Sunday, December 2, 2007

America's First Hostage Crisis

I made the mistake of mentioning to him that in 1776 one-fifth of America’s trade ran through the Middle East and that the trade involved, in essence, large barrels of rum, Boston in particular, which were sent out of New England to the Ottoman Empire. There it was dumped and the barrels were filled up with opium. From there, the ships went to China and they dumped the opium in China and filled it up with tea and came back to New England.

Whereupon Jon Stewart said: "Let me get this straight. The Americans were giving them booze and drugs and we’re getting tea?"

I said, "It’s even worse. We dumped the stuff in Boston Harbor."

How’d you like to be on that show? I had to work very quickly.

We are going to start with an imaginary situation this morning. Imagine that you are a high-ranking American diplomat in the Middle East and you are about to meet with an emissary of a prominent Middle Eastern leader to discuss the possibility of establishing peace between this Middle Eastern kingdom and the United States.

You open your discussion by telling this Middle Eastern leader that the people of the United States desire nothing more than peace between your nation and his; have no animosity whatsoever toward the Middle East, to anybody in the Middle East; all Americans desire to do is to conduct their trade freely and bother no one.

And suppose, rather than responding and embracing these enlightening offers, the Arab representative says no, his country wants to go to war. Suppose he tells you that God has empowered his people to rule over all infidel states, including yours, and that if one of the believers should fall in this battle against infidels, then he shall alight immediately to paradise.

How, then, would you as an American diplomat respond? Well, probably you would respond by saying, "America will have no choice but to fight this threat. America has no option but to go to war." This was precisely the conclusion reached by the American ambassador, in this case the American ambassador to France, who first heard this emissary’s response.

His name was Thomas Jefferson. His interlocutor was one Abdul Rahman Adja, who was the envoy of the pasha of Tripoli, which is today in Libya. The date was March 1785. Pirates from Tripoli, from Algiers (what is today Algeria), Tunis, (which is today Tunisia), and Morocco—the so-called Barbary States—had seized dozens of American ships in the Mediterranean and kidnapped more than 100 American sailors.

America was facing its first hostage crisis in the Middle East. And, since so much of America’s trade went through this area, it actually posed a mortal threat, an existential threat, to the fledgling and fragile economy of the newly independent United States. Now, Jefferson wanted to fight the pirates. He first turned to the Europeans and asked them to form a coalition against the pirates. They turned him down. Jefferson had no option but to turn to his own United States.

But America had a problem. America did not have a navy in 1785. America had managed to survive its war of independence without one warship intact. They had all been captured, sunk, or sold off. Nor did the United States in 1785 have the means for creating a navy. The states were still loosely federated under the Articles of Confederation. There was no federal government. There was no government that was capable of raising taxes to make a navy. Moreover, many Americans were afraid of having a navy. They had recently had a bad experience with a navy, the British navy, and were afraid that if America created a navy, it could turn its guns on America’s inchoate democratic institutions; it was liable to get America embroiled in all sorts of nasty European entanglements.

And, while Jefferson wanted to fight, a great many Americans said: No. It is better to negotiate with the pirates, better perhaps to pay them off, which was the age-old European practice. We should really do everything we can, they said, to avoid getting bogged down in an open-ended war in the distant Middle East.

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