Posted by: sean | December 1, 2008

Pirates and public intellctuals

pirate flagDue to a silly remark in The Economist, Mathew Yglesias is convinced that he’s a genius. Ok, he’s using the term “outlier” that Malcolm Gladwell employs in his latest book, but the point is the same. (Incidentally, Gladwell has an interesting piece out on Picasso v. Cézanne, or prodigies v. late bloomers in The New Yorker.)

Yglesias was mentioned in The Economist in an article about Isaiah Berlin and the role of the public intellectual. As I’ve said before, it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone could compare Berlin with people like Ezra Klein or Mathew Yglesias. But finally, I suspect that their inclusion on the list of people we should expect to hear more from says more about the quality of the modern American public intellectual than it does about Yglesias and Klein. And Yglesias, who has brought up the Economist article on his blog several times now, shouldn’t forget that he’s being mentioned in the same breath as Thomas Friedman.

All of that to say that Yglesias is once again running his mouth about Somali pirates:

One might further note that the whole [piracy] situation is a big unintended consequence of the Christmas 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. Something that was done with full US support and loudly cheered by The Weekly Standard. But thought he consequence was unintended, it was widely predicted by people who knew what they were talking about. I harp on this because it’s a subject I was prescient on, but I wasn’t prescient due to any incredible leaps of genius — I just listened to the International Crisis Group rather than, you know, The Weekly Standard.

If you’re wondering how you missed the ICG report that told us that Somali piracy was a consequence of the Ethiopian invasion in late 2006, you’re not the only one. The ICG put out a report immediately following the routing of the Somali Islamic Courts Union and their Shabaab, which doesn’t mention pirates at all. More recently, there was an IHT piece that took the international community to task for focusing on the symptoms instead of the cause, piracy instead of the failed Somali state.

Somalia is a terribly complex country, and a stable peace there would involve conflicts within and between neighboring countries (Ethiopia’s separatist Somali movement in Ogaden province and the rivalry between Addis Ababa and Asmara, for example) as well as internal Somali issues like the conflict between the Shabaab and the “transitional” government, as well as breakaway provinces Puntland and Somaliland, the latter of which has, without any outside help, established itself as a safe and stable counterpoint to the rest of Somalia.

Somali piracy, like the disintegration of the Somali state, is a problem with a fairly long history. The current spate of Somali piracy has been going on in the area since the 1990s, and much of it is based out of Puntland, which was never controlled by the Islamic Courts Union. This, of course, throws a monkey wrench in Yglesias’s facile claim that the piracy is “a big unintended consequence of the Christmas 2006 Ethiopian invasion.” For that would imply that there wasn’t really any piracy before the invasion and that the piracy was all coming from areas from which the Islamic Courts Union was forcibly ejected.

Of course when one group that has been maintaining relative stability is forced out leaving a power vacuum, there will be much less order, thus making things easier for criminals, organized or otherwise. But to go from that common sense fact to what Yglesias is stating is pretty absurd. Sure, I understand that Yglesias is trying to show the stupidity of Kristol’s comments on how easy it would be to “deal with the pirates off the coast of Somalia,” but that’s really no excuse for being as overly simplistic as Kristol is.

But then again, maybe that’s what I should expect from Yglesias, because according to The Economist, he’s sure to join the ranks of America’s public intellectuals, and if we believe the Times, Kristol is a public intellectual par excellence.


  1. […] ab0ut the question of expertise, especially as it relates to places like Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. This is a subject that, much to the chagrin of my friends, I think and talk about a fair amount.  […]

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