by Olivier Knox
WASHINGTON - A US lawmaker known for broadsides at US foreign policy says Somali piracy has an age-old solution: "Letters of marque" empowering private citizens to chase the seaborne scoundrels from the oceans.
Republican Representative Ron Paul and a handful of conservative theorists say it's time that the US Congress used the technique, pioneered by European powers in the 18th Century as a way to wage naval warfare on the cheap.
Major shipping companies should accept a "go at your own risk" approach and not expect government help when they transit through pirate-infested waters, Paul said this week in a video posted on the public Internet site YouTube
'I don't think just because people go into these dangerous waters that our army and navy and air force and everything has to follow,' he said, adding that letters of marque would allow merchant ships to sail armed.
'I think if every potential pirate knew that this would be the case, they would have second thoughts, because they could probably be blown out of the water rather easily if those were the conditions,' said the Texas lawmaker.
The US Constitution explicitly allows Congress to issue such letters, in effect giving private parties a license to fight hostile seaborne forces like pirates, in theory without fear of being branded pirates themselves.
Typically, the arrangement offered privateers no reward from the government except a share of the booty recovered, taking all of the risk and attendant costs off the books of frequently cash-strapped global powers.
Some famous beneficiaries included Henry Morgan, famed explorer Francis Drake, as well as William Kidd - who stands as an example of the shadiness of the practice, having been hanged in London in 1701 for piracy and murder.
Lacking a potent navy of its own, the US government relied on such letters in the young republic's early days, notably in the War of 1812 against Britain, and never signed the 1856 Declaration of Paris outlawing the practice.
During World War II, Washington issued a letter of marque enabling the civilian-operated airship Resolute to patrol for submarines.
But even some modern supporters, like the free-market boosting Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) in Washington say the concept needs updating to offer a viable solution to Somali piracy.
'It's the type of free-market solution to a real problem that Congress should consider but hasn't in any serious way,' said CEI senior fellow Eli Lehrer, who urged Congress "to revisit the concept".
If the letters were issued to private pirate hunters rather than used as a way to allow merchant vessels to arm themselves, it would raise the obvious problem of how to reward them: Somali pirates, unlike their Hollywood colleagues, aren't known for treasure chests piled high with gold.
The US government stepped around the problem after the September 11, 2001 attacks by placing a multi-million-dollar bounty on the heads of top Al-Qaeda terrorists, including Osama bin Laden.
'Issuing letters of marque are one way to foster the protection of American citizens abroad without requiring an American military presence in foreign territory,' said CEI policy analyst Michelle Minton.
'If international governing bodies fail at the task, which repeated pirate attacks seem to indicate, the US government should do something,' she said in a statement last week.
For Paul, however, the goal is reducing what he describes as US overinvolvement abroad.
'Overall, I think it (Somali piracy) raises questions about our foreign policy and once again, I think foreign intervention leads to all kinds of problems,' he said.
Paul, who ran for president in 2008, also proposed legislation to revive letters of marque in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, but the measure stalled.