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The Middle East and the Making of the United States, 1776 to 1815

Speech by Michael B. Oren, BA '77, MIA '78

Senior Fellow, The Shalem Center

Delivered at Columbia University, Nov. 3

Just over twenty years ago, when I was a graduate student in Middle East Studies, I heard a lecture on a group of Civil War veterans, Northerners and Confederates, who had served as advisors to the Egyptian army in the late 1860s and 1870s. Not only did they modernize Egypt's defenses, the professor said, but they also built schoolhouses to teach literacy to Egyptian soldiers and their children. I was stunned. Like most Americans, I assumed that our country's involvement in the Middle East began shortly after World War II, with the advent of the Cold War, the expansion of Gulf oil production, and the emergence of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It never occurred to me that the United States was interacting substantively with the Middle East in the middle of the nineteenth century, and perhaps earlier.

I went on to devote my academic career to the history of the State of Israel and the diplomacy of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet, throughout, I maintained this closeted fascination with the history of America in the Middle East. I was fascinated by the diplomatic and military dimensions of that history -- did you know, for example, that U.S. Marines landed no less than four times in the Middle East in the nineteenth century alone? -- as well as by cultural history, by the impact of the Middle East on the writings of Washington Irving and Herman Melville, on Emerson and Mark Twain.

I found that America's involvement in the Middle East followed distinct patterns, three themes that I later labeled Power, Faith and Fantasy. Power referred to the search for economic and strategic advantages in the Middle East. Faith related to the role of religion, in particular Protestantism, in America's Middle East interaction. And fantasy pertained to the contribution of popular myths about the Middle East in the formation of American perceptions of, and policies toward, the region.

I was still studying these themes of Power, Faith and Fantasy on 9/11, when, suddenly America's relations with the Middle East were transformed from a focus of academic curiosity into a matter of national survival. Suddenly, issues arising from that relationship -- Homeland Security, Iranian nuclear plans -- dominated the headlines. Yet, it seemed to me, that in confronting these monumental challenges in the Middle East, Americans had very little sense of their legacy in the region. Thus, one night shortly after 9/11, when my good friend and editor Bob Weil asked me, as an historian, what was the one book that had yet to be written but must, I didn't hesitate a second.

The only question was: where to begin? I considered opening my study with the journey of John Ledyard, the first American to explore the Middle East in the late 1780s. Or with the first American missionaries to the Middle East, who left Boston in 1819. Only when I started researching in depth did I realize that the roots of the relationship went deeper still -- to the bedrock of American independence and identity -- and that the Middle East played a formative role in the making of the United States.

America's involvement in the Middle East, I learned, began on one July 4 th nearly 230 years ago, when the United States suddenly faced the world -- and the Middle East -- alone.

Prior to that day, American merchant ships had safely sailed the oceans, confident of the protection of history's greatest navy – Britain's -- 800 warships strong. That safeguard was especially important for Americans, most of whom were concentrated along the eastern seaboard with its deep water ports and excellent shipbuilding timber -- a seafaring people heavily dependent on foreign trade.

America's maritime lifeline led south to the West Indies but also must further to east, to the Mediterranean, stretching from Gibraltar to the Levantine and Anatolian coasts. This was one of the few regions not already dominated by one of Europe's mercantile empires, where an enterprising American could sell New World items like lumber, tobacco and tools for Oriental delicacies such as caper, figs and raisins. An especially brisk business surrounded the exchange New England rum -- "Boston Particular" -- for Turkish opium, that these descendants of the Puritans conveyed eastward to Canton or brought back to the United States to be ground up into home remedies. By the 1770s, Mediterranean was absorbing 1/5 of all American exports, shipped in about 100 hulls annually. "Go where you will," one British businessman in the area grumbled, "there is hardly a petty harbor…but you will find a Yankee boiling his oil….[and] driving a hard bargain with the natives."

But America did face one threat in the Mediterranean, and it came from the Middle East. It came, specifically, from the North African region of the Middle East known in Arabic, ironically, as al-Maghreb -- the West. The area embraced four states -- the independent empire of Morocco and the three semi-autonomous Ottoman provinces or regencies of Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli (that is, present day Libya). All four were pirate kingdoms, known to the West, derisively if not timorously, as the Barbary States.

For about 600 years, from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the pirates or corsairs of Barbary preyed on European commerce, taking thousands of prisoners, and selling them as slaves in the mines or the galleys. European women were especially prized for their light complexions, fetching premium prices in the harems. Though prisoners could, in theory, be ransomed, the going rates for redemption were invariably high. The lives of most of the slaves, by contrast, were brutal, cruel and mercifully short.

