Our original Libyan misadventure

What President Obama should know about Thomas Jefferson's decision to confront a troublesome tyrant in Tripoli

Published April 17, 2011 3:01PM (EDT)

Former president Thomas Jefferson and President Barack Obama
Former president Thomas Jefferson and President Barack Obama


History doesn't repeat itself, Mark Twain is famously supposed to have said. But sometimes it rhymes. If so, it's improvising a perfect sonnet in Libya these days. Neither the rebels in Benghazi, desperate for more Western help against Gadhafi, nor the policymakers in Washington, who are desperate to avoid getting entangled in Libya, seem to have considered what happened the first time the United States intervened there, 206 years ago. If they did they'd surely be amazed at how closely the tumultuous events of the past two months have echoed those of 1805. And, perhaps, dismayed at the outcome that precedent foretells.

Back then, Thomas Jefferson, another president with a penchant for soaring rhetoric and cool calculation, occupied the White House. The reigning tyrant in Tripoli was Pasha Yusuf Karamanli, whose hands were as bloody as Gadhafi's; he'd seized the throne by murdering one brother and, by some accounts, their father, and banishing his other elder brother Hamet. Under Yusuf, as under Gadhafi, Libya became the most troublesome state in a troubled region -- the Barbary Coast, so called after the red-bearded Turkish captain Barbarossa, who drove the Spanish out of North Africa in the early 1500s. From Libya to Morocco, the successors to Barbarossa's corsairs now thrived on piracy, seizing ships and crews for ransom or extorting protection-money "tribute" to let them pass.

Thomas Jefferson decried these "nests of banditti" as strenuously as a succession of modern U.S. presidents have deplored the "mad dog" Gadhafi. As ambassador to France and secretary of state, Jefferson urged fighting rather than paying tribute: "Justice is in favor of this option," he wrote in 1784. "Honor favors it." He tried to assemble a coalition to share the cost and risk. Other smaller powers -- Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Sardinia, Naples and Malta -- were willing. But Britain, France and Spain balked; they found it cheaper to pay off the pirates and expedient to let them harry merchant rivals such as the United States. And so Jefferson's scheme foundered.

The issue came to a head soon after Jefferson became president in 1801. Pasha Yusuf, chafing at the United States' growing resistance to paying tribute, declared war in picturesque fashion: He had the flagpole in front of the American consulate chopped down. In response, Jefferson dispatched one naval squadron and then another, but they cruised the Mediterranean for two years with little effect.

Meanwhile the expelled American consul for Tripoli, James Leander Cathcart, and the consul in Tunis, a blustery soldier-turned-diplomat named William Eaton, cooked up an audacious plan to break the impasse: regime change. They urged Jefferson to enlist the exiled brother, Hamet Karamanli, in a plot to overthrow Yusuf. Yusuf's subjects, Eaton claimed, were "discontented and restless" and "would rise en masse" to welcome Hamet. And this, Eaton argued in an early application of the domino theory, would put fear in the other pirate states and bring peace to all Barbary.

This scheme -- the first American intervention in another country's internal affairs -- nearly died before it was hatched. In early 1802, Yusuf, who'd been tipped off, invited Hamet to return and take the governorship of Derna, then Libya's second-largest city, and Benghazi in the east of the country. Hamet, at wit's end -- not least because brother Yusuf held his wife and children hostage -- accepted the offer. But Eaton headed him off and, with a combination of words and cash (but without authorization from his superiors) persuaded him to sit tight.

Once in power Jefferson, like Obama, waxed more cautious. "Any war with the Barbary Regencies will be a war of defence and necessity, not of choice or provocation," his secretary of state, James Madison, reminded Eaton. Still Jefferson and Madison were intrigued with the scheme: Though it wasn't the republic's way "to intermeddle with the domestic controversies of other countries," Madison wrote, "it cannot be unfair, in the prosecution of a reasonable peace, to take advantage of the hostile co-operation of others. As far, therefore, as the views of the brother may contribute to our success, the aid of them may be used for the purpose." The exact terms of that cooperation, Madison left to the consuls' discretion.

