Assessing the Jefferson Administration’s Actions During the First Barbary Wars and their Impact on U.S. Small War Policy

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.


Samuel T. Lair is a research associate at the Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.  He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Nevada, Reno studying U.S. Foreign Policy and American Constitutionalism.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessing the Jefferson Administration’s Actions During the First Barbary War and their Impact on U.S. Small Wars Policy

Date Originally Written:  May 24, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  July 25, 2019.

Summary:  The First Barbary War of 1801 was the first significant American engagement outside of the Western Hemisphere and the second significant engagement against a foreign state without a formal declaration of war. Furthermore, this war’s multilateral strategy of using a coalition and diplomatic pressure provides valuable insight into the elements of a successful limited military operation. 

Text:  In the early 18th century, the independent state of Morocco and the Ottoman vassal states of Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripolitania (comprising modern-day Libya) formed what is known as the Barbary States. These rogue states would frequently engage in piracy, slave trading, and extortion along the Mediterranean coast, harassing the mercantile fleets of Europe in a form of textbook state-sponsored terrorism[1]. Prior to 1776, the American mercantile fleet under the tutelage of the British Empire was provided indemnity from the molestation of its Mediterranean trade. However, with the procurement of self-determination came an abrogation of many of the former Colonies’ favorable commercial pacts, including that with the Barbary States of North Africa. The United States’ mercantile fleet soon became frequently subject to the harassment of the Berber corsairs, subjecting American citizens to foreign slave camps and threatening the economy of the fledgling republic. In response, U.S. President George Washington agreed to pay tribute to the Barbary States in 1796. Following the election of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson in 1801, the Pasha of the Eyalet of Tripoli demanded increased tribute then shortly after declared war on the United States. In an unprecedented display of executive authority, President Jefferson responded by sending U.S. Navy Commodore Dale to protect U.S. interests in the Mediterranean and thus began the nation’s first small war.

Among the most impactful consequences of the First Barbary War was the now established authority of the Executive Branch to engage in limited military operations against foreign adversaries without a formal declaration of war. The President of the United States, although the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, has no expressed Constitutional authority to engage in acts of war without U.S. Congressional approval. Prior to the War Powers Resolution of 1973, the authority of the Executive Branch to proactively respond to threats against American interests abroad relied on the precedent of limited military operations beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s conduct during the First Barbary War. Jefferson received no formal authority from Congress before sending Commodore Dale in command of a small squadron to the courts of the Berber rulers to negotiate terms and protect U.S. merchant vessels, and it was not until after hostilities began that Congress retroactively authorized military force nearly nine months later[2]. Regardless, President Jefferson’s tactful use of executive authority in the commencement of the campaign and subsequent negotiation with the Maghreb states left an indelible mark for the standard of response to affronts on American interests.

Other notable precedents set during the First Barbary War was the multilateral approach of the Jefferson Administration. The war, though fought primarily by the United States Navy, was not entirely unilateral. The United States at the beginning of the war conducted operations jointly with the Royal Navy of Sweden in its blockade of Tripoli. Moreover, American forces received valuable logistical support from the Kingdom of Sicily, who provided ships, sailors, and a base of operations in the port city of Syracuse[2]. The American mission also applied ample diplomatic as well as military pressure in order to achieve its aims. In an apparent precursor to the Perry Expedition and the opening of Japanese markets to U.S. goods through gunboat diplomacy, the American mission was able to force the capitulation of both Morocco and Tunisia by employing bellicose diplomacy. The only Barbary State that the United States actively engaged in combat with was the Eyalet of Tripolitania under Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli.

In the commencement of military action against Pasha Qaramanli, the United States utilized both conventional and unconventional warfare. The first strategy was to deploy the United States Navy to blockade Tripoli and when appropriate, commence naval assaults on combatant naval forces and naval bombardments on Tripolitan cities. However, following the limited success of the naval operations, William Eaton, American consul to neighboring Tunisia, conspired to depose the Pasha and install his exiled brother, Hamet Qaramanli, on the Tripolitan throne[1]. Meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, Eaton and Hamet with a small squadron of six U.S. Marines and a homogenous force of 400-500 Greek, Arab, and Turkish mercenaries began their march to Tripoli. En route, the motley force with naval support from U.S. Naval warships commenced the first land battle fought on foreign soil, assaulting and capturing the port city of Derna.

