Piracy and Empire

The current “war against piracy,” which is spilling into Kenyan and U.S. courthouses after months of simmering off the coast of Somalia, is only the latest in a long series of U.S. actions against non-state actors in the service of empire. The “Global War on Terror,” which the Obama administration recently replaced with the vaguer term “overseas contingency operations,” justified a large-scale increase in military spending, two major interventions, and explicit calls for the United States to maintain its unparalleled power. With the world’s maritime chokepoints at risk, pirates are emerging as the latest non-state threat: the terrorists of the seas.

This isn’t, however, a new story. Two hundred years ago, the Barbary pirates spurred the first major military expenditures in post-revolutionary U.S. history and raised the profile of the U.S. Marine Corps. After the September 11 attacks, conservatives used forced comparisons between those pirates and al-Qaeda as a justification for invading Afghanistan and launching a global war against terrorism.

Pirates were present at the creation of the U.S. empire. Have they returned for the empire’s finale? Neoliberals and neoconservatives have different answers to this question.

Reluctant Warrior Myth

According to a pleasant, liberal, exceptionalist myth, the United States has always upheld democracy overseas and abjured military first-strikes. George Washington, who set an example by resigning his military commission to become the country’s first civilian president, recommended neutrality for the new country’s foreign policy. As a theme picked up by Jefferson in his warning against “entangling alliances,” the neutrality of the founding fathers inspired a century’s worth of subsequent isolationists. In the 20th century, America entered the two world wars only when provoked (Lusitania, Pearl Harbor), and fought the Vietnam and Korean wars not for territorial gain or imperial ambition but to defend the entire Free World from a spreading Red stain.

The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq can be repackaged to fit into this inoffensive narrative. We went to war against the Taliban only after being attacked on September 11. We then targeted Saddam Hussein because of his links to terrorism (initially), the threat of his weapons of mass destruction (subsequently), and his genuinely atrocious human rights record (finally). In all three cases, we were reluctant warriors and fought on behalf of others, for altruistic reasons of general security or Iraqi democracy. In the larger Global War on Terror, according to the Bush doctrine, the United States fights terrorists abroad so that we don’t have to fight them on home soil. “Preventive” war, though it might seem rash and aggressive, is in fact prudent and defensive. As reluctant warriors, Americans are all ultimately George Washington’s children.

This is a nice fairy tale to tell children at bedtime or the UN at wartime. But more conservative backers of the Global War on Terror, uncomfortable with the view of the United States as peaceable except when roused, constructed a counter-narrative to serve their own purposes. To justify a quite illiberal agenda — adopting massive military spending increases, suspending international laws such as the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention against Torture, committing widespread violations of civil liberties at home — the neoconservatives preferred a narrative with more testosterone. They haven’t been ashamed to use the word “empire.” Their counter-narrative has traced the interventionist history of the United States from the beginnings of the American empire in the late 19th century through the construction of the “American century” during the Cold War. This unabashed embrace of empire supplies the critical element — thymos or the desire and striving for recognition — that Francis Fukuyama mourned the passing of with the end of history. Those nostalgic for the age of empire acknowledge that the world is tending toward a huge, uniform market democracy. But various anti-democratic and anti-capitalist forces are still out there — communist holdovers like Cuba, authoritarian powers like China, dictatorial leaders like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Myanmar’s junta — and the enablers of “Old Europe” lack the guts to stand up to all this tyranny. Only American courage and firepower can restore thymos to its pride of place in the unfolding of world history.

The conventional story of U.S. overseas expansion has focused on rolling back other empires and nation-states: the Spanish, the Soviets, the Vietnamese, the North Koreans. Noticeably absent from this lineup, except for a brief period during the Reagan administration, have been non-state actors and the Muslim world. As such, the campaign inspired by the September 11 attacks appeared to be a detour in U.S. history: an unprecedented response to an unprecedented event. The Global War on Terror risked appearing to be un-American in its singularity. After all, weren’t the Crusades a European thing? Wasn’t terrorism a local problem for London, Madrid, Moscow, and Beijing? Didn’t only totalitarian states wage global wars?

So, after the initial shock of the September 11 attacks subsided, the architects of the new counterterrorism campaign scrambled to establish historical continuity. To sustain what would become the most expensive military campaign in U.S. history, it was important to fabricate a genealogy — much as a family of the nouveau riche constructs a bogus coat of arms to assert a proud, aristocratic lineage. The Global War on Terror had to become an essential expression of U.S. destiny rather than a detour on the road toward a liberal, global market economy.

