If you're anything like me the extent of your knowledge about the Barbary War is that Jefferson fought it and that it's commemorated in the Marine hymn: "...to the shores of Tripoli." Here though, presented in immensely readable fashion, is a history of what turn out to have been America's Barbary Wars, not just one war. Indeed, the fact that a subsequent war was required is just one of the ways that Joshua E. London ties the events of two hundred years ago, and of our first encounter with the Islamic world, into the events going on around us today. The parallels he draws help us both to understand the successes and failures of strategy in our own time and to relate better to our distant ancestors as they experience many of the same.
Though we refer to them as pirates, Mr. London shows that we might better think of the Barbary raiders as state-sponsored terrorists. Acting on behalf of the rulers of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers, they would harass Mediterranean shipping and capture boats and crews. Ships were converted to the state's use and crewmen essentially enslaved or both were held for ransom. The European nations had settled into an acceptance of this sort of outrage and paid regular tribute or protection money, but the young American nation, once it lost Britain's protection, could neither easily afford such payments nor abide by their moral taint. And so, especially under President Jefferson, the United States decided to pursue a unilateral policy of resisting the Barbary states, even to the point of attempted regime change. All that sounds familiar enough and redounds to our credit. However, this is also a story of bureaucratic turf wars and infighting, of feckless leaders, of a policy only haphazardly applied, and, in the most haunting parallel of all, of how the regime change was stopped just when it was about to work, thereby requiring a second, and definitive, war later under Jefferson's successor and political heir, James Madison.
The tragic figure who holds this tale together is William Eaton--a Captain in the Revolutionary War and later consul to Tunis--who pushes throughout for a sterner American response to Barbary provocations. In response to an early humiliation--when the U.S.S. George Washington was forced by Dey Bobba Mustafa to transport an embassy to Constantinople under the Algerine flag in October, 1800--he wrote:
"Genius of My country! How art thou prostrate! Hast thou not yet one son whose soul revolts, whose nerves convulse, blood vessels burst, and heart indignant swells at thought of such debasement?
Shade of Washington! Behold thy orphan'd sword hang on a slave--A voluntary slave, and serve a Pirate!....Shall Tunis also lift his thievish arm, smite our scarred cheek, then bid us kiss the rod! This is the price of peace! But if we will have peace at such a price, recall me, and send a slave, accustomed to abasement, to represent the nation.... History shall tell that the United States first volunteered a ship of war, equipped, a carrier for a pirate. ... Frankly I own, I would have lost the peace, and been impaled myself rather than yielded this concession. Will nothing rouse my country!"
Eaton was to be more fortunate than the modern counterpart he eerily summons up: John O'Neill, FBI agent John O'Neill, whose warnings about al Qaeda went for nought and who perished in the WTC on 9-11, having just taken over as head of security there. Eaton did get to see his nation heed his warnings and returned home a hero after the first Barbary War. But the mission he led, to recruit Ahmad Qaramanli for a revolt against his brother, the Tripolitine leader, Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli, was abandoned just as it seemed about to succeed in the first American-led regime change. He managed to rescue Ahmad and remained his friend for years, but was left embittered by the experience, took to drink, and died a broken man in 1811. This makes his legacy all the more poignant:
"During the war with Tripoli, the United States began to test William Eaton's hypothesis that fighting back and protecting the national honor and the national interest with force was the best way to end Barbary piracy. Just at the moment of triumph, however, President Thomas Jefferson wavered and settled on the side of expediency. Jefferson's lack of resolve left American interests unguarded, and once again, American trade felt the Barbary terror. By 1816, however, the United States finally proved that William Eaton was right. This success ignited the imagination of the Old World powers to rise up against the Barbary pirates.
In late August 1816, a combined British and Dutch fleet under the command of Lord Exmouth (formerly Sir Edward Pellew) followed the example of Commodore Stephen Decatur, forcing a peace at the mouth of a cannon. This armada unleashed hell upon Algiers, destroying most of the coastal side of the city, as well as most of its navy and marina. The dey accepted all of Lord Exmouth's demands. More than eleven hundred Christian captives were released from slavery, and the dey agreed to abolish Christian slavery in Algiers forever."
Nice to be right, but best to live to see it.
The degree to which the war(s) connects to our own times necessarily suggests that we apply its lessons today. This seems all the more important when we recall that almost all of our other wars follow the pattern: only reluctantly entered into and then left unfinished. It's too late for us to start the War on Terror on our own initiative--9/11 saw to that. But we can, just this once, refuse to let up in the war until it's truly won. In this instance that will mean getting liberal democratic reform going in every single Middle Eastern state and denying al Qaeda the safe havens it still enjoys in Western Pakistan. Let's not leave another William Eaton to be proved right in retrospect.