LIBYA: Don’t forget – We’ve been there before, with “boots on the ground.”

Tripoli (modern Libya) and North Africa circa 1801, time of the first US invasion. 

“No American boots on the ground.”  That’s what President Barack Obama promised last month on announcing his decision to put US military might behind the UN-approved plan to support rebels fighting Libya’s dictator Muammar Qaddafi.   Whether events will let him keep this promise and still achieve his goal of ousting Qaddafi remains to be seen.

If the whole Libya affair sounds vaguely familiar, it should.  We’ve been there before.   And the first experience offers a useful clue as to whether Obama (or NATO) will end up sending troops there again in 2011.   

The Barbary Pirates: ,
None less than Thomas Jefferson was the first president to send American troops across the ocean to make war against what is today Libya.   Back then, the Berber states on Africa’s north coast — Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli (modern Libya) — harbored the worst ocean terrorists of their day, the Barbary Pirates. These state-sponsored marauders, commanded by local kings and pashas, made fortunes by capturing ships, primarily European and American, looting them for guns and gold, and enslaving or ransoming their Christian crews — not unlike pirates today off Somalia.  

Thomas Jefferson, first US president to sent
US troops against Libya (then Tripoli).

During the Revolutionary War, France had protected American ships in the region, but this alliance had lapsed by the 1870s when the Barbary Pirates, strong and united, decided to target US shipping.  America was weak back then, a small new country unprotected by bigger friends, lacking its own Navy, and dependent on overseas trade — perfect prey for Barbary Pirates.  Beginning in the late 1780s, they began taking US ships and demanding enormous ransoms.   In 1795, Algeria alone demanded a cool $1 million from the US government — about 1/6th of the entire US federal budget back them — for return of 115 captured sailors.  Even after the US government purchased a peace treaty with Morocco, extortions or “tributes” typically reached over $1 million each year.

Thomas Jefferson hated this practice.  As US ambassador to Paris in the 1790s, he complained that paying ransom only encouraged more kidnappings.  He confronted the ambasaador from Tripoli one time in Paris and asked him directly what gave his country the right to seize American ships.   To Jefferson’s dismay, the ambassador quoted passages from the Koran that, he claimed, gave true believers rights over Christian heathens.  Jefferson described the pirates’ way of doing business this way:  “When they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every [pirate] sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth, which usually struck such terror in the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.”

When Jefferson became president in 1801, almost immediately he received a demand from the Pasha in Tripoli for a cash payment of $225,000.   Jefferson decided to draw the line: not one more penny for tribute. Instead, he sent to the Mediterranean a warship — one of the first constructed by the new US Navy Department created in 1798 in direct response to the pirates — and ordered it to protect American shipping. The Pasha, in turn, responded by having the flagpole in front of the US consulate in Tripoli chopped down — his way of declaring war — and ordered his own pirates to attack more American ships.

The Fight:
Fighting broke out within weeks, as one of the first US ships to reach the Mediterranean, the USS Enterprise, encountered an enemy vessel from Tripoli and defeated it after a three-hour gun battle.   Jefferson quickly sent another seven US ships — virtually the entire Navy — into the fray.  Sea battles raged sporadically over the next two years until October 1803 when ships under the Pasha’s command managed to capture the USS Philadelphia, a rich prize with 28 big guns and a crew of 100.   The Pasha’s men immediately took the crew members as hostages and turned the ship’s guns against potential Americans.rescuers.

This led to one of the most heroic moments of the war.  In February 1804, Stephen Decatur, then still a young US Navy Lieutenant, snuck a small team of commandoes directly through the defenses of Tripoli harbor, climbed aboard the USS Philadelphia (which was anchored so that its guns faced the sea), killed the guards, destroyed the ship and its guns, and escaped.    

US Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur taking the Philadelphia
in Tripoli harbor in 1804, a painted by Dennis Malone Carter. 

The critical point came in May 1805 when eight Marines, along with some 500 local Arab and Greek mercenaries and supported by US gunships off-shore, marched across the desert from Egypt through El Alamein and Toburk (scenes of future World War II battles involving German General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Corps) and captured the city of Derna near today’s Benghazi.  This battle would  inspire the reference in the Marine Corps Hymn to “the shores of Tripoli.”  It would also convince the Pasha, sitting just down the road, to offer peace.  

With two months, a treaty was signed, all American prisoners (about 300) were released, and the US settled the affair with a final payment to Tripoli of $60,000.  Total America losses were 35 killed and 64 wounded. 

Lesson for Obama?
The Barbary War did not immediately end the danger of piracy in the Mediterranean.  It would take a second war in 1815, this one against Algiers, to finally bring peace.   

Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 war against Tripoli was different in fundamental ways from Barack Obama’s 2011 non-war against Muammar Quddafy.  A closer comparison is to the Somali pirates mentioned above.  Still, Jefferson made his point back then by standing up against extortion and crossing the ocean to confront the wrongdoers.  The Barbary Pirates had directly attacked American ships and crews, so there was no doubt about the cause or purpose of the war.   If Obama is to embroil the US further in Libya today, hopefully he will have a strategy as clear and direct as Thomas Jefferson did against the Barbary Pirates in 1804.

But what’s notable is one more thing:   Even in the 1801-5 Barbary War — a fight by ships, involving shipping, led by the Navy, and against seagoing pirates — in the end it took “boots on the ground” (in the form of the Marines’ capture of Derna) to  settle the affair.