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Barbary Shore

This is the title of Norman Mailer's second book. A forerunner of his later phobic writings about the United States, it was not well received. It also had nothing to do with the Barbary pirates who from the twelfth century on made war on trading vessels in the Mediterranean.  Yes, even American trading vessels, although from the early 18th century until 1776 these ships were under the protection purchased by the British crown from Muslim rulers of North Africa.

The first chapter of Michael Oren's dazzling book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy, is an account of the American nightmare off the shores of Araby. In 1678, for example, Algerian pirates seized one boat from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and 13 from Virginia. Their sailors were enslaved. After independence, the seizures started up again...and again almost in an epidemic of aggression against peaceful commercial shipping. The United States was without ocean defenses. But as the piracy continued the country ultimately developed Navy and Marine war-making power. And won the Barbary Wars, once and for all. This power was, as Oren points out, the Mediterranean Squadron, "Americas's first permanent overseas force."

Who were these Arab corsairs? Again from Michael Oren: "Styling themselves as mujahideen--warriors in an Islamic holy war--Arabic-speaking pirates preyed on western vessels, impounding their cargoes and enslaving their crews." Is it delicacy that has kept the press from asking the salient question? Now that an American ship has been taken, the first in 200 years, and an American captain is still in captivity, will the American press finally ask that question? Are the pirates part of the ongoing holy war in Somalia and elsewhere?

And what will be the response of the United States -of the American president- to this pillage of American men and American trade? Here is what James Madison had to say on just this matter. "It is a settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute...The United States, while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none." These are refreshing words. Sorry to say that they were uttered more than two centuries ago.

P.S., an important PS: Well, the U.S. Navy has saved the day...and the life of the captain, Richard Phillips, who had been in the open-air detention of a lifeboat. Three of his captors were killed in the operation.

What do we learn from this episode? That a dexterous American navy is the guarantor of peace on the seas. After all, many ships under other flags are still in captivity, their governments haggling through intermediaries with merchants who deal routinely with life and death.

And maybe Barack Obama was wise not to rush to the television cameras and threaten.  Since these Muslim terrorists will probably not be deterred by this one act by our navy, keeping the oceans open is still a danger to human life and to trade. This means coordinated action by responsible states. This action will have to be led by America, and not--for God's sake--in the United Nations which has for years had a task force not dealing with the matter.