The magic of youth can transform a nightmare into a memory. Over the past weekend, the students and the University commemorated the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a dizzying array of events—speeches, conferences, exhibits, interfaith dialogues, flag runs, and candlelight vigils. Ubiquitous on the Grounds were students wearing yellow ribbons: we remember 9/11.
Magic, indeed, because this is truly a melancholy ten-year anniversary. Ten years later, we are a nation at war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Defense spending in constant dollars is at its highest level since World War II. Meanwhile, according to new Census Bureau information, poverty levels in the U.S. are at a 52-year high, and nearly 50 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 have not worked in the past year. One in five children live below the poverty line. Official unemployment has remained over 9 percent for years, and that includes only those who have not given up actively seeking work. Meanwhile, our leaders in Washington cannot agree on the problems that beset the country, and new political movements decry government involvement in social welfare, the bipartisan approach since 1933.
Looking back to 2001, Mel Leffler, a distinguished diplomatic historian in the College, argued in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that the tragedy of 9/11, among others, was an opportunity missed. In spite of campaign talk about a reinvigorated, strong defense establishment, George W. Bush was a president who, on the eve of 9/11, was focused on his domestic agenda: tax cuts, education reform, faith-based voluntarism, and energy policy. Then the disaster struck and a momentary national unity dissolved into endless conflict and bickering, over the Iraq War, over the 2008 financial crisis, and on and on. Most Americans seem fed up with Washington in particular and politicians in general.
It thus appears that 2001 was the beginning of a decade that finds us where we are today—disillusioned, dismayed, discomfited. Paradoxically, though, the second decade of this century has opened with major rays of hope in the form of the “Arab Spring” that began earlier this year. This modern political movement that has nothing to do with terrorism has made Al Qaeda’s antediluvian calls for a new Islamic Caliphate finally appear as anachronistic as they in fact are. The Arab Spring extended into late summer when a NATO coalition helped Libyans overthrow the Qadaffi regime. The rebels took control of the capital almost exactly on the 9/11 anniversary—a victory on the shores of Tripoli.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, 2001 also marked the two hundred year anniversary of a war that offers telling parallels to the current war in Libya, and a possible path toward reimagining our foreign relations in the twentieth-first century. I am thinking about the first Barbary War, fought “on the shores of Tripoli” (hence the phrase in the Marine anthem). The president at the time was Thomas Jefferson. It was the only war that he executed during his presidency, and he did so with his characteristic wisdom, courage and brilliance. It was an excellent example of the judicious conduct of foreign affairs, encountering unfamiliar enemies with unfamiliar beliefs in far away lands, but “getting the job done” without entangling Americans in their domestic affairs—or causing a civil war among Libyan tribes.
Within three months of his inauguration, Jefferson found himself in a war with the Pasha of Tripoli. As Henry Adams tells the story in his magnificent study of the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison, from time immemorial the northern coast of Africa had been occupied by pirates who “figured in the story of Don Quixote as in the lies of Scapin, and enlivened with picturesque barbarism the semi-civilization of European habits and manners through centuries of slow growth.” The four Barbary Powers – Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli – lived on blackmail. The United States, like nations in Europe, had purchased safe passage with all four powers, and in the ten years preceding the inauguration of Jefferson, had paid more than two million dollars in ransom, gifts, and tribute. However, when the new president rebuffed additional extortions from the Pasha of Tripoli on May 14, 1801, he declared war on the U.S. and chopped down the flagstaff that stood in front of the American Consulate. Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco were also clamoring for more tribute; there was reason to believe that they might make common cause with Tripoli.
The pirates were not worthy enemies, of course, and, according to Jefferson’s detractors, their defeat was not worth deploying expensive new frigates. Still, something had to be done to bring an end to a century and a half of piracy. And so over the next four years, in what Jefferson laconically described as a “cruise,” his navy and newly-created Marines bombarded and attacked the harbors of northern Africa. The USS Argus, Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution (not yet dubbed “Old Ironsides”), Enterprise, Intrepid, Philadelphia, and Syren all saw service during this war, under the overall command of Commodore Edward Preble.