Despite the success of the Derna operation, it would be the joint use of force and diplomacy that would end hostilities between the United States and the Eyalet of Tripoli. With the Treaty of Tripoli, the United States agreed to abandon support for Hamet Qaramanli and pay 60,000 U.S. dollars. In return, the Pasha released all the American nationals taken as prisoner throughout the war and the United States once again received assurance its Mediterranean trade would commence unabated[2]. If not for the success of the Battle of Derna and the U.S. Naval Blockade, it is likely that such an agreeable settlement would not have been impossible. Although Eaton’s and Hamet’s forces may have been able to take Tripoli and forced peace without having to pay ransom for the American prisoners, it is equally plausible the continued campaign would have turned into a drawn out and increasingly costly venture. Therefore, an assured and expedient end to the war required both skilled diplomacy and military ferocity. 

The First Barbary War stands as a model for pragmatic foreign policy and whose lessons touch upon the nuance necessary for even contemporary issues of national interest. Its lessons demonstrate that sound foreign policy requires a balanced, multilateral approach which recognizes that military aggression ought to be matched with ample diplomatic pressure, the benefit of coalition building, the necessity of combined arms operations, and the opportunity in unconventional warfare. The United States’ engagement on the shores of Tripoli echoes in future engagements from Nicaragua to China and numerous other small wars which act as an indelible mark on American foreign policy. These engagements range in scope and outcome, geography and foe, but regardless, it is upon the bold precedent set by President Jefferson during the First Barbary War that all proceeding American small wars stand.


Endnotes:

[1] Turner, R. F. (2003). State Responsibility and the War on Terror: The Legacy of Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates. Chicago Journal of International Law, 121-140. Retrieved April 7, 2019, from https://heinonline org.unr.idm.oclc.org/HOL/Page?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/cjil4&id=145&men_tab=srchresults

[2] Boot, M. (2014). The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. Retrieved April 7, 2019, from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=YX7ODQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=savage+wars+of+peace+barbary+wars&ots=GxfcnIpmJY&sig=B7XyieNfzbC50MINDvo-92k4y7I#v=onepage&q=savage%20wars%20of%20peace%20barbary%20wars&f=false

Africa Assessment Papers Piracy Samuel T. Lair Small Wars Journal Writing Contest United Nations

Options to Counter Piracy in the Horn of Africa

Captain Robert N. Hein (U.S. Navy, Retired) was a career Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy.  He previously commanded the USS Gettysburg (CG-64) and the USS Nitze (DDG-94).  He can be found on Twitter @the_sailor_dogClaude Berube teaches at the United States Naval Academy, was a 2004 Brookings Institution LEGIS Congressional Fellow and a 2010 Maritime Security Studies Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.  He can be found on Twitter @cgberube.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.  


National Security Situation:  After lying dormant for a few years, following a large international response, piracy off the Horn of Africa is again threatening the free flow of global commerce.

Date Originally Written:  May 29, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  June 19, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Claude Berube has operated off the Horn of Africa, and has written extensively on piracy and private maritime security companies.  Bob Hein has hunted pirates off Somalia.  Bob’s final assignment was the Deputy Director of Strategy on the U.S. Navy Staff.

Background:  Somali piracy threatens major trade routes.  Over 30,000 ships transit the Gulf of Aden annually.  At its peak in 2007, the cost of Somali pirate attacks to the shipping industry was $7B.  The cost decreased to $1.3B in 2015, and climbed to $1.7B in 2016[1].  In May 2017, the Commander of U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Marine Corps General Thomas Walderhauser, indicated as many as six piracy attacks occurred in the last month[2].  Given the expanse of unpatrolled waters in the region and opportunities for criminal and pirate networks to exploit maritime security gaps, there will inevitably be more attacks.

Significance:  Since the Romans and Carthaginians raised their Navies against each other in the Punic Wars, the purpose of Navies has been to protect the coast, and protect maritime commerce.  Prior to that, Thucydides mentions piracy in History of the Peloponnesian War.  The actions of pirates in Africa led to the establishment and deployment of the U.S. Navy in the early 19th century.  A resurgence in Somali piracy represents a renewed threat to global trade, and the stability of Somalia.

Option #1:  The U.S. cedes the constabulary role for counter-piracy activities to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLA(N)).  In April 2017 the PRC deployed its 26th anti-piracy flotilla to the Horn of Africa.  In that time, the PRC escorted 5,900 ships in the region[3], and established a base in nearby Djibouti to maintain a mission to not only protects the PRC’s “One Belt” initiative, but give PRC Naval Commanders experience operating far from home.

