Piracy on the high seas? Bring in the Marines!

The United States needs to return to Thomas Jefferson’s policy of “millions for defense, but not for tribute.”

The “Mercer Street” oil tanker, managed by an Israeli owned-company, was struck by what U.S. explosives experts say was an Iranian drone in the Arabian Sea on July 29, 2021. Photo by Johan Victor/MarineTraffic.
The “Mercer Street” oil tanker, managed by an Israeli owned-company, was struck by what U.S. explosives experts say was an Iranian drone in the Arabian Sea on July 29, 2021. Photo by Johan Victor/MarineTraffic.
Samuel H. Solomon
Samuel H. Solomon

Where have we seen this movie before?  A Muslim country repeatedly attacks and hijacks ships in international waters to extract concessions. I can hear the same cry today as was proclaimed in the early 19th century.

Though the United States was enfeebled from years of war and tribulation, its great leader and president proclaimed, “Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute.”

What can we learn from our historical confrontation with Islamic attempts to “shake down” the Western world that would be just as relevant today, as Iran attempts similar behavior on the high seas?

The year 1801 was not an auspicious time for the U.S. to be confronted with an aggressive enemy thousands of miles away. It had just emerged victorious, but nearly bankrupt and exhausted, from the War of Independence.

During the late 1700s, the Barbary states of Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco and Tunis demanded tribute from the U.S. to restrain them from attacking American commercial shipping. The capture and enslavement of the crew of the USS Philadelphia by Tripoli appalled most Americans. But this also had a religious overtone, as explained by Brian Kilmeade in his book, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History.

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. They asked him about the “the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury.”

He replied: “It was written in their Koran that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.”

In other words, Christian sailors were plain and simple fair game. According to American historian Robert Davis, between 1 and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries.

European powers, over time, learned to “live with the problem” through a combination of paying ransom and an occasional altercation.  By and large, France, Spain, the Netherlands and United Kingdom capitulated to belligerent Islamic demands, as they decided there were more important fish to fry and confronting terror on the high seas was not worth the effort. Just pay the tribute and pass it on to the customers.

Then came the new kid on the block. The United States at that time had no standing navy or army. Exhausted from the independence conflict, U.S. leaders were turning inward to focus on domestic issues.

But the Barbary pirates saw this weakness as an advantage, and hence went into high gear hijacking and imprisoning American ships and crews sailing the Mediterranean. Advice from U.S. counterparts in Europe, especially the French, was to accept this as a fact of life and pay the toll.

European capitulation should sound familiar to us, even today, as senior European Union representative Enrique Mora attended Ebrahim “the Butcher of Tehran” Raisi’s swearing-in ceremony in early August as president of Iran.

The details of U.S. attempts to deal with the scourge would take a book to describe (and it does). So, to summarize, the U.S. did try to negotiate away the problem. The only wrinkle was that the Barbary states (the first example of Islamic state sponsors of terror that I know of) did not see negotiated agreements as requiring compliance, especially when dealing with non-Muslims.

In September 1795, American negotiator Joseph Donaldson signed a “peace treaty” with the Dey of Algiers that included an upfront payment of $642,500—a lot of money in those days—for the release of American captives, expenses and various gifts for the Dey’s royal court and family. To spice it up, there was an indefinite yearly tribute of $21,600 in shipbuilding supplies and ammunition. The treaty, designed to prevent further piracy, resulted in the release of 115 American sailors held captive by the Dey.

Adding to the chutzpah, just after  Jefferson’s inauguration as president in 1801, Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 (equivalent to $3.5 million in 2020) from the new administration. Boggling one’s imagination, there was a long-standing tradition that if a government or consular was changed, the government would have to pay “consular” gifts, in either gold or in goods.

Arguing that paying tribute would encourage more attacks, Jefferson refused this demand, and the Karamanli declared war on the U.S. The third president believed that military force, rather than endless tributes, would be needed to resolve the Tripoli crisis.

This ultimately led to the formation of the United States Department of the Navy and the Marines (the Marine’s Hymn, “To the shores of Tripoli,” refers to the First Barbary War, and specifically the Battle of Derna in 1805), to prevent further attacks upon American shipping and to end the demands for extremely large tributes from the Barbary states. In fact, we must thank these Muslim countries for pushing the U.S. out of its isolationist stupor.

America’s response was unambiguous, and based upon projecting strength, not capitulation. After two Barbary wars, terror on the seas was defeated (we thought) from Muslim countries, once and for all.  This is the American tradition; this is the American way.

Which leads us to the latest attempt to intimidate Western powers with terror, hijacking and murder on the high seas. Again, merchant vessels are being attacked by Iran, while most European powers try their hardest to look the other way.

British and Romanian citizens are murdered in cold blood—with no connection in any way to any Middle East conflict—and you can already see the worthless chest-beating at work. Again, we have Islamic religious overtones to the conflict that belies simple negotiations. Acquiescing to and accommodating this type of terror and piracy does not work.

With this replay of history, we would hope the U.S. will, again, have a similar response: Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute!

Samuel H. Solomon is engaged in human rights advocacy in defense of democracies and has founded several non-profit organizations to address this issue. He has an MBA in finance, a master’s in philosophy, and theological ordination. He can be reached at https://sam-solomon.com and sam@sam-solomon.com.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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