TIME: The U.S. has been embroiled with Iran since 1979, first with the hostage crisis, then with Iran-contra, now with the “axis of evil.” And if the past is any indication, that entanglement–sour, multiform and intractable–is likely to last decades: it took four Presidents, two wars and several treaties to get us out of the bad relationship the last time we tried. TIME
By Richard Brookhiser
The U.S. has been embroiled with Iran since 1979, first with the hostage crisis, then with Iran-contra, now with the “axis of evil.” And if the past is any indication, that entanglement–sour, multiform and intractable–is likely to last decades: it took four Presidents, two wars and several treaties to get us out of the bad relationship the last time we tried.
With independence, America threw off the carapace of regulations and treaties that applied to British colonies. This meant we would have to deal on our own with the Barbary States. The Barbary States–Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli–were four North African countries whose revenues came from a naval protection racket they had been running in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean since the late 16th century. They seized foreign ships and enslaved the crews. If you paid them tribute in advance, they would leave you alone. Otherwise, you would have to ransom captives on an ad hoc basis. Their most famous prisoner was Miguel de Cervantes, who fictionalized his ordeal in Don Quixote. Roman Catholic religious orders (Trinitarians, Order of Mercy) devoted themselves to the business of ransoming Christian captives.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams first encountered the Barbary States in the late 1780s, when they were American diplomats in Europe. They did not enjoy the experience. In 1786 they reported on a conversation with Tripoli’s ambassador to Britain. He informed them that peace could be bought for 30,000 guineas (with a £3,000 tip for himself) and advised that Tunis would settle at the same rate, although he could not answer for Morocco or Algiers. This was far more than Jefferson and Adams had been authorized to spend. Jefferson had feared as much. “We ought to begin a naval power,” he wrote before the negotiations even began.
The Constitution, which went into effect in 1789, gave the U.S. a more energetic government, though not, at first, a navy, and President George Washington felt obliged to go to the bargaining table once more. The fruit of his negotiations was the Tripoli Treaty, ratified by his successor, John Adams. The pasha, or ruler, of Tripoli lowered the price of peace to $52,000, jewels and assorted naval supplies. In 1801, seeking a better price, the pasha declared war on the U.S. by cutting down the flagpole in front of the American consulate. This turned out to be a mistake, since America now had a navy (built at the end of Adams’ term during a period of tension with France). President Jefferson sent a squadron to the Mediterranean, where it met with failures and successes. In 1803 the frigate Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli harbor; America had to burn the stricken ship. On the plus side, in 1805 William Eaton, a feisty diplomat, led a force of Marines, mercenaries and Arab allies 520 miles over the Egyptian desert and captured Tripoli’s second largest town (the line in the Marine Corps hymn, “to the shores of Tripoli,” commemorates this exploit). Jefferson ended the war by agreeing to pay the pasha $60,000, which was much less than he had wanted.
Even this was not the end. Under cover of the War of 1812 between Britain and America, the Barbary States resumed their old ways. Once that war ended, President James Madison turned his attention to the Mediterranean. In 1815 an American force under Stephen Decatur beat the dey of Algiers, who was forced to pay $10,000 in damages and promise to leave American ships alone.
What are the similarities? Like Iran, the Barbary States professed militant jihad. The Tripolitan ambassador told Jefferson and Adams that it was his country’s duty, “written in their Koran,” to “make slaves” of all “sinners.” Since zeal could be modified by greed, their true religion was the shakedown. Is that another similarity with Iran? We do not yet know.
What is also consistent in our situation and the past is that the international community was feckless in dealing with the Barbary States, with everyone making their own deals and not sorry to see commercial rivals entangled. But there are also great differences. The Barbary States had nothing we wanted, besides captives; they belonged to no equivalent of OPEC. They also had no prospect of weapons of mass destruction. But sufficient to the day was the evil thereof. America beat it only after three decades of trying one thing after another.
Brookhiser, a historian and editor at National Review, is author of What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers