To the Shores of Tripoli
The scene is surprisingly familiar. America is under attack by Arab terrorists. The President wants to fight, but Congress, believing that fighting terrorists would embitter Muslims forever against America, votes to capitulate. But the news story isn't set today, but 220 years ago. Sam Ser at the Jerusalem Post retells the story from the vantage of Michael Orren's book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present.
The meeting in London was doomed from the outset. The Arab strongman's envoy held all the cards - three craft had already been hijacked, their passengers and crew held hostage in an inhospitable and almost unreachable land. The American ambassador knew the ransom demand would be high, but even he could not have imagined just how exorbitant it would be. To meet it would require one-tenth of America's annual budget.
Lest the adventurous Yanks dare to contemplate a military attack to rescue their captured comrades, Abd al-Rahman al-Ajar provided a most unpleasant revelation: the Koran declares that any nation that does not bow to the authority of the Muslims is sinful, and it is the right and duty of Muslims to make war upon it and take prisoner any of its people they may find. Further, any Muslim slain in battle against such an enemy would be promised a place in Paradise.
"We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever," the furious but helpless ambassador relayed to his government. Congress would authorize no such fight, however, and voted instead to pay the ransom.
It's now forgotten that capitulation didn't work. Simply didn't work. The Barbary Pirates raised their demands until the Pashas were taking nearly 20 per cent of Federal Revenue. But in the beginning the policy of appeasement seemed perfectly. The initial extortion demand of $70,000 was far smaller than the astronomical $2 million dollars requested by Thomas Jefferson to build a Navy. In the end it proved cheaper to crush them.
Rather quickly, American ships bring the North Africans to heel, cementing the United States' role as a power broker in the Middle East. Before he revised it in the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key's "Star-Bangled Banner" - which would become the American national anthem - described "turbaned heads bowed" to the "brow of the brave." No longer weak, then, America invites no more insults. Strengthened, in fact, it begins to deliver a few of its own.
But Orren also argues that while capitulation to extortion proved futile two centuries ago, so did attempts to "bring democracy to the Middle East". Sam Ser continues his narrative.
It is here that the second theme of Oren's book, faith, takes over. As the Middle East opens up to American commerce, it also becomes the destination of choice for Christian pilgrims enthralled with the opportunity to convert the Muslims - that is, to spread a mix of religion and independent spirit that is uniquely American, and that is founded on a conception of America as not only a "New Canaan" but as a light unto the nations as well....
At the height of this benevolent arrogance, missionary William Gooddell tells a crowd of unreceptive Lebanese, "We have come to raise your population from that state of ignorance, degradation and death [to] which you are fallen, to do all the good in our power." Not surprisingly, the missionizing flops.
"Might as well attempt to convert bricks into bride-cake as the Orientals into Christians," author Herman Melville snipes in his account of his Middle East travels.
Orren is quoted by Ser as saying doubting that America had the necessary savagery to civilize the Middle East, an ironic line of argument if ever there was one.
"I was against the Iraq war on several levels," Oren confided in conversation. "I didn't agree with the people who felt the Iraqi people were deeply yearning for democracy, and that they were just waiting for America to come and bestow it on them. "But I also didn't think America could pull it off, because America is a country of faith. And to make Iraq Iraq, America would have to do what Saddam did, which was to hold it together with a preponderance of cruel power... arrest thousands of people, torture people, kill people. I didn't think the American people were that savage."
With hell behind and before, was there no course of action that did not involve force and intimidation? Why yes, at least not direct force. It was always possible to enlist harsh and possibly despotic regimes to suppress the Pirates for us. Ser quotes Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations.
But as the United States struggles to regain its legitimacy in the Middle East, it finds itself dependent on its ability to create and sustain an alliance with savage and anti-democratic regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran. That's not the way Americans envisioned things working out when they first ventured into the deceptively calm waters of the Mediterranean. "There's always a trade-off you find in foreign policy," says Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in US security and foreign policy. "But in the Middle East it's somewhat simpler: There is a need to secure access to oil."
One area where the comparison with the 1780s runs into obvious problems was the lack of rapid travel, mass migration, international media and global trade in Jefferson's world. Birmingham had not yet been inhabited by large numbers of Muslim migrants, nor was there any possibility that the Barbary Pirates might detonate a device which would lay waste to Philadelphia or London. Today we are told that it is America's support for despots and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East that incites hatred against it. In the next breath one is assured that a military response to today's terrorists will raise all of Islam against us. Finally we are assured that the certain cultures are irredeemable and that any attempts to "bring Democracy to the Middle East" are an exercise in folly. Those are Plans A, B and C. Are there any Plan D's?