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The United States' War with Tripoli (1801-05) and the War on Terrorism (2001-)

By Michael J. Crawford

Most of the analogies that I have seen drawn in the media between the Barbary Wars of 200 years ago and the current war on terrorism strike me as not valid.

Today's enemy uses random violence, and the fear of random violence, as means to protest against and influence American foreign policy. The world's nations, in general, condemn the terrorists' means as contrary to the rules of civilized behavior and outside the bounds of international law. Although the terrorists' goals are political-principally to remove U.S. influence from Moslem countries-they justify their extreme measures on religious grounds, a perversion of the Mohammedan jihad, the struggle to establish the rule of the Koran.

Two hundred years ago, the countries of the Barbary Coast, the northwest coast of Africa on the Mediterranean Sea, demanded tribute from other nations in return for safe use of the sea by their ships. The Barbary Powers, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, declared war on nations that refused to sign treaties meeting their tribute demands. The Barbary Powers sent out ships to capture the seagoing commerce of their enemies and held their crews for ransom or enslaved them. The Barbary corsairs, the sailors that the Barbary Powers dispatched to prey on enemy commerce, were neither terrorists nor pirates. They were commissioned privateers. Even the United States Constitution recognizes the legitimate use of privateering in warfare, providing Congress the authority to issue letters of marque and reprisal.

The goals of the Barbary Powers were solely mercenary. They sought to extort tribute, not to influence foreign policy. When Tripoli declared war on the United States in 1801 it was because the United States refused to pay the bashaw tribute, as they had been paying Tunis and Algiers. The Tripolitan War was not a Moslem holy war.

Legitimate analogies can be drawn between the war with Tripoli of 1801 to 1805 and the war on terrorism. These relate not to the causes of the wars, but to the logistical and diplomatic requirements for fighting them.

Today, the United States needs the cooperation of foreign countries and allies in order to have bases outside Afghanistan from which to launch attacks, and to which to return afterwards, as well as for supply depots. Two hundred years ago, the United States needed logistical bases so that their armed forces could operate in the Mediterranean, thousands of miles from home. Use of British-held Gibraltar as a logistical base was essential to U.S. operations during the Barbary Wars. The loan of shallow-draft vessels from the Kingdom of Sicily enabled the U.S. Navy to operate in shallow waters to enforce a blockade of Tripolitan ports.

In Afghanistan, the United States tried to influence the ruling Taliban to accede to political demands by supporting rival political movements that want to overthrow the Taliban. During the Tripolitan War, American leaders supported the ruling Bashaw's brother, a rival for the throne, in an attempt to persuade the Bashaw to negotiate.

During the War with Tripoli, the United States used the show of force and diplomacy to dissuade the other Barbary Powers from also declaring war against the United States. Today, the United States works to dissuade other Moslem countries from coming to the support of the Taliban regime.

In short, the similarities between the Tripolitan War and the war on terrorism have little to do with the religion of the enemy, and everything to do with the problems of waging a campaign in a forbidding environment far from the United States' own borders.


26 February 2002