Echoes from the Barbary Coast

Echoes from the Barbary Coast

Mini Teaser: America's war against the Barbary pirates 200 years ago bears similarities--and lessons--for the present war against terrorism.

by Author(s): Rand H. Fishbein

On the DAY that United Airlines flight 175 and American Airlines flight 11 lifted off from Boston's Logan airport, bound for a fiery collision with the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, a lone observer watched from below. That observer was the U.S.S. Constitution, the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy and an early witness to the ravages of Middle Eastern terrorism.

Launched in 1797, the Constitution ("Old Ironsides") and her sister ship, the U.S.S. Constellation, were built to wage war on the Muslim pirates operating along North Africa's Barbary Coast. It was a wild, untamed region of petty states and warlords whose reach extended deep into the Mediterranean Sea, from Gibraltar to the borders of Egypt. Each owed nominal allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan, who demanded that payment of an annual tribute be made to his treasury in exchange for the protection afforded by his army. This tidy arrangement worked well for those local rulers who knew their place in the imperial social order, and for the Sultan as well. The only thing lacking was an ample source of revenue. The solution was piracy.

For nearly four centuries the Barbary states, and the brigands they employed, prowled the Mediterranean in search of prey. The lumbering merchant vessels of the time were no match for the Muslim corsairs, built for speed and lightning strikes. It was a way of life that took its toll on countless merchant ships and their crews. After seizing their cargo and scuttling the vessels, the pirates would ransom the ill-fated seamen back to their sovereign or the company that had chartered them. Often enough, however, the victims of these maritime hijackings would languish in fetid prisons, unsure of when, or even if, they would ever be rescued. Some were sold into slavery.
It was a lucrative business, one that yielded great riches not only for the pirates, but also for the Muslim states that gave them refuge. For many of the rulers, plunder became a mainstay of their survival. In the parlance of our time, however, this system of piracy was state-sponsored terrorism, pure and simple-an extortion racket in which the pirate, the petty states of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire were all complicit.

Not surprisingly, the merchant nations of Europe took a dim view of the Muslim pirates. Even though many had a long tradition of privateering themselves, times were changing, and such practices were now deemed incompatible with a world increasingly dependent on commerce over the high seas. Nowhere was this new sentiment expressed more strongly than in America, where a young Congress, flush with a sense of invincibility after the War of Independence, readily took up the challenge. Having championed the cause of liberty and free trade during years of struggle, members were infuriated that the sovereignty of America's commercial fleet was not being respected. Since the Royal Navy no longer patrolled the sea lanes on behalf of the American colonies, American shipping was now vulnerable as never before; as the cost in lives and property mounted, the government concluded that something had to be done. But what should that something be?

In an effort at peaceful diplomacy, missions were dispatched to the Barbary states of Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco and Tunis with a modest proposal: The United States would pay an annual sum to each of the local Muslim warlords if they, in turn, would protect American vessels traveling in their waters.

To most of the politicians of that time, this seemed a perfectly reasonable and practical solution. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, the United States had neither the stomach nor the ability to fight another war, particularly one that would have to be waged so far from American shores. After all, this was the wily Middle East, a region known only to a few intrepid travelers, and plied by adventure-seekers and businessmen for whom kidnapping and ransom were constant occupational hazards. Moreover, paying tribute was a time-honored practice shared by both nation-states and petty kingdoms alike. A clear, business-like approach that did not require the shedding of blood also blended well with the rational sensibilities of the 18th-century mind. Piracy was presumed to be one of the many risks that attended foreign trade. If one could buy protection, even from the rogues themselves, how was this so different from insuring a ship's cargo against a natural calamity? So the logic ran: America's interests could be satisfied, and its honor assuaged, if common ground could be found between the pirates and their victims.

And so it happened that agreements were reached between the United States and the various rulers of the Barbary Coast. In exchange for cash payments, the rulers pledged to guarantee the safe passage of American ships and to put a stop to the practice of maritime kidnapping. As the 18th century came to a close, Americans were cautiously optimistic that they had solved the Barbary problem.

