Thomas Jefferson's War on Terror

On of the things about American foreign policy is that it is at least consistent in its 'can-do' pursuit of victory. The tradition stretches back a long time. In 1801, for instance, President Jefferson deployed the new American navy into the Barbary War against the 'pirates' of North Africa, a loose confederation of states associated with Ottoman satraps, Deys and others that menaced the Mediterranean with fast ships. Winning an inconclusive victory in 1805, America returned ten years later and began the attacks that culminated in the final suppression of the Terror ships at the hands of an international coalition.

As with many aspects of American history, of course, the true tale has an almost impossible resonance of science fiction.

The story is an interesting one. For three hundred years, the Knights of Malta (an order of papal knights who still exist as a papal order and who have observer status at the UN) maintained a degree of order against the Barbary Pirates. The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France, however, led to the betrayal and near-destruction of the Knights. With their knowledge of how to contain the Barbary Pirates displaced, none could really stand against the fast ships of the piratical confederation, until, tired of repeated menaces and hostage taking, the USA sent the USS Enterprise in as the first of a group of ships to engage the enemy.

The order of Jefferson was quite clear, and, as with the Louisiana purchase, helped define a vision of the Presidency as one involving an active and determined chief executive that was almost certainly not that of the founding fathers. The writers of the Constitution (Jefferson had been in Paris, and opposed the document anyway) fairly clearly wanted the Senate to be in control of the American Republic, and the President to preside. They made no direct mention of a power in foreign affairs and indirect references always point to the Senate, for instance.

This was the approach that successive Presidents after Jefferson took until Woodrow Wilson, and that was only finally overturned by the Supreme Court in 1936. In that year, the Court affirmed the President as the key executive wielder of foreign affairs power; an affirmation so new in constitutional terms that there is nothing to say it couldn't be reversed in the future, other than a sane appreciation of the inertia of political realities.

Despite this, the Marines still sing of their deployment to 'the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli'. The fact has not been lost on neoconservative writers. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, has a punchy article on the point here, and I think stretches things to link the events with an American style of engaging with the Islamic world that I don't think holds water.

Still, have a look. The Barbary War is an interesting example of the interlinkage of modern politics and piracy which is often forgotten. English Judges very often fail to recall that judicial abhorrence of lawmaking in England wasn't in evidence when their brother ancestors made piracy a crime by an act of intellectual leapfrog when Parliament didn't, for instance.

Equally, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, one of the Twentieth Century's greatest legal innovations (which I wrote about in relation to the Straits of Hormuz tensions recently) doesn't say too much about modern piracy when the issue is clearly becoming a problem again. How long is it before pirates become an issue on the South seas that raise questions of who has a right to deal with them again?

Ah well. I'm off to bed. I am writing before the primary results of Super Tuesday, but expect Romney to lose and come behind Huckabee. He'll deserve that, after an incredibly cynical campaign that at least introduced the weirder aspects of Mormon eschatology to mainstream America, if only by forcing people to ask when Romney misrepresented it as a species of Christianity. I quite like Huckabee as a person.

It'll also be nice to see Obama do well, and to note Ron Paul still picking up the odd thread beneath the radar. I do find myself wondering at how easy it is to imagine any of the present crowd apart from Ron Paul actually repeating the Barbary War in some local setting over and over again.

Human beings really do not change.

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