Many may think Islamic terrorism is a relatively modern phenomenon, but according to foreign-policy expert Joshua E. London, violent Muslim extremism has confounded the United States since America's infancy.
London – who for the past two months has served as the deputy director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., and prior to that served as director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center – shared that view at a recent lunch event in Center City sponsored by the Middle East Forum.
The talk concerned the United State's 30-year-long engagement with the North African Barbary states – now Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya – who in the late 18th- and early 19th centuries sponsored pirate expeditions to harass Western shipping in the Mediterranean Sea.
London quoted an account of a May 1786 meeting among U.S. Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain John Adams and Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the London-based ambassador of the state of Tripoli. He said that 220 years ago, the two founding fathers questioned why Muslim countries were attempting to extract tributes from the West.
"Adja's response was 'that it was founded on the laws of their prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners,' " said London. "That seems oddly familiar to today."
The author of the recent Victory in Tripoli: How America's War With the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation then told the small group of attendees at the law firm of Blank Rome that if there was one lesson from the country's foray into the Mediterranean, it was that "there is no substitute for victory."
London castigated the efforts of President Jefferson, who during his first term lobbied Congress to fund the expansion of the young navy and pushed for military victories against Pasha Ahmad Qaramanli, the ruler of Tripoli. Jefferson also encouraged his diplomats to seek out a way to buy off the Muslim power with annual payments.
Pointing specifically to an 1805 peace treaty with Tripoli, London said that the U.S. end of the bargain – to pay Qaramanli $60,000 on top of other gifts and annuities – may have ensured the security of shipping in the short term, yet it only served to delay another inevitable military encounter. It wasn't until 1815 that U.S. naval forces finally achieved victory.
Drawing on recent experience with the Muslim world, London argued that Islam hasn't changed all that much.
"America's Barbary experience took place well before colonialism, well before oil, well before the State of Israel was established," he said. "Within the mainstream teachings of Islam, there is a well-established militant thread. Obviously, not every Muslim feels inclined to take up jihad, but this does not mean Muslims are opposed to the idea."
Speaking afterward by telephone, London compared Jefferson's capitulation in 1803 to the United States' refusal in the first Gulf war to topple the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.
"If Jefferson hadn't hedged his bets the way he did, then there would have been a military solution" 10 years before victory was achieved, said London. "Qaramanli was able to capitulate to the West in a way that made him look strong to the East, not unlike how the West ultimately consolidated Saddam's position" in the early 1990s.
"When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse," said London. "If we go to war and we win, we must win decisively."
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