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Saturday, June 3, 2006

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Iran today and the Barbary coast of the 19th century

Parallels in how to deal with the fascists in Teheran

by Ferdinand III


One way or another we have been dealing with a hostile Iran for 27 years. In 1979, Iranian mobs, including one Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (now the president), overran our embassy in Tehran and seized our diplomats. In 1980 President Carter sent a military mission to rescue them that crashed and failed at Desert One. The hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, the day of Ronald Reagan's first inauguration, which seemed to symbolize a clean slate, but Reagan became involved in secret arms sales to Iran via his National Security Council staffer Col. Oliver North. In the late 1990s, we began to view Iran's nuclear program with alarm. President George W. Bush placed Iran in the Axis of Evil in his 2002 State of the Union address. Now we hope some combination of U.N. and European diplomacy will forestall Iran going nuclear, or at least buy time, while President Ahmadinejad, the former goon now guiding his nation of 68 million, corresponds with the 12th imam, hidden in his well near the city of Qom.

We might take counsel ourselves with our first, second, third and fourth presidents and their own dealings with Islamic rogue nations -- the warlords of 18th- and early 19th-century North Africa: Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, better known as the Barbary States. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were men of this world. Unlike the 12th imam, they cannot tell us what God thinks. But their actions offer a primer in dealing with intractable enemies.

The Barbary States were originally parts of the Turkish empire, struggling for control of the Mediterranean with Spain (Cervantes spent five years as a prisoner of war in Algiers). In the late 1600s, however, they became effectively independent and turned to extortion. Barbary ships preyed on merchantmen and defenseless coastal towns. If your country paid the Barbary States a periodic fee, you would be safe from attack. But if no one had paid up front, you might be captured and held for ransom. If no one then paid under compulsion, you spent your life in slavery. A prisoner could free himself by embracing Islam, especially if he were a capable seaman who could join in the raids of his new co-religionists. The Barbary States ran a pious protection racket, a fusion of jihad and the mob.

The infant U.S. had many merchants but no navy to speak of, so found itself obliged to pay. Thomas Jefferson spent considerable time as minister to France in fruitless dickering. "An angel sent on this business," he wrote, ". . . could have done nothing." In 1795, President Washington commissioned Joel Barlow, a poet and diplomat whose efforts in both fields were characterized by high ambition and modest achievement, to negotiate a treaty with Tripoli. Seeking to avoid any pretext for trouble, Barlow's treaty declared that the U.S. bore "no . . . enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmens" because it was "not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." (Secularists today point to the treaty as proof that America is not a Christian nation. They would do better to cite the First Amendment, rather than a payoff to thugs.) Barlow's treaty was ratified unanimously by the Senate and signed by Washington's successor, President Adams, in 1797.

Jefferson followed Adams in the White House in 1801, determined to shrink government spending, including on the Navy, which Adams had increased during a maritime showdown with France. Jefferson's first inaugural promised "peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations," but Tripoli had other ideas. In May 1801 the Bashaw (or pasha) cut down the flag in front of the American consulate, declaring war and demanding a higher tribute. Jefferson sent the excellent little navy which Adams had built to cruise the Barbary coast. The most pacific of the founders resented buying protection. "Nothing will stop the eternal increase from these pirates," he wrote his secretary of state, James Madison, "but the presence of an armed force."

Jefferson's show of force encountered setbacks. The Philadelphia, a 36-gun frigate, ran aground in Tripoli harbor in 1803. Its crew was enslaved, and Lt. Stephen Decatur made a daring raid to burn it. Jefferson's greatest success was a combined land-sea attack on the Bashaw's territory in 1805. The land assault was led by William Eaton, a quarrelsome ex-Army captain, who assembled a force of marines, mercenaries and Muslim allies in Alexandria, Egypt, and marched 500 miles across the desert. Eaton stormed Derna, Tripoli's second largest town, a feat remembered in the Marine Corps Hymn ("to the shores of Tripoli"). The Bashaw, alarmed, negotiated in earnest, agreeing to release his captives for $60,000; we took the deal. Eaton spent an angry, alcoholic old age denouncing what he considered a shameful compromise.

The compromise was ineffective as well as shameful, for in 1812 the Barbary States resumed their predatory ways. This time Algiers was the principle aggressor. James Madison, who was then president, found himself embroiled in war with Great Britain; any thought of dealing with the Barbary States had to be postponed. But in March 1815, four months after peace with Britain was declared, Madison sent a fleet, led by Decatur, now a commodore, to the Mediterranean. Decatur smashed the Algerians and wrung payment from them. Madison hailed "this demonstration of American skill and prowess." Britain, acting on behalf of the European powers, led a punitive expedition of its own in 1816. Barbary piracy was finally stamped out when France conquered Algiers in the 1830s, and a revived Turkish empire reasserted control over Tripoli.

What are the similarities in our situations? Then, as now, too many cooks spoiled the broth. The Barbary States flourished because the major naval powers thought taking action would be too expensive, or were even pleased to see their competitors molested. Today, Iran's nuclear aspirations are suspended in a cat's cradle of diplomacy, Muslim solidarity masking fear, and lucrative arms traffic. We generated our own cross-purposes in our dealings with the Barbary States, even as we do with Iran today: Our founders tried diplomacy, warfare plus diplomacy, and finally warfare, just as we have alternated menaces and blandishments.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems more devout than his North African soul mates, who warred against infidels when it would raise money, but who made peace when they were paid. Yet the piety differential is perhaps an illusion: The mullahocracy for whom Mr. Ahmadinejad fronts has grown well used to ease and power.

The big difference, of course, is that Iran hopes for something the Barbary States had no concept of: the ultimate weapon, deliverable by missile, or by terrorist. Perhaps Alexander Hamilton, who took no direct role in the Barbary saga, gives the most useful advice: We should "awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age," he wrote in Federalist No. 6, and realize that we "are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect reason." It's a tough world, and our problems won't go away by wishing.

Mr. Brookhiser is the author of "What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers," published recently by Perseus Books.


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