In this fashion, the proponents of the global war on terror discovered the Barbary pirates. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the United States waged a two-decades-long conflict with several states along the North African coast. This campaign inspired the expansion of the Marines and the creation of the modern U.S. Navy. At a time of America’s general weakness — fighting with little success against the French and the British — the Barbary wars were a rare success for the young republic. It was, in short, history ripe for the misuse: a war against Muslim terrorists avant la lettre that resulted in U.S. military victory and an early triumph for free trade.

The misreading of this episode in American history reveals much about the aims of the global war on terror. And it serves as a useful jumping-off point for a consideration of the future of the dispute between neoliberals and neoconservatives over the trajectory of U.S. global power in what Thomas Friedman has called an “age of piracy.”

Forced Pirate Parallel

It didn’t take long for advocates of a Global War on Terror to dig through their history books after September 11 to find what they needed. Thomas Jewett, in the Winter/Spring 2002 issue of Early America Review, wrote that September 11 “is not the first conflict in which America has faced such deprivations against life and property. There was another time when it was determined that diplomacy would not only be futile, but humiliating and in the long run disastrous. A time when ransom or tribute would not buy peace. A time when war was considered more effective and honorable. And a time when war would be fought, not with large concentrations of military might, but by small bands peopled with individuals of indomitable spirit. Almost 180 years ago our infant country attacked Tripoli under circumstances that are eerily similar to contemporary times.”

Pamphleteers were quick to pick up on the religious parallels. Rick Forcier, the executive director of the Christian Coalition of Washington state, wrote in November 2001 about terrorism: “It is quite ancient, and so is it’s [sic] employment by Islamic fundamentalists, who for centuries, have bombed, hijacked, kidnapped, murdered and extorted for the furthering of their religion and the glory of their god Allah. Known in times past as ‘Barbary pirates,’ Islamic terrorists made the world of old tremble at the thought of being captured on the high seas and killed or sold to the slave-traders of Timbuktu.”

Conservative journalist Joshua London also harped on the Holy War theme. Writing in The National Review, he opined, “Although there is much in the history of Ameri­ca’s wars with the Barbary pirates that is of direct relevance to the current global war on terrorism, one aspect seems particularly instructive to inform­ing our understanding of contemporary affairs. Very simply put, the Barbary pirates were commit­ted, militant Muslims who meant to do exactly what they said.”

Only a month after the September 11 attacks, the drawing of parallels was significant enough to warrant a Washington Post article that highlighted the views of a number of historians on the topic. Among those cited was George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who explicitly used the historical analogy in his advice to Congress. “He invoked the precedent of the Barbary pirates, saying America had every right to attack and destroy the terrorist leadership without declaring war,” the article reported.

Three years later, with enthusiasm for the Iraq War still strong among conservative ranks, Christopher Hitchens penned a high-profile paean to Thomas Jefferson and his treatment of the Barbary pirates in Time magazine. The takeaway point for Hitchens was Jefferson’s decisiveness. “Taken together with some of Jefferson’s other ambitious and quasi-constitutional moves — the Louisiana Purchase and the sending of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the West — the Barbary war exposed him to some Federalist and newspaper criticism for his secrecy, high-handedness and overly ‘presidential’ style. But there was no arguing with success,” he wrote with a clear nod at the Bush administration.

In their mining of American history, conservative journalists, historians, and activists found the nuggets they wanted: the humiliations of diplomacy, the importance of individual displays of bravery (thymos!), the contributions of a powerful president, and the militant perfidy of Muslims. This drawing of parallels between the Taliban and al-Qaeda on one hand and the Barbary pirates on the other accomplished several goals. First, it established that the very founding fathers of the United States had gone to war against Islamic terrorists, giving the global war on terror an unimpeachable pedigree. Second, it revealed that from the very beginning, appeasement in the form of sterile diplomacy and paying blackmailers was ineffectual, and only a robust military response could secure victory. Third, these battles required new approaches (preventive war) and new capabilities (an expanded navy, web-centric warfare). Finally, this was no mere local conflict but a global battle between backward fundamentalists and those who championed the rule of law.

