Monday, April 23, 2007


Christopher Hitchens has an absolutely riviting account of America's first war on terror--the one against the Barbary pirates. In "Jefferson versus the Muslim Pirates" from the most recent issue of City Journal we learn the following:
But one cannot get around what Jefferson heard when he went with John Adams to wait upon Tripoli’s ambassador to London in March 1785. When they inquired by what right the Barbary states preyed upon American shipping, enslaving both crews and passengers, America’s two foremost envoys were informed that “it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority 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 was sure to go to Paradise.” (It is worth noting that the United States played no part in the Crusades, or in the Catholic reconquista of Andalusia.)

Ambassador Abd Al-Rahman did not fail to mention the size of his own commission, if America chose to pay the protection money demanded as an alternative to piracy. So here was an early instance of the “heads I win, tails you lose” dilemma, in which the United States is faced with corrupt regimes, on the one hand, and Islamic militants, on the other—or indeed a collusion between them.

Hitchen's concludes that Jefferson probably made the decision to go to war at that moment, should he ever be President; and then shows how the debate about the piracy may have had considerable influence on the fledgling US democracy--particularly in the development of the US Constitution.

While some of the motivation behind the war with the Muslim pirates had to do with trade issues (they were attacking merchant ships); it is clear that something deep in the emerging American soul was repulsed by the Barbary pirates whose "cruelty, exorbitance, and intransigence" was something that no civilized nation could abide.

And, other issues besides trade were also paramount in those times:
Questions of nation-building, of regime change, of “mission creep,” of congressional versus presidential authority to make war, of negotiation versus confrontation, of “entangling alliances,” and of the “clash of civilizations”—all arose in the first overseas war that the United States ever fought. The “nation-building” that occurred, however, took place not overseas but in the 13 colonies, welded by warfare into something more like a republic

Sound familiar?

Hitchens notes, "It’s no exaggeration to describe the psychological fallout of this first war as formative of the still-inchoate American character."

When in 1815 the pirate base in Algiers was soundly defeated by the American Navy and sued for peace, then President James Madison said:
“It is a settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute. The United States, while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none.”

Hitchens concludes appropriately with Kipling's poem Dane-Geld:
It is wrong to put temptation in the pathof any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:—

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

Go read it all for a fascinating look at America's first encounter with Islam.

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