Then, on Halloween 1803, the frigate Philadelphia grounded in Tripoli's harbor, giving Yusuf more than 300 American hostages. He demanded an enormous ransom, $500,000, and the same in tribute each year. With the stakes thus raised, Jefferson and Madison wavered between action and caution. The impetuous Hamet meanwhile landed at Derna and tried to launch an uprising on his own but, failing to get the aid he expected, gave up and fled into Egypt.

Eaton, undaunted, continued lobbying for regime change. He even hustled funds for the effort with a little fast cross-Mediterranean trading in olive oil. (Perhaps if Ollie North had stuck to olive oil instead of selling missiles to Iran in the 1980s, the Contragate scheme wouldn't have gone so sour.) Eaton returned to Washington and, in December 1803, met alone with Jefferson. That colloquy seemed to tip the balance; Jefferson gave his go-ahead, at first promising $40,000 but then authorizing just $20,000 for Eaton's scheme. Madison kicked in a thousand rifles and arranged Eaton's transfer to the War Department, with the title of "Navy Agent for the Several Barbary Regencies." That way his conspiracy wouldn't compromise the State Department's diplomatic efforts.

Eaton knew his position was tenuous: "The cautious policy of the President is calculated to evade responsibility and to secure all the advantages of a miracle," he noted in a letter. "If the cooperation fails, he evades the imputation of having embarked on a speculative, theoretical, chimerical project. This fixes on me." (i.e. plausible deniability.)

But Eaton either did not realize or wishfully disregarded the way he and Hamet were being used. Madison advised Commodore Samuel Barron, the naval commander in the Mediterranean, that he might "find Mr. Eaton extremely useful" in putting pressure on Yusuf, but warned him not to commit to Hamet's cause. At the same time, without informing Eaton, he directed the new consul general for Barbary, Tobias Lear, to attempt to make peace with Yusuf and ransom the hostages for the lowest price.

Eaton reached Hamet in Egypt in early 1805 and whisked him out from under its Ottoman rulers. Pushing his authority to the limit or beyond, he inked a high-sounding "Convention between the United States of America, and his Highness, Hamet Caramanly," pledging America's "utmost exertions" to restore Hamet's rule. In return Hamet would declare a general amnesty, release all American prisoners, foreswear taking new ones or demanding further payments, and repay all expenses with tribute due from other nations -- thus involving America in the tribute business.

From the desert oases and cosmopolitan flotsam of Alexandria, Eaton assembled as motley a legion as ever set out to conquer a country: 38 Greek mercenaries, a few dozen international adventurers of other nationalities, Hamet's corps of 90 and enough Arab fighters and camel drivers to bring the total to 400. He asked Commodore Barron for 100 marines but received only eight, and one Navy midshipman.

And he somehow marched this ragtag force across nearly 600 miles of desert, facing down a mutiny and, very nearly, mass desertion when an American supply ship failed to show. Finally he and Hamet reached Derna, captured it in a fierce battle, then repelled a counterattack by a larger force from Tripoli. Local tribes rallied to the cause, swelling their ranks to about 2,000.

Eaton and his protégés now held eastern Libya, tenuously. He vowed to march on Tripoli, overthrow Yusuf, and deal "what would very probably be a death blow to the Barbary system," and pleaded for support from the U.S. fleet (the 1805 counterpart to today's air support). But Jefferson's surrogates had no confidence in the volatile Hamet; they instead seized the occasion to negotiate a better deal with Yusuf. Eaton and Hamet's advance had done wonders to concentrate the pasha's mind; he dropped his ransom price, then dropped it again, and finally settled for just $60,000 plus a few Tripolitan prisoners taken by the American fleet. Yusuf vowed not to attack U.S. ships or citizens again. Lear publicly insisted that Yusuf release Hamet's family but secretly agreed to let him keep them hostage, to insure against Hamet's raising more trouble.

