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A better historical model for the war on terror?

The human mind seeks patterns. It's in our nature. When confronted with something new, we try to find parallels to past experiences so we can figure out how to deal with the present. And war is no exception.

Both sides are engaging in this with the war in Iraq, and to a larger extent the war on terror. The Left repeatedly likens it to the war in Vietnam, the great shaping experience of their history. This allows them to portray themselves as the good guys, valiantly fighting against the evil warmongers and side with the oppressed. And most importantly, it casts them on the winning side.

The Right (and on this matter, I put myself on their side) prefers to cite World War II. The scope of the conflict, the sudden, surprise attack, the threat to freedom, and the promise of bringing freedom to enslaved people has a great appeal to those who live and die by the metaphor. And, as with the Left, it lets us cast ourselves as the good guys who eventually win.

But setting aside the politics of the matter and going strictly on the historical facts of the matter, I think we might have to skip back beyond the 20th century for a better paradigm. In fact, if we set the Wayback Machine to a full two centuries ago, we just might find something useful.

In the dawn of the 19th Century, the United States faced its first real foreign challenge, with the Barbary Pirates. These buccaneers roamed the northern western coasts of Africa, freely raiding European and American shipping. They even ranged as far north as the North Sea, raiding Europe at will. The loose confederation of city-states demanded tribute from the West, and in exchange for the bribes would reduce (but never eliminate) their depredations.

After we established our independence, the Barbary Pirates noted the change by realizing that we would no longer be covered by England's bribes, and sought to come to terms with us. But Thomas Jefferson said, in an epic declaration, "millions for defense but one one penny for tribute." The US Navy, in its first major challenge outside of American waters, fought the pirates. It took a series of wars against the city-states of northern Africa over 15 years, but in the end the power of the pirates was broken and we never had to pay tribute again -- and, most importantly, the role of the US Navy in securing the freedom of the seas worldwide was firmly established.

Now, as before, we face the challenge of Islamic militants, backed by loose confederations and organizations, but lacking a coherent nation-state behind them. Now, as before, we find ourselves fighting when other nations preferred to come to accomodation with the enemy. And now, as before, we find ourselves in an overarching "war" that could span a decade -- or longer -- that would be marked by a series of lesser "wars" against individual factions of a nebulous enemy.

I'm no scholar of the wars of the Barbary Pirates, but my own limited knowledge seems to indicate there might be even more worth looking at.


Comments (12)

What about the Cold War?</p... (Below threshold)

What about the Cold War?

Now you are making me have ... (Below threshold)
patrick:

Now you are making me have to go and reasearch this. I think you make an excellent point and are very thought provoking, but since I haven't a great deal of knowledge on this era of U.S. History I can't poke any holes in your hypothesis. James reference to the cold war is another case. First of all let me say I was against the war in Iraq from the get go, having said that I agree that we needed to go and fight terrorists, I just disagree on the location and the constantly changing reasons. The goal of the cold war was to end the threat of communism and bring down the USSR, which we did somewhat. However I still don't agree that taking the fight to the backward country of Vietnam was the right way to fight the cold war. Reagan did much better by outspending them. So that would leave me with suggesting a philosophy to better fight the war on terror. How about catching Osama Bin laden and all of his cronies before we went after Saddam. This war has constantly brought the loony militant to Iraq to fight us on their turf, with sympathy from the locals because they are disrupting our ability to rebuild their country and breaking the morale of some military members and people at home. Perhaps if we pull out from Iraq we could use the resources to go after our real enemies the al queada terrorists.

Interesting spin, Patrick, ... (Below threshold)
epador:

Interesting spin, Patrick, but one could also say we took the battle to "their doorstep" rather than ours, that now the folks in the Middle East are having to directly experience and deal with the the problem makers as well as us being there - if they really want us gone one way is to get the dang terrorists or insurgents or whatever (pirates?) gone so we don't have an excuse to be there anymore. I am sure that if there are any wise folks left there, they feel the same way about the militants in Iran. Focusing on al Qeda as the only enemy misses the point that they are but one expression of militant islamo-fascism, a movement that threatens our society with annihilation.

