Thursday, March 24, 2011

"...to the Shores of Tripoli."

The current U.S. military action in Libya is but the latest in a long history of American use of force against renegades in that North African region.  Any review of that history requires setting the dial on the "Way Back" machine to at least 1778.

By the end of the 18th Century, piracy by autonomous North African city states belonging to the vast and crumbling Ottoman Empire had evolved to such an organized and lucrative commercial enterprise that, by comparison, the current Somali scourge looks like 12 year-old bullies knocking over corner lemonade stands.  The bashas of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers commanded vast fleets of fast, lightly armed sailing craft which carried boarding parties composed of men who, in the words of a Tripolitan ambassador in negotiations with U. S. envoy Thomas Jefferson in 1785, believed that,

...the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy's ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once." 

The 1778 Treaty of Alliance between France and the American colonies in rebellion against the British Crown had placed American commercial shipping under the protection of the French Navy and French agreements with what were then known as the Barbary Coast Pirates.  The end of the war in 1783 caused this treaty to lapse and American shipping began to fall prey once again to Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean.  The cost to America was staggering.  In 1795, for example, the United States paid the exorbitant ransom of one million dollars to the king of Algeria for the release of 116 American sailors.  To put what seems a paltry amount in perspective, in a day when our national debt increases more than one million dollars a minute, the total U.S. federal budget in 1795 was little more than six million dollars

With continuing protection payments to the Barbary Coast States approaching 20% of the Federal budget by 1800, it began to dawn on congressional leaders that it would be cheaper to build a navy to defend American shipping.  Jefferson had long argued that the United States should refuse to pay the Barbary tribute and by the time he assumed the Presidency in 1801, several fine frigates were available for naval patrol in the Mediterranean.  One of Jefferson's first command decisions was to refuse further tribute payments.  The king of Tripoli subsequently declared war on the United States and Jefferson dispatched a naval squadron to the Mediterranean, thus beginning a U.S. Naval presence in that strategic sea that continues to this day (and one in which the Colonel participated during his career as a ruggedly handsome soldier of the sea).  

Jefferson did not act out of disregard for the limits placed on his use of military force by the U.S. Constitution.  In fact, he asked the Congress for, and received specific authorization to conduct naval operations against the Tripoli pirates to protect American commercial shipping.  Congress recognized that a state of war existed between the United States and Tripoli and, although never formally declaring war on Tripoli, gave Jefferson express permission to seize and/or destroy Tripolitan shipping. 

The resurgent U.S. Navy quickly dominated the Tripolitan pirates at sea, but the king of Tripoli remained defiant.  For the LSU, Alabama, and Mississippi State grads among the five of you who regularly waste valuable rod and cone time perusing posts hereon and among the half-dozen other net-surfing passers-by to this rant who are having a hard time following due to the lack of pictures, that was the early 19th Century analogy to today's situation with Libya.

Enter political intrigue and a handful of U.S. Marines.

It was decided that regime change in Tripoli was in order.  The king of Tripoli's brother volunteered to make Tripoli more friendly to American interests if the United States would just do him the small favor of deposing his brother for him.  U.S. Marine First Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon and eight enlisted Marines at the head of a 500-man Greek, Berber, and Arab mercenary band marched over-desert from Alexandria, Egypt and captured the Tripolitan city of Derna; raising the flag of the United States in victory for the first time on foreign soil.  

The king of Tripoli rather quickly thereafter conceded to U.S. demands to cease piracy of American shipping, and we told his little brother to take a hike.  But, in return, America agreed to continue paying a much reduced tribute.  Call it, in today's terms, Foreign Aid.   

As the five of you who regularly waste valuable rod and cone time perusing posts hereon, and are not intellectually hamstrung by mis-education at LSU, Alabama, or Mississippi State, can well imagine, the continued payment of tribute demonstrated weakness and only served to encourage more piracy.  The United States, after escaping a near-miss in the rematch with Great Britain, had to go to war again against the Barbary Coast in 1815. 

Accommodations with recalcitrant rulers have a way of coming back to bite you.
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