The very same themes reappeared in the more recent linking of the Obama administration’s response to the Somali pirates with Jefferson’s approach to the Barbary pirates. The Somali pirates are Muslims and linked to fundamentalists, appeasement doesn’t work, and war is the answer. And the pundits are using the pirates as an argument for a transformation of Pentagon capabilities. The marriage of pirates and terrorists is just as improbable today in Somalia as it was in the historical misreading of the Barbary wars.

The “discovery” of the Barbary pirates was almost too good to be true — as if an anti-abortion activist discovered an overlooked ruling by the 18th-century Supreme Court on conception as the beginning of life. By projecting their prejudices onto the past, the neoconservatives warped history to their purposes. There are indeed parallels between the Barbary wars and today’s conflicts. But they aren’t the parallels seized upon by Jewett, London, and others.

Counterterrorism’s True History

Despite the neoconservative readings, the Barbary wars weren’t about religion. The states in North Africa, distant tributaries of the Ottoman Empire, weren’t Islamic caliphates but secular governments ruled by a dey and his Turkish janissaries. Muslim clerics controlled the ecclesiastical sphere but had little real political power. Moreover, the attacks on commercial vessels had nothing to do with jihad. Rather, locked out of European markets, Algiers, Tripoli, and Morocco turned to piracy for economic survival. The United States, meanwhile, didn’t enter into a holy war against these states. Instead, it was fighting the Revolutionary War after the fact in order to secure open markets for American products. This was, as Thomas Paine argued in Common Sense, a key to the survival of the newly independent country. But Britain didn’t welcome the newly independent United States into its markets. Worse, the British essentially turned the Barbary pirates loose on U.S. commercial shipping in the Mediterranean. What some contemporary readers see as an early confrontation between the West and the Rest — a prototype of the clash of civilizations — was in fact the continuation of a battle between the United States and its European rivals.

Nevertheless, there are some useful parallels between then and now. For instance, the founding fathers were quick to identify their Barbary opponents as pirates and slavers. But the British viewed the raids conducted by John Paul Jones during the Revolutionary War to be little more than piracy. Piracy, like terrorism, is in the eye of the beholder. As for slaving, the United States in those days was the center of the slave trade. The hypocrisy of complaining of the Barbary states’ treatment of a couple hundred U.S. sailors — when American slavers had brought over hundreds of thousands of African slaves — was lost on most commentators of the time (with the notable exception of Benjamin Franklin).

A more pertinent parallel can be found in the military sphere. In the late 18th century, the United States lacked a military that could go head to head with European powers, much less the Barbary fleet. Many founding fathers considered a standing navy to be a threat to liberty. It was expensive and, with the Revolutionary War over, there was no compelling reason to waste money on building warships. James Madison recommended that the United States, in an early version of Homeland Security, focus on the defense of the coast line. In 1794, however, Congress rejected the arguments of both Madison and Jefferson to pass legislation, which President Washington signed, for the building of six frigates. Proponents of the bill used the Barbary pirates as an explicit justification for this sharp increase in military spending, but no doubt the British and French fleets were also in the back of their minds.

There was, however, an interesting clause in the bill: “if a peace shall take place between the United States and the Regency of Algiers, that no further proceedings be had under this act.” After the United States did indeed sign such a treaty with Algiers, Washington invoked this clause in 1796 to reduce the naval outlays. But even then, when the military-industrial complex was at its historic nadir, there were concerns of unemployment in the defense sector. So, in a compromise, the early republic went ahead with the construction of three ships.

The war that eventually ensued between the United States and first Tripoli and then Algiers established many of the founding myths of U.S. military prowess (the exploits of Stephen Decatur), new types of warfare (secret military missions), and the linkage of overseas intervention with commerce. In other words, the neoconservatives of the 21st century had some readymade mythology on which to build. All they needed to do was link the Barbary pirates with al-Qaeda. This required turning the agents of secular governments with narrow economic aims into Muslim terrorists with the broadest ideological goals. In this way, a U.S. war on Islamic terrorism could acquire the distinction of a longstanding national interest.

Piracy and Globalization

When the United States declared the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, a mere eight years after the end of the Algerine War, it had the desire but not the capacity to keep its European rivals out of the Caribbean and Latin America. It was the wars against the Barbary states — and certainly not the disastrous War of 1812 — that had given the United States confidence to challenge the European empires. These early conflicts provided the United States with the rhetoric and the vision of a commercial empire when America was but a mere backwater.

