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Thinking Through The Pirate Problem

I've blogged twice about about what to do with the pirates off the coast of Somalia and the neighboring Arab seas. In one of these writings, I alluded to the historian Michael Oren in whose book, Power, Faith and Fantasy, there appears a vivid narrative of the Barbary pirates and their confrontation with American shipping.  This was two centuries ago, and the Europeans -for whatever reasons- were reluctant to engage what (one can't escape) were savages.  American built its own navy, and the piracy was brought to a close.

There is an epidemic of piracy again. Michael Oren has written an article in the Wall Street Journal telling us what America and its not so reluctant allies might do about this, well, yes, savagery. The first two paragraphs are excerpted here:

The attack began when an unidentified vessel drew alongside a merchant ship in the open sea and heavily armed brigands stormed aboard. "They made signs for us all to go forward," one of the frightened crewmen remembered, "assuring us in several languages that if we did not obey their commands they would massacre us all." The sailors were then stripped of all valuables and most of their clothing and locked in the hull of their own captured ship. They would be held in unspeakable conditions, subsisting on eight ounces of bread a day and threatened with beating and even beheading should they resist. "Death would be a great relief and more welcome than the continuance of our present situation," one of the prisoners lamented.

The attack on the merchant ship, an American brig, occurred over 200 years ago in the Mediterranean during the scourge of the Barbary pirates. Sponsored by Morocco and the city-states of Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, the pirates preyed on civilian vessels, plundering their cargoes and kidnapping their crews. "It was written in the Koran...that it was their [the pirates'] right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners," the emissary of Tripoli's pasha told a startled John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in London in 1785. The emissary demanded $1 million from the United States -- one-tenth of the national budget -- to suspend the assaults or face losing the valuable Mediterranean trade, representing one-fifth of all American exports.

The choice was excruciating. No longer protected by the British navy and lacking any gunboats of its own, the U.S. had no ready military option. Nor did it have international support. Jefferson's attempt to create an international coalition together with European states was summarily rejected. Defenseless and internationally isolated, most Americans were opposed to devoting their scarce resources to building a navy and instead favored following the age-old European custom of bribing the pirates -- the euphemism was "tribute" -- in exchange for safe passage. "Would to Heaven we had a navy to reform these enemies to mankind or crush them into non-existence," an exasperated George Washington confided to his old comrade-in-arms, the Marquis de Lafayette.