Date: Tue Apr 28 2009 - 00:11:09 EDT
Piracy and Empire
By John Feffer, Foreign Policy in Focus
Posted on April 27, 2009, Printed on April 27, 2009
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Thomas
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.
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
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
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.
© 2009 Foreign Policy in Focus All rights reserved.
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