When President Jefferson decided to send a naval expedition to Tripoli to rescue American seamen and punish the Barbary pirates, the opposition to him was practical: did we have the naval vessels and if not did we want to raise taxes to pay for them? Did we have allies with whom to embark on such a difficult campaign? Assuming success, what were we supposed to do next to insure the pirates did not lie low, regroup, begin their trade as soon as we looked the other way?
The third president’s answer to the first set of issues was to remind Americans that we already were being taxed due to the lawlessness in the western Mediterranean: the reason our ships were attacked by proto-Islamist terrorists (they justified their criminality with Koranic references, as Jefferson, who studied the Koran, was aware) was that it was lucrative to attack them, steal the goods they carried, and ransom their crews. Admittedly, it could be argued (it was) that spending on the navy was in effect a way to socialize risk, to use an anachronism; no one was forcing merchants to sail along those dangerous routes. But the president did not underestimate the value and importance of free trade to general economic growth. He also was well aware, of course, that a republic that did not defend its citizens would not last long. The slogan “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” rallied support for Jefferson’s policy, though Congress remained recalcitrant throughout the years of the Barbary campaigns and the Navy and the nascent Marine Corps were always under-funded. (Which also was a reason for the use of a privateer, a remarkable man named William Eaton, who organized something of a proto-Blackwater, at one point in the campaign.)
The second set of issues Jefferson dealt with by trying to enlist the British and the French in the formation of a “perpetual cruise,” a Mediterranean version of NATO if we want to keep looking for proto-this and proto-that, which would maintain peace and free trade in the region. Our future best allies had other idea, so Jefferson decided on a coalition of the willing avant la lettre and went at it alone. As campaigns go it was not bad, though there was no definitive victory.
You can argue that we should have dealt with the modern pirates of Tripoli a long time ago: the best opportunity probably occurred during President Reagan’s second term, when Moammar Gaddafi sponsored terrorist attacks that killed American servicemen in Germany. Long-range air attacks from USAF bases in England hit the dictator in his lair but did not kill him, while naval air power showed we could handle his Soviet-trained and equipped fighter planes over the Mediterranean. But there was no military follow-up, as for better or worse our policymakers chose the economic sanctions route coupled with diplomatic isolation to contain and, the idea was, eventually bring down the regime. It lasted another quarter century, tyrannizing the several tribal groups who constituted “Libya,” making mischief wherever possible, alternately subverting black African countries by supporting and arming rebels, or trying to buy influence in them with lavish investments or personal gifts to their rulers. Gaddafi presented himself as the successor of Egypt’s Nasser as a pan-Arabist and, when rebuffed by Middle Easterners who neither liked nor trusted him (he tried to kill members of the Saudi royal family), he put in (bought, actually) a claim as king of African kings. A hell of a guy — and he liked athletic and well-endowed women, used them as bodyguards and nurses, regularly fell in love with them, though it was a sicko kind of love, narcissistic and puerile. He was an inveterate, vicious, violent anti-Semite and he hated Berbers, an important minority in Libya, despite the Berber admixtures in his own tribe.
Could’a had him any day, as Willie Nelson says in one of his songs, and if there were quite a few people on his payroll who would have shed a tear, it is unlikely there would have been more than a few diplomatic tut-tuts.
But the Gaddafi problem, like the problem of the Barbary pirates 200 years earlier, was destined to remain emblematic, in its relatively small way, of our problems with what first was called the Orient, later the Near East and the Middle East. We did not understand — our allies disagreed — we disagreed among ourselves — we hesitated between force and reason — we thought, always, the people could be differentiated and separated from their rulers.
The latest version of this particular notion occurred with such buffoonery as to leave one almost speechless. A French bellelettrist who happened to know the wife of the French president convinced the latter that the “people” in Benghazi, the eastern capital of Libya and the center of tribal groups that always had been cut out and persecuted by Gaddafi, were not only in revolt — this was not the first time, and his repressions had been brutal and unforgiving — they were flying the French flag, maybe singing the Marseillaise, though with Italian accents.