As far as the Barbary Pirates story, the continued ineffective attempts at appeasement, the use of the pirates by differing European factions against each other (the French being notorious for this at first, then suffering as the pirates then used against them), and the lack of a permanent solution when military might was brought to bear (repeated British, American and Dutch Fleets sent to bombard Algiers, etc.) without a real change in ruling powers or the local economy, and the interesting fact the the French are credited with wiping out the last vestiges of piracy in the 1830's make study of this history quite appropriate when looking at the current problems with Islamic militancy.

I think we must recognise t... (Below threshold)
Steve Crickmore:

I think we must recognise this is an insurgency movement deeply rooted in the tortured history of Iraq, that the Americans are fighting...If we think of them as modern day free booting Barbary Pirates, we are kidding ourselves. Terrorists they might seem to us, but they surely see themselves more as militant Sunnies who can endure the foreign invading American buccaneering troops.

Steve: Interesting twists o... (Below threshold)
epador:

Steve: Interesting twists on words. Few if any members of any movement see themselves as anything but the good guys and their opponents as the bad guys. So what's the point? The Barbary Pirates themselves had a deep rooted history going back at least half a century. How we and others dealt with them, the successes and failures of those approaches, and the ultimate result is indeed important. Freebooting pirates is your vision, not Jay Tea's or mine. They had no relation to the pirates off east Africa we read about in the news today. These folks were Islamic slavers, privateers and had a robust economy and society that preyed on Mediterranean and North Atlantic Europe with varying ties to the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps a million Europeans (significant numbers considering the total population at the time) were enslaved, most dying in captivity.

'Course there were even moo... (Below threshold)
epador:

'Course there were even moonbats back then, who thought it economically or politically advantageous or appropriate to join forces with these Pirates, mostly Dutch sailors, but a smattering of others including an English aristocrat or two.

Good posting. I believe yo... (Below threshold)
Matt:

Good posting. I believe your analysis is correct. One of the interesting aspects when comparing the current war with the Barbary pirates is the fact that Pres. Thomas Jefferson acted without a formal declaration of war, although he was given permission by congress. Also, part of that 15 year long conflict that had fits and starts is that it was also in a somewhat limited way a proxy-war. There were historical indications that France was egging the pirates on and possibly aiding them in targeting U.S. vessels.

Then read Glenn Tucker's "D... (Below threshold)
Mikey:

Then read Glenn Tucker's "Dawn Like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the US Navy".

It's the most definitive text I've seen.

The day of the Barbary pira... (Below threshold)
Mikey:

The day of the Barbary pirates truly ended in 1815 with the final defeat of Napoleon. It was the constant power struggles in Europe that allowed those little pests to continue their depredations. No major European power had the strength to spare to deal with these (nominal) Ottoman satrapies, they were too busy recovering from the last war or gearing up for the next.

However, with the peace of 1815 on the European scene, the great powers of Europe saw no need to bribe the Barbary pirates, and fleet after fleet was sent to obtain a treaty, and fleets were maintained, permanently, in the Mediterranean to enforce those treaties with, er, force.

Western economic might and consequent military strength was the key, not appeasement, bribes, and groveling.

One place to start might be... (Below threshold)
W was right the first time:... (Below threshold)
bryanD:

W was right the first time: the Crusades! At least the 1st crusade wherein we(Rome) attack AL-Quaeda (the "Moors) and find things not quite so simple: the Fatimids and their partisans (when it suits them) vs the Turks and their proxies, and both (when it suits them) vs Rome(us). And in the background, war in reverse with Moslems taking it to the Byzantine Empire (Russia and the Balkans) while Rome rubs it in (Kosovo, Nagarno-Kharabahk(sp), Chechnya, etc). Barbary pirates? We paid them off. And yeah, I know about the shores of Tripoli (ex-Jarhead typing here). How to get out? See O. Cromwell's foreign policy vis a vis Holland, etc.

The reason it seems similar... (Below threshold)
B Moe:

The reason it seems similar to the Crusades and the Barbary Pirates is they are all battles in the same war.




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