The past is, indeed, prologue. In the 1780s, America found herself confronted by nonstate actors representing, or working in collusion with, Islamic powers and Islamist ideology.
Barbary corsair pirates, prowling the Mediterranean, harassed European and American maritime trade by raiding ships, seizing cargo, and kidnapping crews for slavery and ransom. While Britain, France, and other major powers could prevent such seizures by paying tribute to the Barbary states of Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco, America — a fledgling power — could not afford the exorbitant sums. At the same time, the toll piracy was exacting on American commerce and enslavement of American citizens proved a genuine threat to national security and independence. America was unable to meet her sovereign responsibility to provide and maintain justice, peace, and order for her people.
In response, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, taking opposing views on addressing the crisis, articulated the perennial terms of the debate. Adams thought it possible to appease the Barbary powers and to buy peace through the payment of tribute. Jefferson believed such a response would invite further aggression and that a much stronger response was required. In their bookThomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger demonstrate how Jefferson’s position would ultimately be vindicated.
In the beginning, however, it was Adams’ view that the American government first supported. A part of this was simply practical – while the United States could not afford the level of tribute required of Barbary powers, particularly Tripoli, nor could she afford to build a navy. But it was also philosophical: following the War of Independence, most Americans simply wanted to be done with war and saw no need for a military capable of projecting power abroad.
Kilmeade and Yaeger, in their fascinating description of early U.S. foreign policy, illustrate how then, as now, attempts at appeasement registered to our Islamist rivals as merely weakness. Blood to sharks, weakness emboldened those powers to declare outright war against the Unites States. America – having sought peace without first proving strength – had found only aggression.
The story that then unfolds takes us through the early 1800s and follows Thomas Jefferson and such early American heroes as Stephen Decatur, Edward Preble, and William Eaton, as they build and deploy the United States Navy in the First Barbary War. By the time the war was over, America was a changed nation: the U.S. Navy emerged as a world power in foreign seas capable of protecting national interests and championing moral purpose; for the first time, the U.S. flag was raised in military victory on alien ground; Naval gunfire was used for the first time in concert with a land force; and that land force – the U.S. Marine Corps – inaugurated the cultivation of its own legend through a daring five hundred mile march across the desert to the shores of Tripoli and the overthrow of a major, fortified, enemy city.
Of course, the Barbary Wars would also mark the first great clash between the United States and a militant Islamist power that believed it had divine sanction to dominate and suppress the Christian West. At the same time, the war proved that America could collaborate meaningfully with moderate Islamic partners. That Marine march across the desert did not comprise Marines alone, or even primarily. In fact, a force of just ten Marines led an Arab army, a thousand strong, in the battle. It was the first proof that while American power might be essential, it needn’t be deployed alone.
Moreover, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates reminds us peace is most times found through strength. This reminder should be read a caution against present practice. Back in the day, American inability to enforce our will along the Barbary coast emboldened pirates and threatened our national security. Today, failing to remember that lesson, American lack of resolve to enforce our will today emboldens our contemporary enemies with the same result. President Obama might not be the first U.S. president to deal with Islamist powers of the Middle East region from a position of weakness. But for Obama, this weakness is largely cultivated. While Christians should rightly seek limits to power because the corrupted human soul is ever-tempted to abuse power, Obama believes that American power, in particular, should be limited not just because he distrusts power but, specifically, because he distrusts the American character. Obama has tried to fashion American weakness – or at least the perception of American weakness – into a virtue. He can call it humility, or multilateralism, or whatever else he might want but history continually renders a constant reminder: when America’s enemies do not fear America, and when our allies cannot trust our resolve or ability to use power for moral purposes, the world is a more dangerous place.
Thomas Jefferson did not seek war for the sake of war. He sought the strength to make war for the sake of establishing and maintaining peace. Some might see this as a paradox but Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger prove that we shouldn’t doubt the paradox is true – nor should we fail to act on that truth.
Image: Oil painting of Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat during the bombardment of Tripoli, 3 August 1804. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur (lower right center) in mortal combat with the Tripolitan Captain. 19th Century. Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, Washington Navy Yard. Public Domain.
This essay first appeared at a now defunct conservative weblog called tothesource, which featured essays on religion, politics, and culture. They no longer exist.