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The War on Piracy

Kris Schnee

Marines on campus may have some knowledge of the first war this country fought against a piratical Muslim nation. The words “To the shores of Tripoli” in the Marines’ song refer to a war fought about 200 years ago in the name of national honor and protecting Americans -- a “war on piracy” that we can learn from now that history is repeating itself.

The American Revolution left the national economy a mess, debt-ridden with disrupted trade. Halfway across the world, bands of state-sponsored pirates moved to take advantage of the new United States. These were the Barbary pirates, four countries (Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli) whose kings ruled in the name of Islam. These kings routinely extorted tribute from Western countries, or declared war on them as an excuse for raiding their merchant ships in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. When England stopped paying for Americans’ protection, the pirates began robbing and kidnapping Americans.

At the time, there was no single incident like September 11 to set off an American response; instead, this country idly stood by in the 1780s while its people were enslaved and dying of plague in Algiers, the most hostile state. There was no way to respond; there was no money to pay tribute, to ransom the captives, or to fight. The American people couldn’t even agree on why they were under attack. Were the Barbary kings just greedy pirate scum? Was there a conspiracy by Europeans to use Arabs against their business competitors? (If there were no Barbary Coast, a saying went, Europe would build one.) Or was the Muslim world acting out of traditional hostility to “Christian” America?

John Paul Jones, naval hero of the Revolution, wanted not just a war but “a crusade.” Once the Constitution came online in 1789, one was possible. President Washington decided that while diplomacy was worthwhile even if it meant bribery to our enemies, it was necessary to back up the diplomats with the threat of force. Washington ordered the construction of the first permanent U.S. Navy to fight piracy. This threat of force didn’t work, since the ships were built so late that the years of “war” with Algiers were a one-sided series of attacks on American civilians. Our government spent money for national security without accomplishing its aim, and the result was a humiliating treaty by which the country paid annually for peace.

Americans had little idea what was going on at the Barbary Coast. The U.S. ambassadors to those countries were a motley crew: tactless William Eaton and the two other ambassadors grew to hate each other. The men representing America were at each other’s throats, while dealing with a home government that wouldn’t give them the jewels and gold the kings demanded. Our ambassadors operated in the dark, lacking good communication with the State Department and leaving the American people in ignorance of when pirates would strike again.

By the time Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, negotiations were falling apart. Jefferson bristled at the idea of paying tribute and had long called for war to eliminate the threat of the pirate states; now he had the power to do so. He had promised budget cutbacks, so he cut the Navy’s size. He sent the shrunken fleet to the Atlantic with vague orders to find out which countries were at war with America and attack them, to “chastise their insolence.” The four dispatched ships arrived to find that the state of Tripoli had sent its pirate ships in search of Americans.

The war on piracy had the goal of stopping Tripoli’s attacks on Americans, but there was little agreement on what that meant. The initial plan was to blockade Tripoli and trap its ships until the king gave in and signed a favorable treaty, but inept Commodore Richard Morris spent his time cruising the Mediterranean with his wife and convoying merchant ships until being yanked home for court-martial. There was no communication with our forces abroad, and thus no accountability. There was also the danger that war with Tripoli would turn into war with the entire Barbary Coast. Here Jefferson and his diplomats acted skillfully to fight the specific threat to Americans and rely on peaceful means to push other potentially hostile countries towards a lasting peace -- at least until the war with Tripoli was finished.

Because of the confusion over the war’s objectives, it turned into an attempt at nation-building. Ambassador Eaton grew impatient at the slow progress of a Navy-only war and formed a band of mercenaries and Marines, intending to invade Tripoli’s capital by land and replace the king with the king’s brother. Eaton led his men across hundreds of miles of desert and captured the city of Derne against amazing odds, but found he’d been sold out. Jefferson backed away from his semi-official support of the mission, and a rival ambassador signed a peace treaty with Tripoli before Eaton could march on the capital. There was no guarantee of a lasting peace; breaking treaties was sound Barbary business practice. It was not until after the War of 1812 that a strong, experienced American fleet would go to each Barbary port and offer new treaties at gunpoint.

What most Americans saw of the war on piracy was a patriotic adventure: the U.S.S. Enterprise wreaking havoc, greedy kings humbled, and the country proving itself a world power. Others saw the disasters that American foreign policy could cause when conducted at long range, in secret, including the fact that American tribute provided much of the weaponry used by pirates. Laments for American slaves in Algiers led people to look at slavery in America, and Eaton’s expedition raised the question of whether it was right, or practical, to replace an enemy government. Among calls for a crusade against piracy were people who had made their living at similar work, including John Paul Jones, “The Yankee Pirate.” Two hundred years later, do we have clear and honorable goals, or are we on another vague crusade?