Monday, November 24, 2008

The Barbary Wars and the Lessons from History

The recent hijacking of a crude oil tanker by Somali pirates [1] raises important issues in foreign policy. Historian and best-selling author Michael Oren [2] as well as my friend and fellow Objectivist Ole Martin Moen [3] have drawn parallels between these recent pirate attacks and the attacks by the ruthless Barbary pirates at the turn of the nineteenth century. Given this renewed interest, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the Barbary Wars that I gathered from reading Frank Lambert’s The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World as well as from Michael Oren’s Power, Faith and Fantasy: The United States in the Middle East: 1776 - Present.

I think the Barbary Wars are an excellent case study in what a proper foreign policy ought to be. To quickly overview the conflicts, the Barbary Wars were two wars fought between the United States of America and three of the Barbary States (i.e., Algiers, Tunisia and Tripoli) in the early 19th century. The first Barbary war was fought in 1801-1805 and the second Barbary war was fought during 1815. The sources of conflict is that the pirates would routinely hijack merchant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea to demand both ransom for the captured sailors as well as tribute for use of the waters.

Both Barbary Wars are often touted by conservatives as an excellent example of how to combat to state-sponsored terrorism. However, I suspect it is a mistake to label the first Barbary War as a full success. The most obvious question to ask is, if the handling of the first Barbary War was so ideal, why did Algerian pirates resume abducting U.S. sailors in 1807? Moreover, why did the war essentially resume in 1815? I suspect the reason, is that the United States failed to achieve a decisive military victory, the negotiated peace was premature and the approach to settling the conflict was unprincipled.

Consider the negotiated settlement at the end of the first Barbary War. Before the conflict ended, the Tripolitan pirates originally demanded $200,000 for captured U.S. sailors as well as tribute for using the Mediterranean seas. However, instead of paying the full $200,000, U.S. diplomat Tobias Lear talked the Tripolitan leadership down to letting the U.S. pay them $60,000. Lear rationalized the payment by claiming that it was for ransom but not for tribute and President Jefferson applauded these negotiations [4]. I cannot think of a worse example of Pragmatism in foreign policy. Furthermore, this treaty also did not demand the relinquishment of all U.S. property captured through piracy or financial restitution for the past crimes of the pirates.

This settlement is especially outrageous since the U.S. had two major points of leverage against the Bashaw of Tripoli. First, the U.S. recently gained occupational control of the Tripolitan city of Derna, thanks to William Eaton’s heroic 500 mile march through the Libyan desert. Second, the U.S. had the military might to remove the current Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli from power and replace him with the exiled ex-bashaw Hamet Karamanli, who was fighting with the U.S. during the war. (As a side note, this might not have been a wise decision, but I merely wish to argue that it is a point of leverage.)

The second Barbary War seems to be a much better example of how to properly negotiate peace at the end of a conflict. Unlike the treaties at the end of the first conflict, which was negotiated, the terms of this treaty were essentially dictated by war hero Stephen Decatur. Moreover, Decatur demanded [5]:

* All future vessels bearing a U.S. flag are to pass unmolested throughout the Mediterranean without tribute. (this is also stated in the first treaty.)

* Tunisia pay $60,000 in restitution to the U.S. for two captured vessels and an indemnity of $30,000 from Tripoli for a ship captured in the previous war.

* All captured U.S. sailors be released without a single cent of ransom. With regards to Tripoli, Decatur also demanded that all European prisoners be released. (I am presently unclear if Decatur made a similar demand towards Tunisia and Algiers.)

* The U.S. hostilities toward Barbary vessels would not cease until the treaty was signed.

The leadership of Algiers even requested that Decatur return two particular captured Algierian vessels to their country. Decatur did agree to do this, however he deliberately and emphatically did not include this in the terms of the treaty. Decatur wanted the Barbary states to know that he was dictating the terms of the treaty, that they were in no position to negotiate and that his returning of these ships was an act of generosity on his behalf and not an obligation. With terms like these, I find it no surprise that the Second Barbary War was also the last Barbary War.




[4] The Barbary Wars by Frank Lambert, pg 154, 2007.

[5] Ibid., pg 192-194.


C. August said...

Thanks for writing about this, Doug. It's both timely and an interesting topic in itself.

I agree that the first Barbary War wasn't successful based on the evidence you presented. However, I wonder if Jefferson's and Lear's actions can be attributed only to Pragmatism.

I ask because of the wider context of history at the time. Europe was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars. England was raiding US ships and impressing US merchant navymen into service in the Royal navy. So, while Jefferson had to contend with the Barbary pirates, he was also dealing with the lead up to the war of 1812. I believe that is why the US did not respond when more piracy happened in 1807. (and this is likely why the pirates were emboldened to start up again)

It wasn't until the conclusion of the War of 1812 (in March of 1815) that the US could finally respond properly to the Barbary pirates.

So... was it Pragmatism that resulted in the less than ideal negotiations after the first Barbary War? Or did the US have more pressing matters to attend to? I'm curious what you think, because I haven't done detailed reading on this topic. Though, I'm inclined to say that it was a little of both -- Pragmatism and rational prioritizing.

Doug said...

This is an excellent question.

As far as I can tell, there were concerns regarding the Napoleonic Wars and what the implications would be for American trade over the Atlantic. However, given that the U.S. already committed itself to retailiating the Barbary Wars, I see no reason why the Jefferson Administration needed to prematurely end the war before obtaining a decisive victory. In particular, I see no plausible circumstance that could have justified the Pragmatic distinction between paying a ransom and paying a tribute.

I scoured a few of my books and the internet for events that could have pressured the U.S. to end the first Barbary War as quickly as possible. According to Wikipedia, the controversial Jay's treaty, which to some extent facilitated non-hostile trade relations with Great Britain, "broke down in 1803" but the article does not indicate why. Perhaps this could have been a rational distraction for the Jefferson Administration during the Barbary Wars?

Another interesting finding is that the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, which was a significant event leading up to the War of 1812, occurred in June of 1807, which is two years after the first Barbary War ended. In this affair, a British warship attacked and boarded and American frigate to reclaim a few deserters of the British navy. Certainly this was humiliating and a great threat for the rights of American seafarers. Sure enough, in November of 1807, Algiers resumed attacking U.S. ships. (At least, I have not noticed a record of a Barbary state attack prior to this but after the end of the first Barbary War.)

In summary, although I think there was a concern of how the Napoleonic Wars might impact the United States, it still appears that the premature peace treaty negotiated by Lear and applauded by Jefferson can be largely attributed to Pragmatism. Given that the U.S. committed itself to an invasion of Tripoli, they should have stayed until they obtained a decisive victory and could uncompromisingly dictate the terms of the surrender of the Barbary states. I suspect that had the U.S. done this, then the Barbary States would have been much more hesitant to resume attacking U.S. ships.

However, after the Leopard-Chesapeake Affair, the threat from Britain seems to have become more immediate, which might rationally justify not retailiating to the resumed Barbary attacks until the War of 1812 ended.

I definitely think this is an excellent research question though. I am planning to look more in depth into this topic in my free time.