From Barbary to the Gulf: Corsairs Then and Now

The only problem now is that the stakes are so much higher.
John Wohlstetter
The American Spectator
September 3, 2015
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In 2007, two years before he became Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren penned a magisterial history of America’s long involvement in the Middle East, which goes back to within a decade of America’s founding. In Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present, Oren shows that not only was America involved in what then was called the Orient; he shows the extent of entanglement, and consequent great influence exerted by, America’s long tribulations with the Barbary pirates. The tale he so deftly spins holds lessons for America today—lessons sadly ignored by the current administration.

Barbary corsairs marauded on the high seas as far back as the 12th century; their first American prize was taken by Morocco in 1625. During most of the 18th century British naval vessels escorted Colonial shipping; by the 1770s one-fifth of American exports went to Mediterranean—including Barbary—ports. The American Revolution ended such protection. The only alternative escort option was the French fleet, but Gallic gallantry during our War of Independence was superseded by pecuniary national interest, as in protecting French commerce from competition.

Initially the fledgling republic paid ignominious tribute to ransom captives waylaid on the high seas and held in fetid, infectious squalor punctuated by torture, if not sold into slavery; then it sent intrepid sailors and soldiers to offer ransom to the Mediterranean’s penny-ante potentates—dubbed pashas, deys, and beys—of Morocco, plus the Ottoman trio of Tripolitania, Tunis, and Algiers. In 1815, the 1803 Louisiana Purchase having been consummated and the War of 1812 having ended, President Madison sent Stephen Decatur to humble the Barbary powers once and for all. Thus ended thirty years of frustration and embarrassment. America won respect as a power to be reckoned with for the first time. But during those decades 35 American ships were seized and 700 captives enslaved.

Of particular import for America’s current Mideast travails is how the pirate chiefs of old responded to Americans seeking release of their enslaved countrymen. When American envoys came to beg on bended knee they were received with open contempt, told that ransom would be far higher than their original offer. When envoys arrived, backed by credible military force, the response was more measured. It was proof positive of the validity of Frederick the Great’s maxim that diplomacy without force is like music without instruments.

Consider these episodes Oren offers from two centuries past. The dey of Algiers said in 1785 to his unfortunate captives: “Now I have got you, you Christian dogs, you shall eat stones.” In 1812 another dey, considering a plea for ransom, said: “My policy and my views are to increase, not to diminish, the number of my American slaves. And not for a million dollars would I release them.”

Islamic jihadism played a key role as well, as exemplified by a Tripolitan pasha:

It was… written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged [that they] were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle should go to Paradise.

Perhaps the most acute summary of how to deal with renegades of Barbary was provided by soldier-diplomat William Eaton, who at various times for President Jefferson negotiated with and fought against the pirates: “There is but one language which can be held to these people, and that is terror.” [Emphasis in original.] 

And that is precisely how, exactly 200 years ago this June 28, Commodore Stephen Decatur confronted Algeria’s dey. Under the guns of Decatur’s warships, he sounded a new note in appealing to President Madison, calling him “Emperor of America… our noble friend… the pillar of all Christian sovereigns, the most glorious of all princes… the happy, the great, the amiable.” To which Madison, unmoved, replied: “It is a… settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute.” Oren notes that in 1816 an Anglo-Dutch fleet followed suit in Algiers, with one Brit saying: “It was not to be endured that England should tolerate what America had resented and punished.”

As evidence of the prestige America garnered by defeating the Barbary corsairs in 1815, Oren cites a telling passage from an 1820 report prepared for the Ottoman Sultan (Mahmud II):

Though once only a minor republic, America is today almost as powerful as Britain. Their cannon foundries, ammunition stores, gunpowder factories and arsenals are in very good condition.

The former “minor republic” had arrived, in the foreign currency most valued in the Orient, above all by the fabled Ottoman Sublime Porte.

Oren offers two engaging 19th century musical notes. The famous “shores of Tripoli” reference in the Marine hymn is not quite true, as the Marines made it only to the fort of Darna. And in perhaps the least-known nugget of all, Francis Scott Key’s original Star Spangled Banner lyric, penned in 1805 as a tribute to the valor of Decatur and another naval hero, William Bainbridge, referenced “turbaned heads bowed” to the “brow of the brave.” Upon the 1814 bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, Key revised his lyric.

