The US can learn from its 18th-century experience with piracy, Michael Oren writes in the Wall Street Journal. America had no Navy in 1785, so when the Barbary Pirates demanded a million-dollar tribute in exchange for free passage through the Mediterranean, America paid. That million dollars represented 10% of the national budget, but in exchange for this ransom, “America only received more piracy,” he observes. Today, some countries have paid millions in ransom to Somali pirates—to roughly the same effect.
Eventually, a fed up Thomas Jefferson built a Navy and cleaned up the corsairs by force. Today’s world is more complicated than Jefferson’s, but one thing hasn’t changed, says Oren: “The only effective response to piracy is a coercive one.” This time, we can build an international coalition against the Somali bandits and, as Commodore Stephen Decatur put it, “offer them liberal and enlightened terms, dictated at the mouths of our cannons.”