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“Mission Accomplished”: 19th Century Tripoli

Michael Oren's new book, Power, Faith and Fantasy, charts the history of American involvement in the Middle East, an involvement almost as old as America itself. Thomas Jefferson may have had his own conspicuous problems with domestic slavery, but he … Read More

By / January 30, 2007

Michael Oren's new book, Power, Faith and Fantasy, charts the history of American involvement in the Middle East, an involvement almost as old as America itself. Thomas Jefferson may have had his own conspicuous problems with domestic slavery, but he was a stalwart abolitionist when it came to protecting U.S. merchant vessels off the shores of modern-day Libya. These dirigibles were frequently plundered, and  their crews held as chattel, by Islamic Barbary pirates acting on Koranic prescription. (This seldom remembered episode of Ottoman rule gives the lie to anthropologists and post-colonial historians who claim that a tendency for belligerence and slave-holding does not cut evenly between East and West.)  Yet American resolve to take a muscular approach toward sharia marauders was never — surprise, surprise — a sure thing. Here is Hillel Halkin in Commentary:

And yet, as Oren shows, the war against the Barbary pirates was fought inconsistently, had its share of setbacks, and suffered from domestic criticism. Throughout most of it America continued to ransom captured sailors, to pay protection money to Muslim warlords, and sometimes even to build gunboats for them that were later used against American ships, just as did many European countries whose pusillanimity Americans scorned. Moreover, there were prominent politicians, including Albert Gallatin, Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, who recommended calling off the military campaign and reaching an accommodation with the pirates. Such a course, Gallatin reasoned, would save both money and lives, and many Americans agreed with him, especially when the occasional disaster, like the loss of the frigate Philadelphia in 1803, made things appear to be going badly. Jefferson himself wavered at crucial moments and once, deciding at the last minute to negotiate, ordered the recall of a military force that was already fighting its way overland in order to depose the imperious Tripolitanian ruler, Yusuf Qaramlani.

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