By 1801, however, it became clear that the policy of appeasement had failed. The Pasha of Tripoli, who five years earlier had been satisfied with a payment of $56,000, now demanded increasingly larger sums. When they were not forthcoming, piracy resumed. The same held true for the other Barbary states. The Algerians had received payments from the United States totaling $990,000, plus another $585,000 in 1793 to cover the ransom of eleven American ships. At the same time, the Bey of Tunis received $50,000. These were extraordinary sums for a nation with a budget of no more than $7 million, but the appetites of the Muslim states seemed to grow insatiably. As America soon learned, a policy of accommodation only encouraged the Barbary brigands to seize more ships and to take more captives. Far from providing safe passage to American and other foreign vessels, the North African rulers remained active accomplices to the crime of piracy, taking protection money while at the same time permitting the banditry to continue.

Things were to change, however, with the election of Thomas Jefferson. In addition to his reputation as an author, scholar and principal architect of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also was an outspoken opponent of the practice of tribute. He saw it not only as an affront to the nation's dignity, but also as an ineffectual response to an abhorrent practice. He argued that ultimately the policy of appeasement would fail because, in conveying weakness, it encouraged further treachery. He was right.

Jefferson's response to renewed attacks on American shipping was swift and uncompromising. He dispatched a squadron of three frigates and one sloop to the region. They were ordered to observe the deteriorating situation and provide whatever escort was needed to ensure the safety of American merchant vessels. By the time the frigates arrived, Pasha Yusuf Karamanli, the Bey of Tripoli, had declared war on the United States.

For the next two years the U.S. Navy conducted running operations against the Barbary pirates, attacking their corsairs and bombarding the coastal forts that sheltered them. The American battle cry, "millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute" (a slogan first used during the XYZ affair of 1798, but soon taken up in this campaign as well), resonated with a public tired of being held hostage to bandits and oriental potentates. The United States made repeated efforts to bring an honorable end to the fighting, but each was spurned by a defiant Karamanli, apparently convinced that the United States had neither the stamina nor the pluck for a prolonged war. This could not have been further from the truth.

Before long, Jefferson ordered the U.S.S. Constitution to the Mediterranean in an effort to force an end to the conflict. Setting sail in 1803, the ship was soon in the waters off Tripoli, where its powerful cannons were trained on the fortifications that protected Tripoli harbor. Buildings housing the Pasha's stores, barracks and powder magazines were razed. His palace was laid waste. The fighting during these days saw many acts of heroism that established the U.S. Navy as a force to be reckoned with. A daring raid by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur and 74 men led to the destruction of the captured frigate U.S.S. Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor. In another military action, the U.S.S. Intrepid was loaded with gunpowder, sailed into Tripoli harbor and exploded amid a multitude of the Pasha's ships. Then, in 1805, the Constitution supported the landing of Marines on "the shores of Tripoli" in an action that was subsequently immortalized in the Marine Corps hymn. The Americans and their allies destroyed the harbor citadel at Derna that served as the headquarters for the pirates.

Ultimately, Karamanli was brought to heel after William Eaton, the American consul in Tunis, hatched a plan to unseat the Pasha and turn over control of the country to his older brother, Hemet. Fearing his imminent demise, Yusuf relented and agreed to a treaty that halted raids on American shipping and led to the repatriation of captured American sailors. It also ended all U.S. tribute to the Barbary warlords. The agreement was signed aboard the deck of the U.S.S. Constitution.

For much of the next decade, American merchant shipping passed through the Mediterranean relatively unmolested. A series of raids by the pirates operating out of Algiers led to some minor naval action in 1815, but, effectively, the harassment of American and other Western shipping was ended. Firm action and a determined policy had brought success in America's first war with Middle Eastern terrorism.

As Americans struggle to make sense of the terrorism that struck New York and Washington on September 11, it is instructive to remember the war that first brought the United States into conflict with the countries of the Middle East. Much like today, it was a contest between two cultures, two iron wills and two differing views of the rights of sovereign states. It represented the clash of tribal societies with the emerging global perspective of a modern, democratic nation. Then there was no Israel to cloud the picture, oil had yet to be discovered in the Middle East, and there was no American military presence in the region. Nevertheless, it was impossible for the Muslim states along the Barbary coast to ignore the presence of American merchant vessels innocently plying their way through the Mediterranean.