Early colonial Americans also fell victim to pirate attacks, the first being recorded in 1628, only eight years after the Plymouth landing, with recurrences throughout the century. Of the 390 English captives ransomed from Algiers in 1680, eleven were residents of New England and New York. Such incidents diminished, however, over the course of the eighteenth century, as Europe surged ahead of the Middle East technologically and militarily, and as Britain developed its unprecedented and unparalleled naval power.

For the Great Powers of Europe -- France as well as Britain -- the pirates were little more than a nuisance, scarcely worth a broadside, much less a war. Instead of fighting Barbary, the Powers developed the practice of paying them tribute, basically bribes of gold, jewels, and manufactured goods. By paying tribute, the Powers not only rid themselves of Barbary's gadfly, but also redirected against their weaker competitors -- Portugal, Denmark, Spain and, after July 1776, the United States of America.

America was indeed on its own. The British naval juggernaut the once protected America's merchant fleet was now its mortal enemy. With virtually no navy to speak of, the United States could barely protect its own coast, much less its overseas trade. American merchants were vulnerable from the moment they left their moorings, and helpless on the high seas.

Nevertheless, with the help of intrepid captains like John Paul Jones and the assistance of the French navy, the United States managed to muddle through the War of Independence. Still, by the time the fighting ended in 1783, all of the Continental Navy's gunboats had either been captured, sunk or sold. America had not one warship, but Algiers, alone, had more than fifty. "The Americans cannot protect themselves [from Barbary]" wrote Lord Sheffield, a notorious opponent of American independence. "They cannot pretend to a Navy."

Lord Sheffield was right. In a single six-month period between 1783 and 1784, the Barbary states sacked three American vessels. The crewmen were paraded down the streets of Fez and Algiers, pelted with rotten vegetables and offal, and thrown before the emperor or the pasha who reportedly told them, "I'll make you eat stones, Christian dogs," and then sold them to the highest bidders.

The Middle East or the Orient, as it was then called, had long been known to Americans as hostile area. Anti-Islamic tracts with names like "The Nature of the Impostor Mohamat" were widely circulated throughout the colonies. But, in addition posing challenges to America's faith, the Middle East also played to its fantasies. Many of these originated in the second most popular volume, after the Bible, found on the colonial bookshelf, that collection of medieval Persian tales known as A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, with its images of minaret orbiting carpets and veiled but available odalisques.

The Barbary issue was not about faith, however, or fantasy, but simply about power. The pirate attacks drove up insurance rates and deterred foreign merchants from shipping on American bottoms. The country's economy, already fragile, reeled. Returning from peace talks with Britain, Benjamin Franklin's ship was nearly seized by Algerians-- in the Atlantic. "If there were no Algiers, it would be worth England's while to build one," Franklin quipped. And when Foreign Secretary John Jay left to continue those talks, the government purposely sent him on a European ship.

Panicking, American leaders appealed to their erstwhile allies, the French. The 1778 treaty with France specifically committed the French to aid America in the event that its ships were attacked by Barbary, but remembering suddenly France's own mercantile interests in the Mediterranean, Paris simply ignored America's request.

America was once again on its own, facing a fundamental threat not only to its economy and international standing, but to its very existence as a state. For the United States not only lacked gunboats, it lacked the legal means for creating one. It lacked a basic constitutional framework for defending itself.

Loosely linked under the Articles of Confederation, the thirteen states were incapable of raising taxes, much less a standing navy. Many Americans, moreover, didn't want a navy. They had had bad experience with one navy – Britain's -- and didn't like the idea of a warships sailing so close to their still-delicate democratic institutions.

Navies, moreover, were fantastically expensive to build, and groaning under a terrible war debt, the United States was in little position to finance one.

Under the circumstances, many Founding Fathers agreed with John Adams that America was better off paying off the pirates than trying to fight them -- or, as Adams said, it was better to give "one Gift of two hundred Thousand Pounds" than to risk "a Million [in trade] annually."

Adams, in fact, grossly underestimated the cost. When, in March 1786, he met in London with the emissary of Tripoli's Pasha, a gentleman named 'Abd al-Rahman al-'Ajar, Adams was told that the Barbary states considered themselves at war with the United States and that the price of ending that conflict was $1 million -- about a tenth of America's yearly budget.