Risk:  Taking over this mission allows the PRC to gain experience in operating far from home, a key attribute for an historic land power seeking increased influence abroad.  Prior to its first anti-piracy flotilla in 2008, the PLA(N) had been largely absent in international waters for five centuries.  The PRC may also give a false sense of security to those areas where it does not have a direct interest.  By ceding additional maritime security missions to the PLA(N), the U.S. and its partners empower PLA(N) overseas capabilities and the possibility that regional powers will become more reliant on the PRC.  For example, in 2015 the PRC was able to evacuate its citizens from the growing crisis in Yemen due, in part, to their enhanced capabilities from long-range operations in the region and newer platforms[4].

Gain:  The PRC does provide a short-term solution with a modern navy.  It has the motivation to prove itself as a guarantor of maritime security, not just a consumer.  The PRC has the capability and the desire to contain and curtail piracy in the Horn of Africa if not to simply secure shipping then for longer-range operational and strategic goals.

Option #2:  The U.S. builds capacity in the Somali maritime forces, and trains nascent Somali governments with the tools required to ensure domestic maritime security.  Local Somali governments have had some recent success in counter-piracy activity, rescuing eight Indian mariners captured by Somali pirates[5].  Introducing counter-piracy training, maritime domain awareness and intelligence sharing would go far in allowing regions of Somalia to work together to stop what should be a Somali law enforcement issue.

Risk:  The threat of corruption is a major concern; also the responsibility for building maritime law enforcement capacity would be a political minefield for any host nation.

Gain:  Using the dictum of “Teach a man to fish,” places Somalia in a position to police its waterways will provide a permanent solution to the piracy problem.  It will also ensure illegal fishing or overfishing by other states does not further deplete local fishing grounds[6].  Piracy in Somalia was born of frustrated fisherman who had no recourse against foreign fishing boats poaching their grounds.  Giving Somalia the ability to not only deter piracy, but also police their waters against illegal fishing should provide a complete long-term solution.

Option #3:  The U.S. continues to enable Private Maritime Security Companies, (PMSCs), to provide on-board armed guards at the shipping companies’ discretion.  To date, no ship with an armed team aboard has been successfully taken by Somali pirates.

Risk:  PMSCs are subject to market fluctuations.  As piracy rose in 2006-2008, PMSCs proliferated providing a wide spectrum of cost, capabilities, and legitimacy.  Ceding full maritime security control to unregulated PMSCs or to PMSCs from non-partnered nations could have other consequences as well, such as future military operations employing a trained, unaligned and unregulated force.  Additionally, many of the smaller shipping companies, favored by pirates, cannot afford PMSCs thus potentially identifying the smaller shipping companies as soft targets.

Gain:  Working with shipping companies and PMSCs would ensure the U.S. and its partners contribute to regulation of legitimate and capable PMSCs and would deny the PLA(N) an opportunity to enhance its capabilities through gaining experience in counter-piracy operations.

Option #4:  Coalition operations in the region continue.  In addition to independent operations, Somali piracy resulted in the creation of several key partnerships including Combined Task Force 151, the European Union’s Operation ATALANTA, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Operation OCEAN SHIELD.

Risk:  Coalition investment of time, money, staff, and platforms for any operation takes away from other missions.  If other missions such as North Korea, Iran, and threats in the Mediterranean Sea have a higher immediate priority, then coalition ships might not be available if the pirate threat level is assessed as low.  In November 2016, for example, NATO concluded Operation OCEAN SHIELD as it shifted resources to the Baltic and Black Seas[7].

Gain:  Coalition operations enhance interoperability between traditional and new partners.  The larger the coalition, the fewer resources each nation has to contribute.  In most maritime operations, few countries can go it alone.

Other Comments:  While the options are limitless, the options presented here are those the authors assess as being the most feasible and acceptable.

Recommendation:  None


Endnotes:

[1]  CNBC Int’l, Luke Graham, “Somali Pirates are Back,” 03 May 2017

[2] The Trumpet, Anthony Chibarirwe, “Somali Pirates are Back,” 19 May 2017

[3]  The Diplomat, Ankit Panda, “As Somali Pirates Return, Chinese Navy Boasts of Anti-Piracy Operations,” 16 April 2017

[4]  The Diplomat, Kevin Wang, “Yemen Evacuation a Strategic Step Forward for China,” 10 April 2015

[5]  The New York Times, Hussein Mohamed, “8 Indians rescued from Somali Pirates, Officials say,” 12 April 2017

[6]  Asia Today, Hong Soon-Do, “Chinese Illegal Fishing Threatens World Waters,” May 2017

[7]  Reuters, Robin Emmott, “NATO Ends Counter-Piracy Mission as Focus Shifts to Mediterranean,” 23 November 2016

Bob Hein China (People's Republic of China) Claude Berube Horn of Africa Option Papers Piracy