WASHINGTON -- Piracy has long been the consequence of disorder. America's first foreign war -- undeclared but authorized by Congress -- was waged by President Thomas Jefferson against the Barbary pirates. It is instructive history for those who believe that the problem of Somali piracy can be solved the same way.
By the late 1700s, the European powers were incapable of maintaining maritime law and order, and Islamic piracy became a flourishing enterprise in the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coast of North Africa. Despite "tribute" payments to the "governments" in Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco by the British, French and new American governments, merchant mariners were at risk of being taken hostage for ransom and having their ships and cargoes sunk or stolen.
By the time of Jefferson's inauguration, in 1801, American ransoms and "tributes" amounted to more than $1 million per year -- nearly one-fifth of the U.S. budget. Jefferson pledged to end the payments and dispatched -- with congressional approval -- the nascent U.S. Navy to protect American-flagged merchant vessels and prosecute a naval campaign against the pasha of Tripoli. It almost worked.
In February 1804, U.S. Navy Lt. Stephen Decatur succeeded in boarding and destroying a captured U.S. combatant -- the USS Philadelphia -- and liberating surviving members of the ship's imprisoned crew. A year later, a small party of U.S. Marines and mercenaries led by U.S. Marine Lt. Presley O'Bannon conducted an intrepid overland expedition to assault Derna and force the surrender of the Tripolitan leader, Yussif Karamanli. The Mameluke sword he surrendered to O'Bannon is memorialized to this day in the dress swords worn by Marine officers and by the line "to the shores of Tripoli" in the "Marines' Hymn." It seemed like a glorious victory for American arms. But it wasn't.
Though Jefferson had pledged "not 1 cent for tribute," the treaty ending what came to be called the "First Barbary War" provided $60,000 in ransom for the 300 or so American citizens being held by the defeated government. Jefferson and Congress acquiesced because of the value they placed on American lives. It was a precedent that I came to know well.
By 1984, Beirut, Lebanon, was the most lawless place on the planet. Organized terror cells and "freelance" criminal gangs routinely took Westerners hostage and held them for ransom. Those they couldn't "sell" were often killed. Then Hezbollah -- the radical Islamic terror group organized and operated by the theocratic government in Tehran, Iran -- began snatching Americans. There were no military options, and more than a dozen diplomatic initiatives failed to win the release of any of those being held.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.