The Barbary crisis would not be last in which American leaders would have to grapple with the issue of piracy and hostage-taking in the Middle East. But uniquely, this first crisis raised fundamental questions about the nature, identity, and viability of the United States. Would the states survive if they tried to address the danger individually or could they join in an effective defense? Would Americans imitate Europe and bribe the pirates, or would they create a revolutionary precedent and fight them?

The answers to those questions may seem obvious today, but two and a quarter centuries ago they must definitely were not. "It will not be an easy matter to bring the American States to act as a nation," Lord Sheffield taunted. " America cannot retaliate."

One figure among the Founding Fathers, more than any other, strove to resolve those questions, and his name was Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson has not fared well this past decade. He has provided a target for both conservative and radical historians -- castigated for his support for democracy and equal rights, on the one hand, and for his slave-owning on the other; for his love of the bloody French revolution but his apparent faintheartedness in battle, for the lip-service he paid to the common man and his irrepressible snobbery.

Jefferson, clearly, was a man of contradictions, and on few issues were those contradictions more pronounced than on Barbary. The same Jefferson who supported the plundering of British merchant ships by Americans during the Revolution, deplored the North Africans for committing similar aggression against American vessels. The owner of African-American slaves, one of whom, Sally Hemmings, he likely exploited sexually, he could not abide the thought of Africans possessing white people and selling American women to harems. The same Jefferson who warned against constructing warships liable "to sink us under them," could, in another breath, say "we ought to begin a naval power, if we mean to carry our own commerce."

On one subject, though, Jefferson was thoroughly consistent. He believed that the "temper," as he called it, of the American people, made them physically resistant to blackmail -- that they would rather "raise ships and men to fight the pirates into reason than money to bribe them." Jefferson was convinced that the leaders of Barbary, being tyrants, would never fulfill their obligations under any treaty, and that the more American paid them off, the more they would sense America's weakness and demand more. To avoid that danger, Jefferson sought to instill what he termed "an erect and independent attitude" into American foreign policy -- an attitude that was inconsistent with paying tribute.

In 1786, Jefferson was serving as America's minister to France, and in that capacity, he came up with the idea of forming an international coalition, together with the European Powers, to combat Barbary. He even got his old friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, to place the proposal before the various European courts. The Europeans, though, while roundly applauding the idea, just went on paying tribute. The French rejected the very notion of coalition. Jefferson concluded that, if were to attain peace, the United States had to act unilaterally.

Congress, though, thought differently, and in the summer of 1786, it instructed Jefferson to join Adams in London for one more try at negotiating with Tripoli's envoy, 'Abd al-Rahman. The pair reiterated America's desire for peace with all of the Barbary states, but 'Abd al-Rahman simply repeated his demand for $1 million and then, in a speech that will sound familiar to most Americans today, he proceeded to shock these founding fathers:

"[I]t was …written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their [the Muslims'] authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever 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." (From Jefferson's report to Congress).

On the basis of these remarks, Adams concluded that there was no use in negotiating with the North Africans, but neither could the United States resist them. "We ought not to fight them [the Barbary States] at all unless we determine to fight them forever. This though, I fear, is too rugged for our people to bear." Adams' solution, then, was to offer a small bribe to the pirates and hope that it satisfied them. But not Jefferson -- he still insisted that the American people would fight, if only given the option.

But they would not. Congress again ordered Adams and Jefferson to negotiate, this time with Morocco. The sultan, Sidi Muhammad bin 'Abdallah, claimed to have been the first monarch to recognize American independence in December 1777, but he also claimed that American had insulted him by not paying him tribute and so he joined the other Barbary States in attacking American ships.

Sidi Muhammad, Jefferson and Adams found out, was willing to suspend those assaults for a mere $20,000 dollars -- that is many millions of dollars in today's currency -- and in return to grant the U.S. consular privileges in Tangiers. Indeed, the U.S. consulate in Tangiers is today America's oldest diplomatic building abroad -- its only overseas official national landmark. The treaty signed by Jefferson and Adams with Morocco is America's second oldest, and the only to bear signatures in Arabic and the Muslim date.

Yet, if Congress thought that the treaty with Morocco would bring them peace with North Africa, it was sorely mistaken. The other Barbary states quickly concluded that the best way to get America to pay up was to waylay its ships and only then negotiate. The result was that, in 1787 alone, eleven American vessels were plundered and 121 American sailors taken hostage by Algiers alone. The Dey of Algiers now demanded a $1 million ransom for his American prisoners, plus a portrait of George Washington, whom he purportedly admired. "Would to Heaven we had a navy to reform those enemies to mankind," Washington replied, "or crush them into non-existence."

