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The Iraq-Barbary Pirate Comparison

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The Iraq-Barbary Pirate Comparison


The Iraq-Barbary Pirate Comparison

The Iraq-Barbary Pirate Comparison

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Some Republican leaders have compared the war in Iraq with President Thomas Jefferson's historic confrontation with the Barbary pirates. But the whole story does not necessarily serve the Republican argument.


OK. This program is about the news, which normally is new but sometimes really old. Example: With all the congressional debate about Iraq lately, some politicians are heartening back to the first war this country fought - not counting the revolution, technically. We weren't a country then.

More than 200 years ago, though, pirates from Northern Africa - the Barbary states were seizing U.S. sailors and generally wreaking havoc. Mike Pesca brings us up to date.

MIKE PESCA: On the floor of the House of Representatives during the debate over the Iraq surge resolution, several Congressmen were drawn to a particular lesson of history. Representative Steven King, Republican of Iowa, was one of them.

Representative STEVEN KING (Republican, Iowa): 1784, American Merchant Marines were being attacked in the Mediterranean by Barbary pirates. And in 1786, two diplomats - Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - went over there to meet with them, and their idea was we'll be able to talk them into peace.

PESCA: Slight correction on the date. It was 1785, and the place, the meeting was actually in London. But that information will not be showing up on Representative King's quiz. What he did want to emphasize was where the envoy from Tripoli found his justification.

Rep. KING: It's founded on the laws of our prophet. It was written in the Koran.

Representative STEVEN PEARCE (Republican, New Mexico): It was founded on the laws of their prophet, that it was written in their Koran that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority...

PESCA: Steven Pearce, Republican of New Mexico, cited the same history lesson.

Rep. PEARCE: ...war upon them wherever they could be found. That same principle is holding today. We read it on all the Web pages of the radical Islamists.

PESCA: The journey from pashas of the Barbary states to the Web pages of the present is hardly a straight line 230 in the making. Michael Oren, an historian and author of "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present," says that the Barbary pirates may have drawn inspiration from their religion, but their prime motivation was economic.

Mr. MICHAEL OREN (Historian and Author of "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present"): The Barbary states were following an age-old custom of state-sponsored piracy. This doesn't mean that their religious convictions of the Barbary pirates were not deeply held. They probably were deeply held, but the fact of the matter is that the pirate states' entire economy depended on plundering.

PESCA: And they were good at it. Pirate raids and ransoms were having a huge impact on the U.S. economy. By the early 19th century, President Jefferson took action, which is why former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich mentioned the Barbary States on Fox News Sunday.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former House Speaker): Jefferson sent the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Navy to Tripoli, attacking Barbary pirates who had been capturing Americans, without notifying Congress. Now, Jefferson had some knowledge of the Constitution and did not believe in a particularly large government, but he thought the president on foreign policy had to be able to act, not just to get involved in a debating society.

Mr. OREN: Actually, he has a good point there.

PESCA: Gingrich's fellow historian, Michael Oren.

Mr. OREN: Let me add a little bit of historical correction; in fact, in 1801, that Jefferson did act in the Middle East by sending a fleet to the region without congressional approval. And the Navy failed in its first three expeditions there. And by 1803, Jefferson was compelled to go to Congress and actually get a declaration of war in order to send a further and stronger expedition to the region.

PESCA: The result of that expedition is the biggest reasons why purveyors of the Barbary pirate analogy aren't eager to share how the Barbary Wars ultimately played out.

Mr. OREN: Jefferson, yes, gave the order for the Marines to march on Tripoli in 1805. But then, just short of their actually reaching their destination, he called off the expedition and cut a deal with Tripoli, because he realized that negotiations and diplomacy could benefit America more than a military showdown.

PESCA: Jefferson won the peace and the Barbary states didn't have to lose the war. The military, poised to depose the pasha but thwarted at the last minute, got something out of it too: a memorable lyric.

(Soundbite of song, "The Marines Hymn")

CHORUS: From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we fight...

PESCA: Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of song, "The Marines Hymn")

CHORUS: ...our country's battle on the land and on the sea. Admiration of the nation, we're the finest ever seen; and we glory in the title of United...

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY To DAY from NPR News.

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