Eaton begged to continue the fight, in terms that now sound eerily prescient: "You would weep, sir, were you on the spot, to witness the unbounded confidence placed in the American character here, and to reflect that this confidence must shortly sink into contempt and immortal hatred." But Barron ordered him to embark with his Christian fighters, leaving the Muslims to Yusuf's tender mercies. Eaton insisted on at least rescuing Hamet and his band. They snuck out of Derna before dawn. Eaton gazed from the last boat at a shoreline "crowded with the distracted soldiery and populace, some calling on the Bashaw [Hamet], some on me, some uttering shrieks, some execrations." It was a scene that would echo through the centuries as the United States aborted other foreign adventures and left other proxies to their fate -- at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, in Saigon, Cambodia and Laos in 1975, in Iraq after the first Gulf War.

"This moment, we drop them from ours into the hands of their enemy, for no other crime but too much confidence in us!" Eaton fumed as the white walls of Derna faded from view. He could not reconcile "the manner of [Hamet's] being abandoned with those principles of natural justice and honor which have hitherto marked our character." Future presidents suffered no such qualms; as Stephen F. Knott, a scholar at the U.S. Naval War College, notes in his "Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency," "Jefferson's skillful use of surrogates effectively distanced from the White House could -- and did -- serve as a model for all similar American interventions in the future."

Returning as a hero, Eaton denounced Lear's, Barron's and Jefferson's duplicity and pressed Congress to compensate both Hamet and himself for their losses in the campaign. But he proved a more effective scapegoat than nemesis. Strutting through the capital's muddy streets in a bright Turkish sash, boozing it up in the taverns and railing to anyone who would listen, he became a caricature of the disgruntled misfit veteran -- and a natural target for Aaron Burr, who tried to enlist him in his conspiracy to sever the western states from the republic. (Eaton instead obliquely warned Jefferson and testified at Burr's treason trial.)

Jefferson and his supporters calmly rebutted Eaton's charges: Brave though he was, he had exceeded his brief in promising to back Hamet, whom he was supposed to exploit rather than support. The deal with Yusuf was a signal success at a bargain price, rather than a sellout. The republic could not afford to wage what Jefferson called "a land war at such a distance from our resources," much less to occupy a turbulent and very foreign nation.

Such considerations now weigh on Barack Obama, who inherited two such distant wars when he took office. Today's political landscape is different in two important aspects: Britain and France, once the pirates' tacit patrons, now want to escalate the attack on Gadhafi. And Obama has no Eaton hounding his traces and working military miracles on the ground. Otherwise, however, the political calculus seems remarkably similar.

If Obama likewise chooses prudence over principle and accepts an accommodation with Gadhafi, he can take heart from how history has treated Jefferson. The deal with Yusuf did not buy the Barbary peace that Eaton had hoped to win; the Barbary boys resumed seizing ships, and American and Anglo-Dutch fleets responded with overwhelming force. Finally, in 1830, French forces occupied Algiers, ending the piracy but launching a cycle of colonization, resistance and resentment that reverberates to this day. But such consequences are little noted today. And the scandal Eaton raised quickly dissipated. Jefferson is now remembered for taming the Barbary pirates, not for betraying Libya's rebels. The swashbuckling Eaton remained a schoolboy hero through the 19th century, then faded from the records. Popular accounts, some official military histories and of course the "Marine Corps Hymn" credit the march on Derna not to him and his ragtag Mediterranean corps but to the eight marines who accompanied him. Even though they never quite made it to the shores of Tripoli.

Eric Scigliano is the author of "Love, War, and Circuses" (Houghton Mifflin), "Michelangelo's Mountain" (the Free Press) and, with Curtis Ebbesmeyer, "Flotsametrics" (Smithsonian Books).

Update: The original version of this story identified Stephen F. Knott as a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, but he is actually a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. The piece has been updated to address this.

By Eric Scigliano

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