The question of whether the United States would ever have a navy, whether it could ever attain the unity necessary to defend itself, compelled delegates from twelve of the thirteen states to convene in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787. They came to discuss the possibility of replacing the Articles of Confederation with a more binding and effective national charter -- a debate that would take place against the backdrop of captured American cargoes and crews. Washington, though, the honorary chairman of this Constitutional Convention, feared that the Barbary issue would prove too devise and asked that all discussion of it be delayed until after the constitution was drafted. Consequently, the question of creating a navy scarcely appears in James Madison's record of the proceedings. The issue does appear, however, and in startling abundance, in the records of the constitutional ratification debates subsequently held in each state.

The Reverend Thomas Thacher reminded the Massachusetts Convention that the fact that "our sailors are enslaved in Algiers is enough to convince the most skeptical among us, of the want of general government," while Nathaniel Sargeant said it was "preposterous…for us to think of going on under ye old Confederation" and still face "piracies and felonies on ye high seas." The connection between Barbary and the Constitution was not only made in New England, with its extensive maritime interests, but also in the South, and by delegates totally uninvolved with trade. Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, a distinguished physician and astronomer, wondered "What is there to prevent an Algerine Pirate from landing on your coast, and carrying your citizens into slavery?" and Kentucky attorney George Nicholas asked "May not the Algerines seize our vessels? Cannot they…pillage our ships and destroy our commerce, without subjecting themselves to any inconvenience?" The only answer, both Williamson and Nicholas averred, was union.

And still, the debate was bitter and tough. To tip the scales, Virginian James Madison joined with two Columbia alumni from New York, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, in producing a series of essays that later anthologized as The Federalist Papers. In these, Hamilton stressed that the United States was in large measure a seafaring nation and could not survive without a navy and the central government needed to make one. Madison, even more expressly, affirmed that union, alone, could preserve the nation's "maritime strength" from "the rapacious demands of pirates and barbarians" -- a clear reference to North Africa. Jay did not refer to the Barbary threat in his essays, but his private papers deposited here, at Columbia, reveal that he actually welcomed the pirate attacks, that "the more we are ill-treated abroad the more we shall unite and consolidate at home," and rally against "the… dangers from Sallee Rovers, Algerian Corsairs, and the Pirates of Tunis and Tripoli."

An even more imaginative attempt to marshal the Middle East in defense of Constitutionalism -- one that I chanced upon in the Library of Congress -- was a book by one Peter Markoe -- or "Peter the Poet," as he was known, of Philadelphia. The book was called The Algerine Spy in Pennsylvania, and it purported to be the collected dispatches of Mehmet, an agent sent by Algiers to scout out America's defenses. After rhapsodizing about the extraordinary political and economic freedoms enjoyed by Americans, Mehmet exults in the fact that, "[T]otally ruined by disunion and faction," the states "may be plundered without the least risqué, and their young men and maidens triumphantly carried into captivity." The spy also commends transforming Rhode Island, the only state to boycott the Convention, into a local base for Algerian operations, the equivalent of an "Ottoman Malta."

These federalist works eventually helped achieve the Constitution's ratification in March 1789, and empowered the central government to make war and to "provide and maintain a navy" (Article 2, Section 2). A threat from the Middle East had played a concrete role in making the United States a truly United States, a consolidated nation capable of defending not only its borders at home but its vital economic interests overseas.

Yet the question remained whether Americans would actually use their newly forged federal powers. A vocal portion of the public still recoiled from the notion of maintaining a large standing navy and engaging in foreign conflicts. The answer was: not yet.

Thomas Jefferson had to grapple with that reluctance. By 1790 he was back in the United States and serving as the Secretary of State under Washington. He recommended that the U.S. go to war against Barbary, but Congress turned him down and again instructed him once again to purchase peace. A dispirited Jefferson tried, sending emissary after emissary to the Middle East. Most of them died on route; all of them failed.

By the end of 1793, the Algerian ransom demand had risen to $2 million, and American ships were practically driven out of the Mediterranean. But in the United States, among those same people whose "temper" Jefferson claimed to understand, a change was occurring. Americans were disgusted with their government's impotence. Poems and novels were published, and plays performed, stressing the shame that America had incurred by its inaction.

