Most Americans remain utterly ignorant of this nation’s first foreign war but that exotic, long-ago struggle set the pattern for nearly all the many distant conflicts that followed. Refusal to confront the lessons of the First Barbary War (1801-1805) has led to some of the silliest arguments concerning Iraq and Afghanistan, and any effort to apply traditional American values to our future foreign policy requires an understanding of this all-but-forgotten episode from our past.
The war against the Barbary States of North Africa (Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli—today’s Libya) involved commitment and sacrifice far from home and in no way involved a defense of our native soil. For centuries, the Islamic states at the southern rim of the Mediterranean relied upon piracy to feed the coffers of their corrupt rulers. The state sponsored terrorists of that era (who claimed the romantic designation, “corsairs”) seized western shipping and sold their crews into unimaginably brutal slavery. By the mid-eighteenth century, European powers learned to save themselves a great deal of trouble and wealth by bribing the local authorities with “tribute,” in return for which the pirates left their shipping alone. Until independence, British bribes protected American merchant ships in the Mediterranean since they traveled under His Majesty’s flag; after 1783, the new government faced a series of crises as Barbary pirates seized scores of civilian craft (with eleven captured in 1793 alone). Intermittently, the United States government paid tribute to escape these depredations: eventually providing a bribe worth more than $1,000,000—a staggering one-sixth of the total federal budget of the time – to the Dey of Algiers alone.
When Jefferson became president in 1801, he resolved to take a hard line against the terrorists and their sponsors. “I know that nothing will stop the eternal increase of demands from these pirates but the presence of an armed force, and it will be more economical & more honorable to use the same means at once for suppressing their insolencies,” he wrote.
The president dispatched nearly all ships of the fledgling American navy to sail thousands of miles across the Atlantic and through the straits of Gibraltar to do battle with the North African thugs. After a few initial reverses, daring raids on sea and land (by the new Marine Corps, earning the phrase in their hymn “….to the shores of Tripoli”) won sweeping victory. A decade later, with the U.S. distracted by the frustrating and inconclusive War of 1812 against Great Britain, the Barbary states again challenged American power, and President Madison sent ten new ships to restore order with another decisive campaign (known as “The Second Barbary War, 1815).
The records of these dramatic, all-but-forgotten conflicts convey several important messages for the present day:
1. The U.S. often goes to war when it is not directly attacked. One of the dumbest lines about the Iraq War claims that “this was the first time we ever attacked a nation that hadn’t attacked us.” Obviously, Barbary raids against private shipping hardly constituted a direct invasion of the American homeland, but founding fathers Jefferson and Madison nonetheless felt the need to strike back. Of more than 140 conflicts in which American troops have fought on foreign soil, only one (World War II, obviously) represented a response to an unambiguous attack on America itself. Iraq and Afghanistan are part of a long-standing tradition of fighting for U.S. interests, and not just to defend the homeland.
3. Islamic enmity toward the US is rooted in the Muslim religion, not recent American policy. In 1786, America’s Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, joined our Ambassador in London, John Adams, to negotiate with the Ambassador from Tripoli, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. The Americans asked their counterpart why the North African nations made war against the United States, a power “who had done them no injury", and according the report filed by Jefferson and Adams the Tripolitan diplomat replied: “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.”
4. Cruel Treatment of enemies by Muslim extremists is a long-standing tradition. In 1793, Algerian pirates captured the merchant brig Polly and paraded the enslaved crewmen through jeering crowds in the streets of Algiers. Dey Hassan Pasha, the local ruler, bellowed triumphantly: “Now I have got you, you Christian dogs, you shall eat stones.” American slaves indeed spent their years of captivity breaking rocks. According to Max Boot in his fine book The Savage Wars of Peace: “A slave who spoke disrespectfully to a Muslim could be roasted alive, crucified, or impaled (a stake was driven through the arms until it came out at the back of the neck). A special agony was reserved for a slave who killed a Muslim – he would be cast over the city walls and left to dangle on giant iron hooks for days before expiring of his wounds.”
5. There’s nothing new in far-flung American wars to defend U.S. economic interests. Every war in American history involved an economic motivation – at least in part, and nearly all of our great leaders saw nothing disgraceful in going to battle to defend the commercial vitality of the country. Jefferson and Madison felt no shame in mobilizing – and sacrificing – ships and ground forces to protect the integrity of commercial shipping interests in the distant Mediterranean.
6. Even leaders who have worried about the growth of the U.S. military establishment came to see the necessity of robust and formidable armed forces. Jefferson and Madison both wanted to shrink and restrain the standing army and initially opposed the determination by President Adams to build an expensive new American Navy. When Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, however, he quickly and gratefully used the ships his predecessor built. The Barbary Wars taught the nation that there is no real substitute for military power, and professional forces that stand ready for anything.
7. America has always played “the cop of the world.” In part, Jefferson and Madison justified the sacrifices of the Barbary Wars as a defense of civilization, not just the protection of U.S. interests – and the European powers granted new respect to the upstart nation that finally tamed the North African pirates. Jefferson and Madison may not have fought for a New World Order but they most certainly sought a more orderly world. Many American conflicts over the last 200 years have involved an effort to enfort to enforce international rules and norms as much as to advance national interests. Wide-ranging and occasionally bloody expeditions throughout Central America, China, the Philippines, Africa and even Russia after the Revolution used American forces to prevent internal and international chaos.
The Barbary Wars cost limited casualties for the United States (only 35 sailors and marines killed in action) but required the expenditure of many millions of dollars – a significant burden for the young and struggling Republic. Most importantly, these difficult battles established a long, honorable tradition of American power projected many thousands of miles beyond our shores. Those who claim that our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan represent some shameful, radical departure from an old tradition of pacifism and isolation should look closely at the reality of our very first foreign war—and all the other conflicts in the intervening 200 years.