February 20, 2007

Writing History

I was stuck in a traffic jam today at lunch hour due to a major car fire on the freeway, so I was able to catch Dennis Prager's interview with Michael Oren for about 45 uninterrupted minutes. The topic was Oren's new book, Power, Faith and Fantasy; America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present, and I made a mental note to look for an online transcript when I got home because it was so interesting.

The Prager website didn't have anything, but PJM happened to have a terrific interview with Oren by blogger Michael J. Totten, which covered much of the same material. That included Oren's recounting of the historical fact that, from the very day of this country's founding, the United States faced a conflict with Islam that was characterized by what are now familiar themes to us:

MJT: So tell us, Michael, why does America’s involvement in the Middle East 200 years ago matter today? What does it have to do with September 11 and Iraq?

Oren: Well it matters, Michael, because many of the same issues that Americans are facing today in the Middle East were confronted by America’s founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington. For example, they had to confront the issue of state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East. They had to face a threat to the United States, and decide whether to generate military power and then project that power thousands of miles from the United States. They had to decide whether to involve the United States in an open-ended and rather expensive bloody war in the Middle East. This was, of course, the Barbary War, America’s first overseas military engagement and America’s longest overseas military engagement. It lasted from 1783 to 1815. During the course of this engagement, as my book shows, the United States was confronting a jihadist state-sponsored terrorist network that was taking Americans hostage in the Middle East. It’s very similar to what is going on today.

In fact, the young U.S. government, under the Adams administration, was paying out 20% of the government's revenues to the Barbary pirates as tribute, in the form of ransom for our sailors and citizens. Several weeks ago, Christopher Hitchens had a piece called "Jefferson's Quran", that relates how Jefferson came to understand what we were up against:

The Barbary states of North Africa (or, if you prefer, the North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire, plus Morocco) were using the ports of today's Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia to wage a war of piracy and enslavement against all shipping that passed through the Strait of Gibraltar. Thousands of vessels were taken, and more than a million Europeans and Americans sold into slavery. The fledgling United States of America was in an especially difficult position, having forfeited the protection of the British Royal Navy. Under this pressure, Congress gave assent to the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by Jefferson's friend Joel Barlow, which stated roundly that "the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen." This has often been taken as a secular affirmation, which it probably was, but the difficulty for secularists is that it also attempted to buy off the Muslim pirates by the payment of tribute. That this might not be so easy was discovered by Jefferson and John Adams when they went to call on Tripoli's envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. They asked him by what right he extorted money and took slaves in this way. As Jefferson later reported to Secretary of State John Jay, and to the Congress:
The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.

Medieval as it is, this has a modern ring to it. Abdrahaman did not fail to add that a commission paid directly to Tripoli—and another paid to himself—would secure some temporary lenience. I believe on the evidence that it was at this moment that Jefferson decided to make war on the Muslim states of North Africa as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

All we had to do was build a navy.

As I add the Oren book to my Amazon Wishlist, I'll close with a bit lifted from David Pryce-Jones' review of the Oren book at NRODT:

The relationship of the U.S. to the Arab and Muslim worlds, Oren contends, is a permanent see-saw between American ideals and American interests that as a rule are abstractly defined and all too often prove incompatible. The U.S. began by expecting Arabs and Muslims to be nothing but trade partners, as peaceful as they themselves intended to be. Instead, corsairs from the Barbary States of the southern Mediterranean shore, nominally owing fealty to the Ottoman sultan, attacked trading vessels and sold American sailors in their hundreds into slavery. The U.S. response was to pay bribes for protection, and to redeem the slaves. One local ruler boasted, “You pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves”; another held that Americans were no different from Europeans and “will talk a great deal and do nothing, and at last come cap in hand and sue for peace upon my own terms.”....Resorting to action at last, President Thomas Jefferson persuaded Congress to build a war fleet. Armed intervention then put an end to this piracy and slavery.


So constant is Arab and Muslim culture that current arguments about policy towards Iraq, Iran, or Syria are an almost exact repetition of those for or against that first American campaign in the Middle East. In the absence of Muslim reform, the choice before an American president still lies between some form of bribery or appeasement, and the deployment of power.

Be sure to take in the whole Totten-Oren interview. Lots of good stuff there.


Powells.com review
Oren talks to PowerLine

Posted by dan at February 20, 2007 8:32 PM