The regime in Tripoli, however, remained defiant and even succeeded in capturing the USS Philadelphia in 1803. The blackmailers feared that if they buckled under foreign pressure, their own subjects might revolt. In 1804, in the most heroic episode of the Barbary War, Captain Stephen Decatur Jr. sailed into Tripoli, set fire to the captured Philadelphia (to deny her use to the enemy), rescued the crew from imprisonment, bombarded the fortified town, and boarded the Pasha’s fleet at anchor, in what Lord Nelson himself would call “the most bold and daring act of the age.”
As the summer of 1805 approached, however, despite the success of the naval action and blockade, it was still not clear that the Pasha would sue for peace. William Bainbridge, the captain of the Philadelphia, believed that President Jefferson had to choose between paying a ransom in gold or blood. He thought it would take ten thousand troops to take the Pasha’s castle in Tripoli.
As it turned out, victory was won without invasion. William Eaton, a Connecticut Yankee with a classical education at Dartmouth, was hell-bent on regime change in Tripoli by whatever means necessary. No fan of Thomas Jefferson, he scoffed at the idea of a political millennium “ushered in upon us as the irresistible consequence of the goodness of heart, integrity of mind, and correctness of disposition of Mr. Jefferson,” and ridiculed the notion that “all nations, even pirates and savages, were to be moved by the influence of his persuasive virtue and masterly skill in diplomacy.”
As T. E. Lawrence would do in Arabia a century later, Eaton put himself at the head of a most improbable army. As Adams writes, “so motley a horde of Americans, Greeks, Tripolitans and Arab camel-drivers had never before been seen on the soil of Egypt.” Eaton led his mercenaries across five hundred miles of desert until they reached the city of Derne. Three American cruisers bombarded from the sea as Eaton and his men stormed the walls of the harbor fortress and took the city. After a failed attempt to win it back, the Pasha finally threw in the towel.
The battle on the shores of Tripoli was the first time that US Marines fought on foreign soil. It would not be the last. Still, there are lessons to be learned. The limited objectives that Jefferson pursued are a pristine example of what the political theorist and philosopher Michael Walzer has called a “just war,” in the modern sense. It was a war with all the requisites: it began in self-defense, it had a good cause and right intention, a high probability of success, and the important measure of proportionality. Finally, war came as the last resort, after both bribery and diplomacy had failed. It was also modern in a less edifying sense: Jefferson did not request a declaration of war from Congress.
Apart from that lapse, which now seems routine (no American president since 1941 has gone to war according to the provisions of the Constitution), the Barbary War had a moral basis that goes beyond attacking terrorists, which the pirates certainly also were. Between 1530 and 1780, over one million Europeans and Americans were enslaved in Islamic North Africa, captured by pirates whose corsairs raided as far north as England and Ireland; in 1631, in the famous “sack of Baltimore” an entire Irish village disappeared into slavery in a single night.
A proportional response to the havoc caused by the terrorists on the fateful day of 9/11 was to capture and punish those who perpetrated the act—as we eventually did ten years later, picking off Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan, a stealthy and successful action that spilled as little blood as possible, using not local mercenaries but a small, coherent, highly-trained force of Navy SEALS. Across the border in Afghanistan, ten years after 2001, our efforts to dislodge the Taliban and deny a haven to Al Qaeda still grinds on, with 100,000 American boots on the ground.
Somehow, our strategy in Libya seems more Jeffersonian: the limited use of force (in this case to save civilian lives), support for a modern (and we hope democratic) movement against dictatorship, limited objectives, and keeping American boots off the ground. The Arab Spring has brought forth reasons to hope that the future will be better than the decade-long remains of that terrible September day.