Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Shores of Barbary

They are murderers and, yes, they are Muslim murderers.

When President Jefferson decided to send a naval expedition to Tripoli to rescue American seamen and punish the Barbary pirates, the opposition to him was practical: did we have the naval vessels and if not did we want to raise taxes to pay for them? Did we have allies with whom to embark on such a difficult campaign? Assuming success, what were we supposed to do next to insure the pirates did not lie low, regroup, begin their trade as soon as we looked the other way?

The third president's answer to the first set of issues was to remind Americans that we already were being taxed due to the lawlessness in the western Mediterranean: the reason our ships were attacked by proto-Islamist terrorists (they justified their criminality with Koranic references, as Jefferson, who studied the Koran, was aware) was that it was lucrative to attack them, steal the goods they carried, and ransom their crews. Admittedly, it could be argued (it was) that spending on the navy was in effect a way to socialize risk, to use an anachronism; no one was forcing merchants to sail along those dangerous routes. But the president did not underestimate the value and importance of free trade to general economic growth. He also was well aware, of course, that a republic that did not defend its citizens would not last long. The slogan "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute" rallied support for Jefferson's policy, though Congress remained recalcitrant throughout the years of the Barbary campaigns and the Navy and the nascent Marine Corps were always under-funded. (Which also was a reason for the use of a privateer, a remarkable man named William Eaton, who organized something of a proto-Blackwater, at one point in the campaign.)

The second set of issues Jefferson dealt with by trying to enlist the British and the French in the formation of a "perpetual cruise," a Mediterranean version of NATO if we want to keep looking for proto-this and proto-that, which would maintain peace and free trade in the region. Our future best allies had other idea, so Jefferson decided on a coalition of the willing avant la lettre and went at it alone. As campaigns go it was not bad, though there was no definitive victory.

You can argue that we should have dealt with the modern pirates of Tripoli a long time ago: the best opportunity probably occurred during President Reagan's second term, when Moammar Gaddafi sponsored terrorist attacks that killed American servicemen in Germany. Long-range air attacks from USAF bases in England hit the dictator in his lair but did not kill him, while naval air power showed we could handle his Soviet-trained and equipped fighter planes over the Mediterranean. But there was no military follow-up, as for better or worse our policymakers chose the economic sanctions route coupled with diplomatic isolation to contain and, the idea was, eventually bring down the regime. It lasted another quarter century, tyrannizing the several tribal groups who constituted "Libya," making mischief wherever possible, alternately subverting black African countries by supporting and arming rebels, or trying to buy influence in them with lavish investments or personal gifts to their rulers. Gaddafi presented himself as the successor of Egypt's Nasser as a pan-Arabist and, when rebuffed by Middle Easterners who neither liked nor trusted him (he tried to kill members of the Saudi royal family), he put in (bought, actually) a claim as king of African kings. A hell of a guy -- and he liked athletic and well-endowed women, used them as bodyguards and nurses, regularly fell in love with them, though it was a sicko kind of love, narcissistic and puerile. He was an inveterate, vicious, violent anti-Semite and he hated Berbers, an important minority in Libya, despite the Berber admixtures in his own tribe.

Could'a had him any day, as Willie Nelson says in one of his songs, and if there were quite a few people on his payroll who would have shed a tear, it is unlikely there would have been more than a few diplomatic tut-tuts.

But the Gaddafi problem, like the problem of the Barbary pirates 200 years earlier, was destined to remain emblematic, in its relatively small way, of our problems with what first was called the Orient, later the Near East and the Middle East. We did not understand -- our allies disagreed -- we disagreed among ourselves -- we hesitated between force and reason -- we thought, always, the people could be differentiated and separated from their rulers.

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