In the campaign of 1801-05, it was American technology that proved decisive, allowing the United States to defeat a poorly armed foe with no real ability to project and sustain power. Ours was a victory of persistence over defiance, steeled determination over opportunism. In time these were to become the signature traits of a newly minted American character, one that is slow to anger but unrelenting when aroused. In both war and diplomacy, it is an approach that has defined this nation ever since its inception.

Now as then, America has discovered that the appeasement of tyrants never leads to the peaceful resolution of conflict. It is instead an open invitation to would-be aggressors to test the waters, probe for vulnerabilities and strike when the democratic world lets down its guard. It can be a costly gamble in both lives and treasure. When diplomacy backed by the payment of tribute no longer satisfied the warlords of the Barbary Coast, the United States was left with little choice but to go to war. As Jefferson once observed: "Were we to give up half our territory rather than engage in a just war to preserve it, we should not keep the other long."

Two hundred years later, the reality facing the United States is much the same. Successive administrations have worked hard to assuage anti-Western feeling in the Middle East, first with promises of trade and technical assistance and later with offers of foreign aid, security pacts and Arab-Israeli diplomatic mediation. For a time, these efforts succeeded, and Washington found that it could cultivate moderate, pro-American regimes throughout the region. But over time these regimes have become less and less representative of the Muslim street and, as a consequence, more vulnerable to it. In places like Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, Islamic orthodoxy is once again on the rise, while in Saudi Arabia the ruling family has fallen out of favor with those who believe that their opulent lifestyle and close ties to America have corrupted the traditional Wahhabi faith. Popular disaffection and feelings of resentment against the West have spawned a new Middle Eastern rage, decidedly more lethal and less localized than that of Karamanli.

For the first time, Middle Eastern terrorists, armed with chemical, biological and possibly radiological weapons, can strike the American homeland and inflict mass casualties on its citizens. Horrific though they were, the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 could be just the prelude to a far more grim future. The pirates of old have become the terrorists of today, seeking to score a Lilliputian advantage over an unsuspecting, vulnerable Gulliver. And once again, America has no choice but to act decisively against an enemy unwilling to accept coexistence on any plane. In fighting this "asymmetrical" threat, gunboat diplomacy, applied pre-emptively if need be, offers the only practical solution.

Not since Saladin defeated the Crusader armies at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 has any Islamic group felt that it had the ability to drive the infidel from the Middle East. At Al-Qaeda's disposal are tools and techniques that once were the exclusive province of the West. Emboldened by successes in Iran, Afghanistan, the Sudan and, most recently, southern Lebanon, radicals within the Muslim world have had little reason to slow their assault. Rather, they have viewed the West's timid response to their agitation as an opportunity to grow stronger and to act ever more boldly.

For Osama bin Laden and his cohort, the present war is but the latest in a millennial struggle against the West. It is a drama that will continue to play out across the world now that Middle Eastern terrorism has attained a global reach-play out, that is, until the United States and its allies reduce that reach dramatically. That is why, in the fight between tradition and modernity in the Middle East, it is ultimately America's resolve that is being tested.

On the day that Amer-ican Airlines flight 77 lifted off from Dulles Inter-national Airport, bound for a fiery crash into the west side of the Pentagon, a venerable Washington landmark stood quietly against the dawn. Located just a block from the White House, the residence of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur prepared to welcome visitors as it has since 1818. Here, amid the mementos of an adventurous life, its famed occupant had regaled guests with stories of piracy on the high seas and the heroic deeds he and his crew had performed long ago. Nearly 200 years later, and just two miles away, another drama was unfolding. Only this time, Middle Eastern terrorism had come to America, the pirates were in the skies above, and the heroes were those racing to save their co-workers from an all-consuming darkness. Their efforts, too, will prove not to have been in vain.

Essay Types: Essay