fish, all those countries.

CONAN: And…

ABDI: None of them talks about solutions…

CONAN: Okay. Abdi, let's…

ABDI: …have a solution…

CONAN: Abdi, we hear you. Let's get a response from Commander Patch, because this is something you wrote about. In fact, the inability of Somalia to enforce its own economic zone means that these fishing vessels from around the world, many of them from Asia, come in and just fish with no…

Prof. PATCH: That's right. Abdi has a point. Because there's no viable government that could secure the waters and the land, it's significantly abused by some countries. Illegal fishing in their waters. There's actually illegal dumping of toxic, sometimes horrible low-level nuclear waste, et cetera, in their waters and on their land, you know, fouling their territory. And no one seems to be really regulating it closely.

And it is -it comes back to the idea that Somalia is still a sovereign state with a territorial limit and a government, the Transitional Federal Government, TFG. We have to treat them as such. They have a seat at the United Nations.

CONAN: And they control about five square miles of Somalia.

Prof. PATCH: They do, and that's problematic. There's - at one point there was three separate governments in the three separate major regions, you know, Somaliland, Puntland, and the southeastern part of Somalia as well, Mogadishu. So who do you deal with, you know?

That's a problem. Why haven't we addressed it in 16 years? Well, I would argue that it hasn't come up to the focus of international attention to be threatening business or national security interests.

CONAN: Well, you mentioned the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia, which was indeed with the support of the United States.

Prof. PATCH: Yes. And I can't speak too much to that. I don't think it's necessarily linked to piracy. So Abdi probably has a valid perspective from his point, but until somebody is willing to stroke a check for a huge effort to essentially do some state building, you know, reconstructing the institutions of a state, we're going to have the problem of piracy in Somalia.

It's ironic that the one time piracy was subdued was when the rather extremist Islamic courts took over the region and essentially set up Sharia law. Because of that, piracy was outlawed because it was against Islam. And for a period there, there was no piracy.

When the Ethiopians came in to the region, they pushed the Islamist courts out, piracy returned. Kind of ironic.

CONAN: Retired Navy Commander John Patch teaches at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. He joined us today in Studio 3A. You can find a link to his article about piracy called "The Overstated Threat" from Proceedings magazine, and an interactive map of pirate attacks in 2009 on our Web site at npr.org.

Thanks very much for joining us today.

Prof. PATCH: My pleasure.

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