Our declaratory “no tribute” ideal follows Theodore Roosevelt’s early-20th century gunboat diplomacy. A Berber chieftain, whom the West knew as Raisuli, had American businessman Ion Perdicarus kidnapped in Tangier and held in Morocco’s remote Riff Mountains. Raisuli wanted TR to force the Moroccan Sultan—the chieftain’s real target—to pay ransom for perceived past offenses. TR’s note warned: “We want Perdicarus alive or Raisuli dead.” TR’s warships decided matters, and Perdicarus was freed.

Alas for American credibility, a “no tribute” policy was never settled, as periodically American presidents have ransomed (or tried to ransom) captives. President Carter’s Algiers accord, signed on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, included $2.5 million compensation paid to free 52 U.S. diplomats. Even Ronald Reagan did so (1987’s Iran-contra arms for hostages), despite his having said: “I don’t think you pay ransom for people who have been kidnapped by barbarians.” To Reagan’s credit, he did twice use military force against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi: in 1981 when Navy jets downed two Libyan jets and in 1986 when in retaliation for Libyan-backed terrorists bombing a West German disco, killing American servicemen, the U.S. bombed Libyan targets, nearly killing Gaddafi. The 1981 clash, Oren recounts, was the first direct use of American military force against Arabs since 1815, also against Tripoli. The Pan Am 103 deal George W. Bush reached in 2003 with Gaddafi paid $2.7 billion to victim families; in Bush’s favor is that in that same year he successfully pressed Libya to dismantle its WMD programs, including its nuclear weapons program.

As to the Persian Gulf, we’ve come a long way from the December 1879 inaugural passage of a U.S. warship—the USS Ticonderoga—through the Strait of Hormuz, the choke-point through which today 20 percent of the world’s oil transits. In 1980, after Carter’s failed hostage rescue mission, the regime gleefully exhibited dead Delta Force corpses. Oren notes this echoes the public display of corpses by the pasha of Tripoli, after a failed 1804 rescue. Reagan partly redeemed himself by having merchant ships escorted to blunt Iran’s 1987-1988 blockade threat. President Bush 41’s expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait boosted our Mideast prestige to its all-time zenith; but the Iraq debacle—Bush 43’s Iraq II blunders and Obama’s snatching defeat from the jaws of the surge’s success—undid it.

Now, President Obama ignores in his Iran negotiations a cumulative $45 billion in tort damages assessed against the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979, arising from serial terror attacks. Obama’s stance tees up his deal with today’s Persian Gulf would-be nuclear corsairs seated in Tehran. Chief arms negotiator Wendy Sherman, she of the disastrous North Korean nuclear negotiations, and Secretary of State John Kerry, offered one abject concession after another. Such eerily echoes the supine supplications scorned by the Barbary potentates. They tell us that the deal is the best we can get Iran to agree to, as if there were no minimum baselines (“red lines” they discarded) for an acceptable deal. Iran initially spurned each U.S. concession offer, only to reap further retreat. Getting Iran’s assent is the prime concern of the Obama administration, central to his overall goal of retreat from the Mideast and from around the globe, so as to focus on domestic transformation. In his recent speech defending the Iran accord, the president dismissed as “hardliners” domestic opponents and those in Iran—including its top leaders—chanting “Death to America!”

But as to death to “Great Satan” America (and “Little Satan” Israel) Iran maven Michael Ledeen quotes Iran’s Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei—the man who really has the final say on all matters of state (and religion)—from his newly published volume, Palestine:

Our position against Israel is, as always: Israel is a malignant cancer gland that needs to be uprooted. In contrast to what shallow people believe, it is not impossible to defeat Israel and the United States. Superpowers have come and gone throughout history. Materialistic powers are neither everlasting nor infinite. Yesterday, there was a power called the Soviet Union. It was one of the superpowers, but it no longer exists. A similar historical contemporary change is still before us.

This time the stakes are far higher. Let a single Iranian nuke be detonated in an Arab, Israeli, or American city, and a thousand-fold Barbary’s 700 victims easily could be the genocidal price for tribute.