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The Barbary Wars

Our Arab War, The One 200 Years Ago
Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and public affairs consultant January 5, 2004

For those who think it is always wiser to put together an international panel of negotiators to try to talk foreign enemies into being nice, I present to you our Arab war. The one 200 years ago. The one in which diplomacy failed miserably. The one in which Europe refused to help. The one we conducted alone. And won.

The Barbary Wars

Talk about forgetting the lessons of history. One of the first ones we learned 200 years ago was that “diplomacy” and “multilateralism” sometimes must end and direct action must begin. Back then, pirates from the North African states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli routinely plundered and seized our ships, demanded ransoms for captive crews or sold our sailors into slavery. European shipping routinely suffered the same fate.

Europe’s answer was “let’s negotiate,” which meant sitting down with some pasha and asking him how much money he wanted to leave them alone. Then forking over millions. Thomas Jefferson thought that approach ridiculous, inviting never-ending blackmail. As the American minister to France, he strongly urged a multinational alliance to “reduce the piratical states to peace.” Pick them off one at a time “through the medium of war,” so the others get the message, and they’ll give up their piracy too.

Some European powers were “favorably disposed,” as Jefferson said, to a joint operation. But guess who had reservations? France. (No kidding, you can’t make up this stuff). France, because of its own interests, was suspected of secretly supporting the Barbary powers. So, the plan collapsed in favor of a policy of continued negiations (read: appeasement)meaning supplicating the blackmailers to tell us how much money they wanted for the ransom of ships and sailors and for annual tributes.

When Jefferson became president in 1801, he finally could do something about it himself. He simply refused Tripoli’s demand for a tribute. That provoked Tripoli to declare war on us, as if this young, upstart pup of a nation had any right to stand up for its principles. Jefferson’s response was a no-nonsense piece of clarity.

He sent a squadron of ships to blockade and bombard Tripoli. The results of these efforts were somewhat mixed. But on Feb. 16 of this year, we will celebrate the bicentennial of Lt. Stephen Decatur leading 74 volunteers into Tripoli harbor to burn the previously captured American frigate, The Philadelphia, so it could not be used for piracy.

It was considered one of the most heroic actions in U.S. naval history. The next year, Marines bravely stormed a harbor fortress, an act now commemorated in the “Marine Corps Hymn” with the words “… to the shores of Tripoli.” Eventually, Morocco, seeing what was in store for it, dropped out of the fight And the threat of “regime change” in Tripoli led to a treaty of somewhat dubious benefits for the United States.

Demonstrating the need for perseverance and patience, a series of victories in 1815 by Commodores William Bainbridge and Decatur finally led to a Treaty ending both piracy against us and tribute payments by us.

We even extracted monetary compensation for property they seized from us.

Meanwhile, Europeans, continuing their multilateral, diplomatic approach kept paying and paying and paying.

Lessons? No, it doesn’t prove that diplomacy and international cooperation never work. But it demonstrates a principle: The United States, when confronted with weak resolve from the international community against enemies, sometimes needs to stand alone for what is right. And it sometimes works.

By coincidence, Tripoli today is the capital of Libya, whose leader Moammar Gadhafi, noticing thepounding that the United States gave to tyrants in Afghanistan and Iraq, abandoned his own weapons of mass destruction program.

Perhaps Gadhafi, unlike some of our own blindly anti-war academics, commentators and politicians, has read history, especially as it happened in Libya.

One more footnote: France finally settled the hash of the Barbary Coast states in 1830 when it simply went in and took over the place. The official provocation, according to France, was some sort of an insult to the French consul in Algiers. France, demonstrating its superior humanitarian instincts, remained there as a colonial power for a century. Unlike the United States, which, wanting only to protect its citizens and its ships, got out when it won.

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