Prodded by this criticism, Congress in January 1794 -- five years after the Constitution and eighteen after independence -- finally agreed to consider creating a navy. It was far, far from a done deal. At issue, once again, was whether navies were too expensive to build, whether they would only embroil the country in European wars and endanger American democracy. "Bribery alone can purchase security from the Algerines," argued Abraham Baldwin of Georgia, and Virginian John Nicholas conceded "we are no match for the Algerines at sea." New Jersey's Abraham Clark warned that Americans would have to hire "a Secretary of [the] Navy, and a swarm of other people in office," and that "the Combined [European] powers would find [an American fleet] a much better pretense for war." To minimize America's risks and expenses, Clark proposed that Portugal be hired to fight the pirates.

William Vans Murray of Maryland rose to counter these arguments rose, recalling that the corsairs had "been at war with the United States ever since the end of the Revolutionary war," and had left Americans no choice but to fight. Fisher Ames from Massachusetts, a champion of unrestricted trade, cried "Our commerce is on the point of being annihilated, and, unless an armament is fitted out, we may very soon expect the Algerines on the coast of America."

In the end, the matter was decided not by economic or even constitutional considerations, but by the basic fact that Americans could no longer stomach North African extortion -- by pride. On March 27, 1794, Washington signed into law a bill authorizing an outlay of $688,888.82 for the building of six frigates "adequate for the protection of the commerce of the United States against Algerian corsairs." The United States Navy thus was born, a contentious but ultimately honorable birth, intended not to rule the waves but to free them.

But America did not free itself from piracy -- not yet. Bogged down in federal bureaucracy and inter-state rivalry, the frigate building project took years to complete, and even when the first ships were christened, Americans were still wary of going to war.

Instead, on September 5, 1795, America signed a Treaty of Amity and Friendship with Algiers. In return for releasing American prisoners, the Algerian ruler would receive a long list of gifts -- "25 chests of tea of 4 different qualities…6 Quintal of loaf sugar refined…Some elegant penknives. Some small guilt thimbles, scissor cases…a few shawls, with roses curiously wrought in them…." worth more than $650,000. Worse than that, though, the U.S. also agreed to provide Algiers with cannons, gunpowder and a 36-gun made-in-America warship -- in essence, the very tools of piracy.

The other regencies caught on, and soon Tunis and Tripoli had extracted similar concessions -- so many, in fact, that by 1800, the United States was paying out 20% of all its federal revenues to North Africa.

The ultimate humiliation occurred when the first American warship to enter the Mediterranean, the George Washington, captained by William Bainbridge, was forced at cannon-point to carry Algiers's tribute, including 150 sheep, 25 cows, five horses, and four each of antelopes, tigers and lions, to Istanbul .

This was the woeful situation that greeted Thomas Jefferson at his inauguration in 1801. On assuming office, new President made a list of his foreign policy priorities. The Barbary issue -- the Middle East -- was number one. But the pirates didn't give Jefferson much of a chance to act on that list. On May 14, 1801, Tripoli became the first foreign state to formally declare war against an independent United States.

Jefferson responded by sending three separate squadrons against Tripoli, and each expedition proved more disastrous than the previous.

In spite of some early victories against pirate vessels, an American landing party was ambushed, with fifteen killed -- the first American servicemen to be killed in action overseas -- and then the pride of the fleet, the USS Philadelphia, commanded by that same hapless William Bainbridge, foundered on a reef and all 308 of its crewmembers were imprisoned by Tripoli.

Some of the sting of this setback was mitigated by a young swashbuckler named Stephen Decatur -- also known as the coiner of the expression "my country right or wrong" -- who managed to infiltrate Tripoli harbor and set the Philadelphia alight. The action was praised by Lord Nelson as one of the most daring in naval history. But then an attempt to blow Tripoli's fleet out of the water using a small vessel crammed with explosives -- basically a boat bomb -- failed when the charge ignited early and killed the eleven Americans manning it. By 1805, the American commodore Edward Preble had to admit frustration, if not defeat. This young United States, in its first foreign engagement, was humiliated before the world.

Redressing that disgrace was work of one man -- an extraordinary, impossible man, to whom I could easily dedicate an entire lecture. He's soon to be the subject of a major Hollywood movie, Tripoli, with Keanu Reeves in the leading role.

William Eaton had attended Dartmouth, majoring in Greek and Latin and learning to throw a knife 80 feet with deadly accuracy. A veteran of the Continental Army and of Indian fighting under Gen. Mad Anthony Wayne, Eaton was pugnacious, adventure loving man who's big break came in 1799, when he was appointed America's first consul to Tunis.

The luster of the job vanished, though, when Eaton realized that his main task was to deliver tribute to Tunis and meet the every-rising demands of its rulers for more. "Genius of my country!" he wrote. "How art thou prostrate! Are we then reduced to…bartering our national glory for the forbearance of a Barbary pirate?" Combatively he concluded, "There is but one language which can be held to these people," and this is terror."

