WWJD and the Pirates:

What Would Jefferson Do?

What Would Jefferson Do? Kick pirate butt. Allegedly.

This past week’s daring rescue of an American captain held hostage for five days in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates has led a number of pundits to hearken back to one of America’s earliest overseas military operations: the Barbary Wars.

From 1801 to 1805 and again in 1815, U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison waged war against North African states that sponsored piracy and extorted ransoms from American commercial shipping in the Mediterranean. According to the way pundits have retold the story, you would think the official title of these presidents was “pirate-killer-in-chief.”

However, the story of the Barbary Wars is actually a lot more nuanced than that. In his appointment as ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson first tried negotiating a multilateral compact “to compel the piratical states to perpetual peace.” However, although he succeeded in eliciting cooperation from a slew of small trading states such as Portugal, Naples, Venice, and Malta, the compact fell apart without the participation of naval great powers Britain and France.

He also attempted to constructively engage North African officials in direct talks. However, he was promptly told by Tripoli’s ambassador to London to take a hike when this official informed Jefferson that the Koran entitled North African pirates to plunder Western ships at will.

On the other hand, Jefferson tended to take a hard line against the payment of money to pirates. He argued that paying preemptive tributes or retroactive ransoms would only elicit further extortion and emphasized as Secretary of State “our determination to prefer war in all cases to tribute under any form, and to any people whatever.” Still, for a time the government continued to pay hefty sums to the pirate overlords, forking out over a million dollars in cash and goods to ransom 115 sailors from Algiers in 1795 alone.

When Jefferson took office as president in 1801, however, he refused to agree to Tripoli’s demands for an immediate gift of $225,000 and an annual tribute of $25,000. In response, the ruler of Tripoli declared war on the United States, thus beginning the first Barbary War.

That’s when the butt-kicking began. Between repeated naval bombardment of the capital and a surprise attack by land that threatened to overthrow the government and install the ruler’s exiled brother in his place, Tripoli sued for peace in 1805.

Fighting broke out again in 1815 as the North African principalities sought to exploit hostilities between America and Britain in the War of 1812 by stepping up their “piratical” activities. This time, using expressions that evoked the tough-guy language of an action hero, President Madison declared that “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.”

The war drew swiftly to a close after the U.S. brought the fight to Algiers. New treaties at the end of the conflict forever ended all tribute payments by the United States to the pirate states, while the Europeans continued to pay out ransoms for another two decades.

So what present lessons can be learned from our pirate-fighting forebears now that piracy has emerged to threaten American navigation on the high seas once more?

One possibility is that we should attack the pirates where they sleep, using either commandos or air strikes to decimate Somali ports that serve as pirate strongholds, much in the manner that Jefferson and Madison fought piracy by attacking Tripoli and Algiers. However, that would be a terrible idea in this instance. Despite recent UN reports suggesting that the pirates collude with a network of informants and corrupt government officials in the Puntland province where they are based, this is not an analogous instance of state-sponsored piracy.

In fact, Somalia is about as close as one gets these days to the absence of a state, and its fragile pro-Western government would likely be toppled due to domestic outcry in the aftermath of U.S. strikes. This would rob us of a useful partner for quiet intelligence gathering against both the pirates at sea and Islamist terrorists on land. It could also lead to a revocation of the government’s permission for international patrols to operate in Somali waters, a key condition for the continued participation of some of our skittish, less ambitious partners such as China and Japan.

The use of force against piracy is certainly justified, and in certain instances it is also a wise strategy. When it appeared as though the American captain being held hostage was about to be executed by his captors this past week, the use of Navy SEAL snipers to rescue him by taking out his captors was both appropriate and prudent. However, further escalation via a land assault would be a misguided strategy for where we should go from here.

Rather, a better lesson in this instance is the importance of effective and inclusive multilateral coordination. Jefferson tried to elicit comprehensive participation by Western navies to present a united front against North African piracy, but the arrogance of British and French unilateralism scuttled this attempt at cooperation.

The good news is that we are actually doing pretty well on this front today. We have already organized an enormous multinational naval coalition of the willing that includes not only our traditional European partners but other major powers such as Russia, China, India, and Japan. While this flotilla is not capable of preventing all attacks similar to the recent kidnapping incident, it does decrease the rate and severity of pirate successes. The kidnappers failed because they were quickly tracked down by an American destroyer before they could escape. Later this week, an attack on a second American cargo ship failed because that same destroyer showed up before the pirates could capture the bridge.

Similarly, effective coordination on limiting ransom payments is another important way to contain the growth of piracy. Despite America’s resistance at various points in history to paying North African pirate ransoms, European payments helped keep the 19th century pirate industry afloat. Similarly, although America held fast to its no-negotiation policy this week, opting for military force instead, other countries have been paying Somali pirates hefty ransoms in the $1-3 million range. This only serves to pump more resources into pirate networks for use in future operations.

For this reason we should be pursuing strong multilateral restrictions on the payment of ransom to pirates (and terrorists, while we are at it). If governments can come together to bind our hands in a cooperative manner that includes credible penalties to discourage cheating, it could do a lot of good towards decreasing the level of resources that go back to support further pirate operations.

While remembering America’s founding fathers Jefferson and Madison as tough-guy types who beat up their villainous opponents is a curiously appealing phenomenon, it doesn’t give us a clear picture of how to deal with complex social challenges like piracy today nor a complete understanding of how the Presidents went about addressing them in their times.

Now Andrew Jackson, on the other hand… that’s an entirely different story. That guy was definitely hardcore.

David A. Weinberg is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science.