Pirates Provoke Much Gnashing of Teeth at National Review

A Guest Post by Daniel Luban

The last few weeks have been frustrating ones for the foreign policy hawks at National Review and other right-wing strongholds. With President Obama coming off a European tour that garnered largely positive reviews, his administration planning to escalate the war effort in Afghanistan, and hints of reconciliation in the relationships with Russia and Iran, there have been regrettably few examples of foreign “provocation” and American “appeasement” to get up in arms about. Many of them seized upon Obama’s apparent bow to King Abdullah last week as the latest outrage against America’s honor, but it soon became evident that the story had no real legs and the public had little interest in it.

In this regard, the latest developments in the Somali pirate saga have been a godsend. The initial seizure of the Maersk Alabama, and the continued captivity of captain Richard Phillips, have succeeded in rousing the denizens of National Review Online from their apathy and working them into a nationalist tizzy. In the process, the story has produced a number of gems for Corner addicts such as myself.

Mark Krikorian (who typically limits himself to the anti-immigration beat) was among the first Cornerites to respond to the story, in a post that laid out many of the tropes of subsequent commentary. The incident is “the first pirate attack on an American ship since the last time jihadis tried it, in 1804,” Krikorian tells us, before warning that “if every one of those pirates on the lifeboat isn’t sleeping with the fishes within the next day or two, then the ChiComs, the ayatollahs, Putin, and the rest will figure they were right about Obama’s effete diffidence and will act accordingly.”

Andy McCarthy soon one-upped him with an article that cast the struggle in near-apocalyptic terms:

“Civilized” is a much-misunderstood word, thanks to the “rule of law” crowd that is making our planet an increasingly dangerous place. Civilization is not an evolution of mankind but the imposition of human good on human evil. It is not a historical inevitability. It is a battle that has to be fought every day, because evil doesn’t recede willingly before the wheels of progress.

Some commentators, of course, point out that the current piracy epidemic has sprung up largely in response to local fishermen’s loss of livelihood due to foreign fishing in Somali territorial waters – not to mention the collapse of the only relatively stable Somali government of the last fifteen years following the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of 2006. Against such modern-day Neville Chamberlains, McCarthy thunders that “it is not civilized to appease evil, to treat it with ‘dignity and respect,’ [or] to rationalize its root causes.” Yet “this is the self-destructive straightjacket for which transnational progressives are fitting us.” Fortunately,

The Americans on the Alabama, like the Americans on Flight 93, didn’t wait for the international community to send the pirates a strong letter. They saw evil, they took it on, and as a result they took their ship and their lives back. The president may not think the United States is a particularly exceptional country, but you can bet Islamic radicals on land and sea noticed that dealing with a U.S. crew is an exceptional experience. There remains something in the American character that won’t slide so easily into the straitjacket.

While few could match McCarthy’s fervor, other Cornerites got into the act. Mackubin Owens linked the piracy problem to the broader war on terror, since “in both cases we have extended legal rights to people who do not deserve them,” before arguing that the pirates should be hanged upon capture and their lairs wiped out by force. Mark Steyn expressed nostalgia for the good old days of empire, when “Somaliland was a couple of sleepy colonies, British and Italian, poor but functioning,” and warned that “the civilized world” is preparing to “shrive[l] and retrea[t] in the face of state-of-the-art reprimitization.” And Ed Whelan, who has been leading the crusade against Harold Koh, the Obama administration’s nominee for State Department legal advisor, sought to link the rise of piracy to Koh’s “transnational” judicial views. (Whelan does concede that Koh probably does not personally approve of piracy, but notes darkly that he probably “doesn’t approve of traditional measures of dealing with pirates,” either.) Mario Loyola attempted to play voice of reason, pointing out that “[w]e have not lost, nor are we in any imminent danger of losing, any major thoroughfare of international maritime commerce,” but was quickly shouted down.

Still, for sheer spittle-flecked hysteria, it may be impossible to top Victor Davis Hanson; his post on the subject is worth reading in full. (Since Obama’s victory in November, VDH’s writings in general have become increasingly unhinged and often almost unreadable.) In the span of fewer than 250 words, he calls for “disproportionate measures” against the Somali mainland on the model of “Pompey’s victories over the Cilician pirates,” notes with dismay the portrayal of pirates “in academic circles” as “contrarian individualists, admirable anarchists, Marxist redistributionists, sexually ambiguous, cross-dressing, transgendered libertines, and Lotus-eater-like sensualists,” suggests that “such esoteric theorizing has filtered down to the U.S. State Department,” and frets that the U.S. is moving toward a foreign policy based on “a touchy-feely sort of seminar discussion, laced with atonement, reaction.”

It remains to be seen whether the Cornerites’ current enthusiasm for piracy will persist beyond the next outrage against American honor and decency, whatever it may be.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. The neocons are experts in handling nasty folks like the Somali pirates. After all, they cleaned up Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and the Iraqi insurgents in a jiffy. Did a really great job. We should study at their feet.

  2. You portray mindset brilliantly. It always leaves a strong taste of 19th century double standards tumbling out from behind a superficially thin moral veneer. The “neo-ethic” of the will to war propagated by e.g. the “Ayn Rand scholar” Yaron Brook: We have to be willing, morally willing.

    See Yaron Book’s Morality of War as the ultimate “ethical” necessity. I’ll never forget this guy. It was pretty amazing to watch O’Reilly outperformed on the right. “Wouldn’t that make us Nazis?” he probed.

    How does it feels inside these heads? Only doing one’s duty? And no I am not ignoring the Nazis, they are 19th century self-righteousness dropping the thin ethical veneer.

  3. It may seem at the moment that the successful rescue of the ship’s captain will stop the Cornerites huffing and puffing. But please note that the pirates have stated they will kill Americans in revenge for the deaths of their fellows. This is not an idle threat. Americans are almost certain to be killed by pirates in the future, the killings no doubt taped and distributed worldwide via the internet. This could turn into a major problem for the administration, forcing it to take some of the actions the Cornerites have been calling for.

  4. These guys throw words like “evil” and “civilization” rather casually. Do they have definitions? Beyond “I don’t like it” or “my way”? V. Gordon Childe had a list of 10 characteristics of civilization, for example. What would McCarthy list?

    Of course, would any of these geniuses be in an amphibious assault of some pirate village?

    Zhu Bajie, alive in the bitter sea

  5. “Civilized” is a much-misunderstood word, thanks to the “rule of law” crowd that is making our planet an increasingly dangerous place. Civilization is not an evolution of mankind but the imposition of human good on human evil. It is not a historical inevitability. It is a battle that has to be fought every day, because evil doesn’t recede willingly before the wheels of progress.”

    -Eww…the rule of law crowd. Why can’t [they] get it through their heads that civilization means cracking heads and in order to make “statements” to the nefarious “other” who presumably, can understand nothing else but force.

    Ugh. Of course, pirates are bad but how one tires of hearing the neocons positively cream themselves with nationalistic delight whenever anything goes wrong and the possibility of using force presents itself. I would put the Straussians, the Randians and the Neoconservatives all together in one basket labeled “The We-would-be-amusing-if-we-were-not-so-dangerous-to-liberal-society Club”.

    Zhu Bajie makes a good point: These folks don’t seem to be able to operate at any of the speeds between 15 Mph and Mach 3.

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