Foreign Policy Blogs

The Barbary Pirates Return Again

Since September 11, every now and then someone will bring up the Barbary Wars as a precedent to the United States’ post-9/11 military actions.  (See this Washington Post piece from October 2001 and this National Review piece from 2005.)  This time the phenomenon emerges with Marion Smith who, writing for the National Review, argues that the Barbary Wars justify strike that killed bin Laden.

Smith argues that during the First Barbary War, the United States “captured the Ottoman city of Derma,” which was a “blatant violation of the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire,” so the United States now should follow in the Founding Fathers’ footsteps and not worry so much about Pakistan’s sovereignty.  This concern with other countries’ sovereignty, Smith argues, “is consistent with the belief that the U.S. should remain politically and militarily uninvolved in other countries’ internal affairs” and “this purist doctrine of non-interventionism is contrary to the founding principles of America’s early foreign policy.”

But Smith shows a lack of appreciation for the development of the concept of sovereignty.  There is actually much debate about when exactly European countries acknowledged the Ottoman Empire as a sovereign entity.  Many take the view that the Europeans first acknowledged the Ottoman Empire’s sovereignty in the 1856 Treaty of Paris that ended the Crimean War.  This would mean that during the Barbary Wars, the Europeans (and the United States) did not view the Ottoman Empire as sovereign.  Thus, obviously, the U.S. capture of Derma in the First Barbary War (in 1805) could not possibly have been a “blatant violation of the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire,” as Smith contends.

For those interested in delving deeper into the Turkey sovereignty issue, here’s an old (and by old I mean from 1943) article by Hugh McKinnon Wood.  As Wood notes, the Europeans did not originally intend the idea of sovereignty to fully apply “to States outside the pale of Christian civilization.”  But, as Wood continues:

The truth appears to be that towards the end of the first half of the 19th century the reasons for holding that Turkey was outside the operation, or not fully within the operation, of the international law observed by the Christian Powers had become for all practical purposes obsolete, owing to those Powers becoming the predominant partners in all relations between them and the Sublime Porte [the Ottoman Empire], and owing to the growing complexity and extent of their relations with it.

And as Wood explains, people debate whether the 1856 Treaty of Paris made this recognition official, or whether recognition happened earlier.  Wood cites one writer, A. H. Smith, who argues that “for centuries… the general body of international law was considered to apply” to Turkey.  But still, given the ambiguity and the extent of the legal debates, Marion Smith’s statement about the “blatant violation” of Turkey’s sovereignty is an overreach.

Additionally, Marion Smith errs by glorifying the results of the Barbary Wars.  In Smith’s narrative, military force was the necessary and appropriate method to subdue the threat of Barbary piracy.  But look more closely at the Barbary Wars, and they don’t seem so great.  See this Bradley Smith piece from 2005, for example.  As Bradley Smith notes, here’s how the First Barbary War ended:

The military victory at Tripoli aroused American passions, united the Nation, and bolstered its bargaining power. But rather than prosecute the war further, Jefferson chose to cut military spending and eliminate the Federal debt. In 1805 he struck a deal with Tripoli, exchanging prisoners and paying one last installment (equivalent to nearly a million of today’s dollars) while allowing the bashaw to remain in power.

So the first war ended when the U.S. president paid the enemy about one million dollars, ten years later a second war broke out, and even when that concluded, as Bradley Smith notes, one more measure was needed to definitively eliminate the threat:

Terrorism on the high seas might have continued longer had European powers not conquered North Africa and installed regimes supportive of European interests. The English and Dutch ceased tribute payments and attacked Algeria. France annexed Algeria in 1830 and turned Tunis and Morocco into French protectorates. Italy forcibly colonized Tripoli. (15) Pirate dens were eradicated and local support prevented.

Perhaps this is a strategy Marion Smith would recommend?  Unfortunately, the decolonization trends of the twentieth century prove this option unviable.