Forget the economy!

Vice President Joe Biden says the White House is working “around the clock” on the problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and on the Indian Ocean.

Asked by a reporter to address the matter — which is suddenly in the news after speedboating Somalis briefly commandeered and hijacked a U.S.-flagged ship off northeast Africa — Biden interrupted his weekly meeting with Cabinet members and administration officials on the spending of stimulus funds to declare that: “This is being worked on around the clock since this happened.”

No details from the veep, just this revelation that all hands are on deck.

Certainly, U.S. officials should be monitoring the mess off Somalia, where the pirates kidnapped the captain of the U.S.-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama.

The destroyer USS Bainbridge has been moved into the area.

A drone is flying over the lifeboat on which the pirates are holding the captain. It is feeding images to the Bainbridge and, presumably, the White House.

So things have gone all Barbary Coast on an administration that had not been planning on making this “Talk Like a Pirate Week.”

Of course, all reasonable efforts must be made to free the captain.

But before anyone gets too trigger happy here, it’s important to remember why piracy is “suddenly” a problem.

Somalia is about as failed a failed state as you’ll find on the planet. Piracy, once a minor problem in the region, exploded into a major matter after the collapse in late 2006 of the Islamic Courts Union, which had controlled the central and southern regions of Somalia.

Now, the country is lawless and impoverished. And desperate young men are taking to the high seas in search of illicit income.

The U.S. — which has been too busy establishing military bases in the region — needs to get a lot more serious about the specific economic and political crisis in Somalia and the broader problems of northeast Africa. That does not mean that the U.S. should be thinking about invading countries or imposing governments; rather the U.S. should be working with the United Nations and African-based organizations to get needed resources and support to those forces on the ground that can feed the people and stabilize the region.

Unless that is done, piracy will remain the preferred option to those who do not choose to starve quietly beyond the reach of international attention and concern.

More than two years ago, following a massive and dramatically destabilizing military incursion into Somalia by neighboring Ethiopia, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the chairman of the Africa subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared that, “The U.S. must play more of a leadership role, instead of relying on the piecemeal diplomacy that has failed us in the past. The key challenge now is to transition Somalia from a failed state to a peaceful, stable country. We must help establish a credible government that can work to eliminate the conditions that have long made Somalia a haven for terrorists and a source of instability in a critical region.”

“As part of a real strategy for Somalia and the Horn of Africa, we should dispatch a presidential envoy to the region and work aggressively to help stabilize and rebuild that country…” Feingold continued. “Without aggressive U.S. engagement and international determination, Somalia will remain what it has been –- a haven for terrorists, a source of instability throughout the region, and a threat to our national security.”

Unfortunately, Feingold’s fears have been realized.

The senator is renewing his call, saying, the hijacking and kidnapping incidents offer “a stark reminder that our current efforts in the region are insufficient. Until stability, the rule of law, and effective governance are established, Somalia and the Puntland region in particular will remain a safe haven for these pirates. We must commit to a comprehensive strategy to protect innocent lives and defend our national security interests in the region. The Obama administration should work with the international community to stabilize Somalia and rebuild its institutions so we can end this problem.”

Feingold’s right.

Now that the White House is focused “around the clock” on Somalia — one of the most neglected spots on the planet — the administration should not just react to particular pirate attacks. It needs to focus on the factors that have made piracy not just Somalia’s problem but our problem.