Barack Obama and his anti-war supporters in the U.S. and abroad are loath to acknowledge that “diplomacy first” is only so effective when challenging Islamic terrorists. Voters should think long and hard about a candidate who wants to pull out of Iraq before stability is achieved, and who wants to sit down with Iranian leaders to amicably discuss our shared futures. As we sit on the precipice of our sixth year in Iraq, it’s worthwhile to examine some lessons from the eight-year conflict that, more than two centuries ago, gave us our first real taste of Islamic terrorism.
Often referred to as “America’s Forgotten War,” the Barbary Wars, like so many other important things, are seldom taught in U.S. history classes. With the Revolution and Civil Wars headlining on the main stage of American history, there’s rarely time in a school year to delve deeply into our country’s smaller skirmishes.
But small these weren’t. The first Barbary War lasted from 1801 to 1805, and the second from 1812 to 1816.
Barbary pirates from the Muslim states of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli had been marauding Europe for years, targeting Christian and other non-Islamic merchant ships — not just for their goods, but for their men. More than one million European Christians were captured, imprisoned, and sold as slaves in Northern Africa. In many cases, they were held until they died or converted to Islam.
A Tripolitan envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, explained the position of the Muslim states to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1786. “It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.”
After America gained independence from the British Empire, she was on her own in the rough and pirate-laden seas of the Mediterranean. Barbary pirates traditionally left merchant ships flying the British and French flags alone, but now that America was no longer a British colony, her ships were unprotected and vulnerable to attack.
American Democrats were reluctant to go to war against the Barbary states, and urged U.S. ambassadors to negotiate a peaceful agreement with the Islamic heads of state. They argued that after a costly Revolution, the U.S. should focus on western expansion and other domestic concerns. America had no navy, and was ill-equipped for battle on the seas, particularly in enemy territory abroad where Muslim nationals had clear advantages.
Faced with a superior force, John Adams agreed — much to the protest of Thomas Jefferson — to pay taxes to the North African countries, just as many other nations had done. These taxes covered the freedom to send out their trade ships, and to pay the costs of ransom for any captured Americans. They would equal a whopping 20 percent of U.S. annual revenues in 1800.
As the years ticked on, and paying tribute became a bitter but habitual pill to swallow, the U.S. slowly built its navy. In 1801, on the day of Thomas Jefferson’s presidential inauguration, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded $225,000 to give American ships safe passage through Barbary waters. Jefferson refused, promising nervous Americans that agreeing to pay tributes would only welcome more attacks on U.S. and European ships. The only way to end the Barbary reign of terror would be to go to war.
The American navy and the marines invaded Tripoli, and with the help of a coalition of Arab, Greek, and Berber allies eventually captured the city of Derna. In 1805, the U.S. and Tripoli signed a peace treaty, but the U.S. paid a ransom of $60,000 for the release of American prisoners. Some thought the ransom payment an acceptable price to pay for American lives. Many others believed the U.S. should have held its ground, and demanded a free release, by force if necessary.
Peace did not last. With the War of 1812 as a brutal distraction, America left the Barbary pirates unchecked and once again took up the unhappy habit of paying tributes for safe passage. More ships were taken, more men were tortured and enslaved. And in 1815, after refusing to pay the most recent tax, the U.S. again went to war with North Africa, eventually forcing the Dey of Algiers to sign another peace treaty and end once and for all the practice of taking Christian captives.
THOUGH there are many differences between the Barbary Wars and the current war in Iraq, there are also obvious similarities, and a number of scholars have pointed them out. Joseph Wheelan, in Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805, enunciates these commonalities and provides some astute analysis of America’s challenges with terrorism — past and present.
Clear lessons can be gained without the benefit of academic scholarship, however. One is that Islamic terrorists want to rid the world of non-Muslim people. Two, negotiating with Islamic factions is often unreliable. Three, leaving Islamic terrorists unchecked costs lives. If there’s any argument for staying in Iraq until there is stability and for dealing with Iran firmly and decisively, it exists within the narrative of the Barbary Wars. Let’s just hope that Barack Obama and Joe Biden learned about them in school.
S.E. Cupp is author of Why You’re Wrong About the Right, with Brett Joshpe. She lives in New York City.
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