There might be very good reasons for finally settling the Gaddafi problem; and using the pretext of a humanitarian intervention, as the dictator prepared to drown the Benghazi revolt in blood, was perfectly legitimate founded on longstanding practice by civilized nations. You cannot do this everywhere — did we ever roll back the Soviet empire? — but when you can, other interests being duly assessed, it is not dishonorable.
Where humanitarian intervention takes on the suspicious coloration of a fig leaf is where it needs to tell itself that the rescued wretched slaves are automatically going to jump to your tune. But then is it really humanitarian intervention, something done for them, or is it a self-serving exercise, an act of vanity that others (young men in uniform) will pay for with their blood? Messrs. Sarkozy, Cameron, and Obama told their own people, and the world, they were doing this purely out of the goodness of their hearts. The Libyans were waiting for a chance to be just like us! How could we turn them down?
Foolish as this was, was it any more so than our notion that the Afghan and Iraqi peoples would all stand up at the sight of our armored columns and clamor for copies of The Federalist Papers? However, Gaddafi was overthrown after nearly a year of civil war in which the easterners, with substantial help from Berber groups in the country’s west, prevailed thanks to American, British, and French support, notably in the air. A squadron from one of the small Gulf emirates flew missions as well. Does it matter which one? The point is obvious: The Arabs could not bring themselves to overthrow a tyrant. Either by his own subjects or by a foreign power. Ten years in Mesopotamia might have taught us that.
As in other countries that experienced a “spring” — the wave began in Tunisia in December 2010 — elections were eventually organized in Libya to give legitimacy to an assembly charged with inventing a new regime, writing a constitution, and getting the electric power back on. The Libyan assembly that was elected this past spring included perhaps more self-described secularists than avowed theocrats than did the ones elected in Libya’s western and eastern neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt. The influence of Islamist agitators, quite overt during the civil war, was not diminished by this political development. With networks, trans-national financial supports, caches of arms, and simplicity of message — Islam is the answer — they could sustain their appeal to a weary people with little confidence in the new regime’s ability to help them in such fundamental areas as security, let alone in the organization of the minimal order required to rebuild the country, found credible institutions, provide a new base for economic activity.
Recent administrations have been, with curious perspicacity, unable or unwilling to grasp the sources and motivations of the Islamic political movement, commonly called Islamism. It is not as if the information to understand it is unavailable or hermetic. “Pan-Islamism” did not begin with the Iranian revolution, as is commonly assumed, any more than Islamic terrorism began with Osama bin Laden. Since the 1920s Islamic scholars and intellectuals have laid out a record of just what they think is wrong with their societies and what can be done to repair them. Activists have shown, in many countries and under varied circumstances, that deeds will follow ideas. The deeds are remarkable by their coherence, committed by people who know exactly what they want.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, murdered alongside three aides in the line of duty, paid the ultimate price in the service of his country. Sadly, he paid the price, too, of administrations and foreign policy establishments unwilling to take the full measure of political Islam. In at least two ways, even our experienced foreign policy officers (Amb. Stevens was on the Libya case at least since the revolt against Gaddafi began) insist on the frankly arrogant notion that Islamic societies can be reformed along Western lines. G.W. Bush, following Woodrow Wilson, thought he was a crusader for democratic self-determination and would be welcomed as such in Iraq. B. H. Obama, following Jimmy Carter, thinks of himself as a champion of human rights, wherein if you remove the obstacles to indigenous self-expression (including Western imperialism), mutual respect will follow and universal peace will be just around the corner. Both found it impossible to conceive that their conceptions of democracy or human rights were of zero interest to Islamist theoreticians and militants. And by corollary, they could not conceive that Islam, or elements within Islam, simply were not amenable to reform as we think of the process. They were, rather, at war.
Whether they were, and are still, at war with us, or with themselves, or with what they take to be noxious, kaffir influences and powers within their own societies, is a question for political scientists or historians — or psychologists. We cannot do much about it. We can, however, stop fooling ourselves. The regimes that we foster in the Islamic world are not what we think they are, or what we want them to be.