Eaton proposed landing 1,000 marines in Tunis and conquering the capital, but Secretary of State Madison turned that down. Eaton then came up with a solution for Tripoli. He would support a coup by the exiled brother of the pasha and install a pro-American government in Libya -- essentially a regime change. Madison rejected that, too, saying the United States had a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. Eaton would not give up, though. The pirates, he predicted, would soon start raiding U.S. shores, abducting women and young boys. Americans might as well start dressing as slaves.

Resolving to act alone, he found the exiled brother, Hamid, in Egypt, and together with nine U.S. Marines and a mercenary force of 400, did what no military commander since antiquity had even contemplated. He marched 500 miles over the sun-hammered Western desert to attack Tripoli's second-largest city, Darna, by surprise. It was a brutal pitched battle, and Eaton was severely wounded, but he took the city and prepared to march on Tripoli itself. The pasha, though, sensing the danger, capitulated. He released the Philadelphia prisoners and hastily concluded a peace treaty with Jefferson.

In December 1805, Jefferson informed Congress that "the states on the coast of Barbary seem generally disposed at present to respect our peace and friendship." In fact, it would take another naval expedition to humble Barbary. In 1815, Stephen Decatur led a fleet into the harbors of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, and presented each with a choice between "powder and balls" or treaties foreswearing piracy. All three regencies signed.

By the time of Thomas Jefferson's death, on his nation's fiftieth birthday, the United States was a recognized naval power, capable both of protecting its shores as well as of maintaining a permanent squadron in the Mediterranean.

Was it worth it? Economically speaking, no. In financial terms, the war against Tripoli alone cost more than all the tribute America paid to all four Barbary States between 1801 and 1805. But as Jefferson sensed back in the 1780s, the war was never about money alone. It was, rather, about attaining an "erect and independent attitude" in U.S. foreign policy. It was about America.

Over the years, and especially since 9/11, there has been popular tendency to view the Barbary Wars as an adumbration of the current War on Terror -- as if North Africa were Afghanistan or Iraq, and the pirates were bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

I admit that I, too, was struck by the coincidence that part of the U.S. fleet that fought against Tripoli in August, 1801, sailed out from Lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from where, almost two hundred years later to the date, Islamic extremists attacked the United States. I couldn't help but note that one of first national monuments to be closed to the public after 9/11 -- and to remain closed for many months afterward -- was the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. The ship was specifically targeted by al-Qaeda for its role in bombarding Tripoli.

Still, I think it's wise to avoid striking facile comparisons. Though the Barbary Wars can clearly teach us a great deal about resisting terror, especially in the early days of the Republic, I believe they provide us with an even deeper understanding into the Middle East's role in the making of the United States.

Faced with a dire threat from the Middle East, thirteen former colonies were compelled to coalesce into a consolidated nation. They were forced to create power by pooling their resources, to project that power far from America's shores. By choosing to fight rather than conciliate Barbary, Americans further distinguished themselves from Europe, and sharpened their perception of a unique national character and fate. Through the crucible of this thirty-year conflict, the United States defined itself.

The legacy of the Barbary Wars lives on in America -- in Preble Country, Ohio, in Eaton, New York, and on Bainbridge Street, Philadelphia, as well as in the twenty-odd municipalities named for Stephen Decatur. U.S. Marines still hymn "to the shores of Tripoli," and brandish a scimitar-shaped sword. The most prominent symbol of the war, however, is perhaps the least recognized. First composed for Bainbridge and Decatur in 1805, and set to old English drinking tune, the anthem for which Americans rise at ballgames and other public occasions originally described "turbaned heads bowed" to the "brow of the brave" and "the star-spangled flag of our nation." Only after the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 were the lyrics revised by their author, Francis Scott Key.

Yet, the legacy of America's involvement in the Middle East is hardly confined to place names or even to the national anthem. It is a heritage not only of war but also of education and literature, of economic development and humanitarian relief. Americans, as they confront an uncertain future in the region, should, I believe, regain an appreciation of their rich Middle Eastern past.

For well over two hundred years, Americans have met challenges in the Middle East, and not solely with "powder and balls," to quote Decatur, both also with books and medicines, relief packages and irrigation pipes -- with their power, occasionally, but sometimes with their fantasies, and most often of all, with their faith.



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Published: Nov 16, 2005
Last modified: Nov 16, 2005

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