The Barbary Pirates revisited

Confronting the murder of four Americans in Benghazi and the assault on American embassies around the Muslim Middle East, the Obama administration has marshaled the resources of the United States government. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have denounced the video served up as a pretext for the assaults. Memo to the Obama administration: It wasn’t the video. One more time: It wasn’t the video.

Nevertheless, Attorney General Eric Holder was assigned to track down and id. the filmmaker. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey placed a call to Terry Jones. The administration asked YouTube to remove the video. You got a problem with that?

The Obama administration is doing its best to pay tribute to the contemporary equivalent of the Barbary Pirates. As Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren recounts in Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, the story of America’s encounter with the Barbary Pirates goes back to the first days of the republic. Christopher Hitchens traced Thomas Jefferson’s essential contribution to the story in “Jefferson versus the Muslim pirates.”

Oren and Hitchens report on the March 1786 meeting of Jefferson and Adams with the pirate warlord of Tripoli in London. The Tripoli warlord “voiced a credo that would someday sound familiar to Americans, but left these founding fathers aghast.” Oren quotes the report of Jefferson and Adams to John Jay:

It was…written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their [the Musims'] 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.

America’s response to the Barbary pirates unfolded over several years and four administrations, ultimately leading to the termination of the practice of tribute. The response included the framing and adoption of the Constitution, the founding of the United States Navy and a naval war on the pirates. It was not a venture in multicultural understanding or international appeasement.

Oren writes that George Washington’s request for the funds necessary to build a navy prevailed over substantial opposition in Congress because Congress “could no longer bear the disgrace of kowtowing to Barbary.” In the administration of James Madison, Commodore Stephen Decatur conducted an extraordinary exercise in gunboat diplomacy that brought the Barbary Wars to a successful conclusion. Henceforth, the United States would pay no tribute to pirates.

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