The notion that the United States could stay out of wars and messy complications of European imperial politics died during the Barbary conflicts. U.S. economic growth depended on free trade, and U.S. battleships were needed to keep open the shipping lines. When Friedman wrote of the importance of McDonnell Douglas for the security of McDonald’s restaurants — the iron fist of the military behind the invisible hand of the market — he inherited this tradition of imperial logic. It’s also the spirit that animated Bill Clinton’s geoeconomic vision of maintaining U.S. economic power through the maintenance of U.S. military power, which I have called in another context “gunboat globalization.”

With Barack Obama’s presidency, some revived version of the Clintonian approach is at hand. Exit all talk of empire, in which adversaries are decisively defeated, and enter the art of hegemony, in which U.S. allies and adversaries are persuaded to see the confluence of their interests and U.S. interests. Obama remains committed to a huge military — he’s redeploying troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, increasing the size of the military by 92,000 troops, and staying “on the offense, from Djibouti to Kandahar” — even as he promises to use his persuasive skills with the leaders of Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. Obama has pledged to roll back some of the most offensive aspects of the Global War on Terror (Guantánamo detention center, torture) but the larger frame will continue under the AfPak designation. Meanwhile, the new president will focus on expanding U.S. global economic power as part of a bid to revive the moribund U.S. economy.

In this revived neoliberal environment, al-Qaeda will remain the same important “other” that the Barbary states were in the 18th century: a useful excuse for new military spending and projecting force. But they are now also joined by a more direct inheritor of the Barbary mantle: the pirates of Somalia. These pirates are attacking globalization’s very lifeblood — the ships that carry energy and goods through the Suez Canal — just as the Barbary pirates blocked early America from becoming a global economic actor. As part of its own post-Cold War transformation, the Navy is shifting its strategy away from policing the high seas to controlling the coastlines. It has already had one major confrontation with China (around the USNS Impeccable). But given China’s investments in the U.S. economy, the pirates are a safer justification for this shift in direction

Terrorists on land and at sea are useful in another way. Precisely because they are not states but dispersed entities, pirates and terrorists can serve better to justify both a global war and a new military doctrine. The Pentagon has insisted on expensive but rather old-fashioned weapons systems to handle the rising China threat: advanced aircraft carriers, huge naval destroyers, and new nuclear submarines. A dispersed threat, meanwhile, requires a dispersed defense: U.S. military bases (reconfigured as “lily pads” the better for jumping off from), rapid response units, new C4 (command, control, communication, and computers) capabilities. It also justifies a new military doctrine that emphasizes speed over position. Obama has endorsed these changes. They will enable the Pentagon to respond rapidly to threats to U.S. economic interests, whether paramilitary attacks against pipelines in the Gulf of Guinea and Colombia, territorial disputes affecting shipping lanes in Southeast Asia, or pirates in the Straits of Malacca.

The end of the Cold War created a crisis of mission for NATO. What was its need when the Soviet Union no longer existed? But this crisis of mission could be applied to the Pentagon more generally. The celebrated second front at the Korean demilitarized zone lost its purpose when South Korea no longer considered North Korea an enemy. The China threat diminished considerably when Beijing became the leading trade partner of all countries in the region. Cuba no longer possessed any threat potential beyond sending boatloads of refugees to the Florida shore. Saddam Hussein is dead and gone. Colin Powell famously said in the wake of the first Gulf War, “I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Kim Il Sung and Castro.” Osama bin Laden came along just in time for the Bush administration. The Somali pirates are the Pentagon’s latest lifeline.

Maintenance of high military spending, whether to further the neoconservatives’ “hard” imperial aims or the neoliberals’ “soft” hegemonic economic goals, requires villains of comparably great stature. Castro’s brother and Kim Il Sung’s son just won’t do. If al-Qaeda didn’t exist, Washington would have had to create it (which it helped do by providing Osama bin Laden with weapons in the 1980s). And if the Barbary pirates hadn’t existed 200 years ago, conservative historians would have had to create them as well. Indeed, in their construction of Islamic terrorists out of rather ordinary pirates, they have in fact done precisely that.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

For More Information: Frank Lambert, The Barbary Wars (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005)

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.