Staying the course

History offers White House lessons for Iraqi peace

October 19, 2003|By Joseph Wheelan

POSTWAR IRAQ, which these days evokes strained comparisons to late 1960s Vietnam, might be more usefully compared with the Barbary War of 1801-1805, a forgotten conflict with lessons to impart.

Fought 200 years ago, the Barbary War was America's only unilateral war against a Muslim foe. It was begun with high hopes that soon began to ebb.

By 1803, the U.S. naval offensive appeared becalmed, a squadron commander had been recalled and President Thomas Jefferson and his officials were debating what to do next.

Eerily mirroring today's war on terror, the undeclared war was waged against Tripoli, one of the four Muslim Barbary States of northwest Africa. Known by the sobriquet, "The Terror," the Barbary States for centuries had cynically invoked Islamic jihad against Christian Europe in order to operate a massive protection racket on their proclaimed turf, the western Mediterranean.

Terror, piracy, extortion and slavery were immensely profitable for Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers and Morocco, for Europe paid them millions for the privilege of trading in the Mediterranean unmolested. But the Barbary States always broke those treaties, demanding new, costlier ones.

After winning independence from England, America, wishing to trade in the Mediterranean, also made treaties with the Barbary States. But by the time Jefferson became the third president in 1801, the treaties were unraveling, and Tripoli was threatening war.

Instead of signing new treaties, Jefferson, only 19 days after taking office, ordered a naval squadron fitted out for duty in the western Mediterranean.

As Jefferson put it, America had not thrown off one despot, England, only to bow to a lesser one. He also believed that by effecting "peace through the medium of war," the United States would earn Europe's respect.

And so America embarked on its first war on foreign soil, a war on terror. It made household names of Stephen Decatur and William Eaton but today is best remembered by the line in the "Marines' Hymn," "To the shores of Tripoli."

By 1803, the war was being waged so desultorily that a Tunisian diplomat blew a whistle in the face of American consul William Eaton, sneering, "We find it is all a puff! We see how you carry on the war with Tripoli!" He was right. Two successive U.S. squadrons had done little more than convoy and blockade, and the commodore of the second squadron, Richard Valentine Morris, had performed so dismally that he was recalled and court-martialed for "dilatory conduct."

While the situation in postwar Iraq by no means has reached the Barbary War's nadir of 1803, rising postwar casualties and delays in restoring Iraq's infrastructure have caused unease, supplanting elation over the war's quick military victories. Moreover, as was the case 200 years ago, the perception is growing that the American war effort is in trouble.

Jefferson knew in 1803 that retreat would cripple U.S. prestige. His response was to prosecute the war with even greater vigor, the very course signaled by President Bush in requesting $87 billion from Congress.

Jefferson and his officials determinedly set about shoring up the military leadership, the naval force and the diplomatic effort.

Then-Capt. Edward Preble, a tough, smart naval officer who later was to become a commodore, was dispatched with more ships. He attacked Tripoli with conventional and unconventional naval forces in 1804. The following year, Mr. Eaton led eight Marines and 400 Arabs, European mercenaries and dissident Tripolitans across the desert to victory at Derna, "the shores of Tripoli."

The peace treaty of 1805 signed after Mr. Eaton's victory was skillfully negotiated by Tobias Lear, but fell short of Jefferson's early hopes. Yet it was a defeat for Tripoli's ruler, who had wanted to wring a more expensive agreement from America, one requiring annual tribute payments.

The scale of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the war on terror dwarf the Barbary War, but Jefferson's determination to see his war through to an honorable conclusion is as relevant today as it was 200 years ago.

Whether America was right or wrong in invading Iraq, it can now only stay the course as Jefferson did in Barbary, for the alternative is disastrous retreat.

To win the peace in Iraq, the United States must now embrace Jefferson's third principle for winning the Barbary War -- good diplomacy, the weak link in the Iraqi war. Diplomacy can bring more U.N. help in expanding the peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts essential to establishing stability while dispelling the dangerously growing Iraqi perception of America as an occupier, rather than a liberator.

The United States and the United Nations then could create an Iraqi democratic model to which future generations of young Muslims may look with hope rather than turning down the blind alley of militancy.

Joseph Wheelan is the author of Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror, 1801-1805, (Carroll & Graf, 2003). He lives in Cary, N.C.

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