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Barbary Wars Have Lessons For Today's Libya


The place where America first engaged in war overseas has some relevance today. Before we tell you where we're talking about, here's a hint.


T: (Singing) From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.

SHAPIRO: Good morning.

ADRIAN TINNISWOOD: Nice to be here.

SHAPIRO: Can you just give us a quick primer on how the U.S. became militarily involved in North Africa in the 1800s.

TINNISWOOD: And that, of course, until 1776, that meant for American shipping as well. Something like 100 American merchantmen were sailing up and down the Mediterranean trading with the Levant.

SHAPIRO: So as soon as the United States was independent, it had to pay its own bills?

TINNISWOOD: It made life a little bit trickier. When the war was over, they had to negotiate directly with the Barbary states. I mean, we can call it negotiating. We can call it treaties, which is what they did. It was actually paying tribute.

SHAPIRO: Paying bribes, paying ransom for free passage.


SHAPIRO: How does this turn into a war?

TINNISWOOD: Because the Tripolitans got a little bit greedy. They...

SHAPIRO: The Tripolitans, the people of Tripoli, and what we know today as Libya.

TINNISWOOD: Of Tripoli. Yeah. They originally did a deal for half a million dollars, which was a lot in the late 18th century.


TINNISWOOD: And then they wanted to renegotiate the treaty. They wanted a little bit more, a little bit more. And Jefferson said no. That's enough. We're not paying tribute. We'd rather fight. And by that time, of course, the U.S. had got a Navy it could fight with. Until then, there wasn't really much he could do.

SHAPIRO: So take us into the war. What's actually happening?

TINNISWOOD: The American Navy starts to try and hunt down Tripolitan pirate vessels. It doesn't go all that well, I've got to say. America, this time, has a big, bright, new, shiny 44-gun frigate called the Philadelphia. The Philadelphia is busy blockading Tripoli harbor when it's captain makes a wrong turn and it runs aground and the Tripolitans capture the Philadelphia. They capture 300-odd crewmen and take them as hostages - as slaves, in fact - into Tripoli, and they set about rearming the Philadelphia. They're going to use it against the American Navy.

SHAPIRO: Was this war strictly about trade and economics, or were there religious or imperialistic overtones?

TINNISWOOD: Historically, the Mediterranean and Barbary, that North African coast, is the kind of front line between Christendom and Islam, and it has been since the 1500s. So Barbary pirates, some of them were just robbers. Some of them were just bad guys. Some of them, even in the 16th and 17th centuries, referred to themselves as mujahedeen. They were warriors for God. They talked about being on jihad. They talked about a sea jihad against the infidel, and they saw the West as kind of pushing into the Dar al-Islam, the lands of Islam, and they saw their job as keeping the West away, keeping Islam safe. This, if you want contemporary resonance, is - you got them there Ari, I tell you.

SHAPIRO: Well, I was going to say, this was 200 years ago.


SHAPIRO: How much of this applies today?

TINNISWOOD: I mean, a great deal more, I think. There's so much sort of fear and misunderstanding there. And the saddest thing about what's happening today is that it was happening two, 300 years ago, and we haven't learned anything from it. And this - I'm speaking personally, now. The big lesson for me is to stay out.

SHAPIRO: Why do you say that?

TINNISWOOD: Don't mess with a foreign country, because usually what history tells is we cause more problems than we solve, I think.

SHAPIRO: Are the Libyan people aware of this history? Is this in the forefront of their minds more than it might be in American's minds?

TINNISWOOD: That's hard to say. They're certainly aware of it. And they certainly - I mean, my knowledge of the Libyan people is that they're very proud people, and they treasure their role on the front line of this battle between Christendom and Islam. I mean, they're proud of that. Even the rebels are very anxious not to have intervention by the West - not to have direct intervention. They want help and they'll take munitions. They'll take guns from us. They don't want, you know, a military invasion force on their territory. That's humiliating.

SHAPIRO: Thanks very much for talking with us.

TINNISWOOD: Thank you very much.


SHAPIRO: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.