Privateers to battle pirates

Anyone who learned some Tudor history at school has probably heard of “privateers”. (Licensed pirates,)

Plus ca change etc. According to Voice of America,

Private Contractors May Protect Against Somali Pirates

Pirates have captured 20 ships in and around the Gulf of Aden so far this year.

Naval vessels from about 10 nations will soon be patrolling the waters off the Somali coast, trying to prevent pirates from hijacking cargo ships.

The international efforts may soon be extended to include “private contractors”.

Now, Blackwater, a firm providing thousands of private contractors in Iraq, is offering its services to battle pirates.

VoA (somewhat unaccountably) interviewed a Maryland college professor for a view on this. (Is Maryland twinned with the Yemen?)

“I think it’s important to note first that historically this has been done. In fact, several hundred years ago, when piracy was rampant off the coast of Africa, it brought English trade in that region to a standstill. And the East India Company actually employed private convoys to protect their ships from pirates..

I will try to temporarily ignore the fact that “several hundred years ago,” English trade off the coast of Africa was the Triangle Trade (manufactured goods taken from England to Africa; slaves from Africa to the Americas; and sugar from the American plantations back to England.) All the same, this could hardly be seen as “trade” in any good sense.

I am also a bit confused by this particular historical parallel. The East India Company? My foggy memory of history had me thinking that the East India Company had something to do with India – indeed basically colonised India on a for-private-profit basis, not to mention caused any number of wars in its wake. Indeed, Wikipedia seems to share my delusion.

Maybe protecting the East India Company sounds a more respectable instance of the use of private naval warfare contractors than if you think of privateers in terms of the Pirates-of-the-Caribbean. Indeed, maybe, international co-operation can’t stamp out piracy in the Gulf of Aden. But in that case, what chance would an ad hoc private navy have?
More from VoA:

Cost of the private escort duty may outweigh the risk of sailing unprotected.
Berube says, “That would depend I think on the contracts themselves, but if you are a shipping company, for example, you would have to balance off the cost of providing that extra protection versus the potential loss of revenue… …
Berube says that his research shows most agree private contractors would provide escort duty and not hunt down pirates. “This is really simply just an extension of security that is already provided on some ships. We have armed riders for example. Some shipping companies are providing people on board to protect themselves from pirates,” he says.
He says, however, they must comply with international law, as well as local agreements

Hmm, Somalia has been in a state of complete chaos on and off for a couple of decades. International law doesn’t seem very big there. If it was – there wouldn’t be any pirates…… Or the UN would be able to stamp out the piracy threat, using member states’ existing navies. Without recourse to any private navy. Anyway, what is international law on the high seas? Who enforces it?

Are international governments like cash-strapped Tudor monarchs, forced to pursue their international objectives through fortune-seekers who’ll do the monarchs’ dirty work while enriching themselves?

It’s not just 1984 any more. Welcome to the Realpolitik of the 15th century.

Customer focus and Blackwater

Blackwater being rather topical, I thought I’d find out something about who or what Blackwater is. In the last couple of days, CNN has been bursting with stories about the reported activities of Blackwater employees, with the shooting of Iraqi civilians being only the cherry on a large unsavoury cake.

On 2 August, James Meek, writing in The London Review of Books reviewed “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” by Jeremy Scahill, thus showing an impressive degree of prescience regarding their future news value.

Even in this privatisation-hardened age, even in the United States, the notion that military installations are a monopoly of government remains so ingrained that in 2003, when the Chilean-American arms go-between José Miguel Pizarro Ovalle first saw the real-world mercenary processing centre run by the private firm Blackwater in North Carolina, he had to reach for the imagery of Cubby Broccoli. ‘It’s a private army in the 21st century,’ he gushed to Jeremy Scahill.

The whole tone of the article refers constantly to the fantasy James Bond villain-style of the organistion

It is a private military base, spread over seven thousand acres, near the town of Moyock and the Great Dismal Swamp, with firing ranges, tactical exercise areas and an armoury (containing more than a thousand weapons, according to the Virginian-Pilot, the local newspaper, though there is no law preventing Blackwater stocking as many as it wants)

The book relates how a public sector contractor became a private sector nation-state without (much of) a landmass.

it was the al-Qaida attacks of 11 September 2001, and the subsequent US intervention in Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq, that turned the taxpayer cash flow from a dribble to a high-pressure jet of dollars. It also gave Blackwater the chance to transform itself from a company that trained government employees to shoot into a company that supplied its own, private shooters for service anywhere in the world.

Al-Qaida attacks may have been tough on the victims but they were the perfect business opportunity to Blackwater. It’s an ill wind that blows no good, as the old saying goes.

Someone needs to explain the whole philosophy of privatisation to me again. I naively assumed the general argument is that state-run companies don’t have to compete and so provide inefficient services and so on.

So it must be that the US Government started to feel that its boring old state monopoly army wasn’t customer-focussed enough. Someone thought “What this army needs is some competition.”

What a brilliant idea. Why not carry on and have dozens of customer focussed go-ahead armies, focussed on the bottom line, rather than old concepts like the nation state, which admittedly have hardly distinguished themselves in practice.

And there’s more of a plus. They could compete between themselves to carry out contracts. The cut and thrust of the marketplace needn’t just be a metaphor. They can start shooting it out over who gets to rule the next bit territory. Last company with a surviving chief executive wins. Bidding wars over contracts can become non-metaphorical.

As well as its cutting edge customer-focus, it’s not without a noble historical precedent, either. Every other minor lord could call a few hundred disposable peasants to back them up in medieval times. And they were so peaceful, weren’t they? Hey nonny no.

Companies can send any junior executives without a hope of becoming CEOs to the Middle East to take territory there. There are so many pre-modern echoes here it feels a bit like stepping into a VR Crusades museum.

Actually, I’ve just remembered that some experimental organisations like this have already been established among the civilian populations. I believe they are called gangs.