The U.S. vs. International Terrorists


Eaton failed to gain Jefferson’s full support, but, undeterred, returned to the Mediterranean, raised a ragtag army, and led a remarkable desert campaign on behalf of Caramanli. Just as Eaton thought he was on the verge of victory, Tobias Lear, American consul general in Algiers, came to Tripoli and paid $60,000 ransom for some American captives and signed a peace treaty. Caramanli was left dangling, a pitiful suppliant for charity from the United States. Eaton and his friends excoriated Jefferson and Lear, but the Senate in 1805 ratified the peace Lear had made.

The year 1805 also brought the first Moslem envoy to the United States. Sidi Soliman Mellimelni arrived from Tunis with a large and colorful retinue. In Washington he was a major tourist attraction but was ineffectual in negotiating a dispute arising out of the American blockade of Tripoli during which some Tunisian vessels were seized. Mellimelni toured several American cities before returning to Tunis, where, in 1807, Tobias Lear found the Tunisians amenable to a settlement—perhaps because of reports by Mellimelni on the size and power of the United States.


During the next decade the Barbary question nearly disappeared from the agenda of American foreign policy, overshadowed by the controversies with Great Britain that culminated in the war of 1812. American naval forces returned to home waters and fought valiantly in that war. Nearly all American merchant vessels also withdrew from the Mediterranean. But in 1812 Algiers broke her treaty with the United States, captured an American vessel, and enslaved the crew. Soon after peace with Great Britain was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, President James Madison opened the last chapter of the Barbary story by asking Congress to declare war on Algiers. Congress complied.

Two powerful squadrons—one under Stephen Decatur and the other under William Bainbridge—sailed to the Mediterranean and inflicted heavy damage on the Algerians. The Dey of Algiers signed, almost literally at the cannon’s mouth, a treaty abolishing tribute in every form. He then procrastinated about putting the treaty into effect. The United States threatened more force. At the same time the British and the Dutch abandoned the old policy of tribute and administered a ferocious bombardment against the fortifications and fleet of Algiers. The Dey capitulated. Tunis and Tripoli, intimidated by the display of power, also turned gentle. Barbary piracy, as an act of governments, was over. The residual piracy of isolated private bands was easily suppressed. Henceforth, until the world wars of the twentieth century, American shipping traversed the Mediterranean in safety.

Some reflections are in order. The final destruction of Barbary piracy was attributed by most Americans to their own determination and naval prowess. The importance of Great Britain’s decision no longer to play the tribute game was overlooked, while patriotic naval heroes—Preble, Decatur, Bainbridge—filled the stage. The affair lost all complexity and emerged as melodrama in the popular mind. The debates within the American government over the use of force, the price of honor, and the sometimes hidden connections between domestic and foreign policy were overlooked. Yet these debates contain more drama and lasting interest than a score of naval engagements and expeditions “to the shores of Tripoli.”

The simplified version of the Barbary wars contributed its bit to the myth of American righteousness and omnipotence. Subconsciously, later Americans may have equated all foes from “backward” countries with the Barbary pirates: contemptible bandits motivated by fear and avarice alone. Withdrawal from the Mediterranean, tribute, or war may have been the only alternatives in dealing with the Barbary states at the turn of the eighteenth century. But those states were throwbacks to the middle ages rather than forerunners of the modern “Third World.”

Thus the Barbary experience should not be pressed too closely to provide lessons for the present. It is as important to know the differences as it is to note the similarities between Barbary pirates and modern hijackers. The Barbary predators were not motivated by ideological passion. They led no fervent national movement. They were, for all their violence and threats, entrepreneurs playing the game of snatching and selling men. They calculated profit against loss, declared war, made peace, and haggled over prices with equal nonchalance. When faced with superior force they backed off and ultimately, when the major powers no longer found it convenient to tolerate piracy, withdrew altogether from the game. The roots of modern terrorism are far deeper, far more entwined with powerful grievances and ideological objectives. The surface similarity with the Barbary piracy is there, but the solutions today are infinitely more difficult.