"Palos Verdes Resident since 1947"

When Nice Doesn’t Get It

This was actually written Sept 15, 2012, but I had to back-date it.

Thomas Jefferson, though over-rated in my humble opinion, is definitely one of the better Presidents in US history.  His foreign policy was, however, not the best.  If more people were taught or studied that history, we might avoid some of the problems we seem to continually run into.  I’m referring specifically to North Africa at the moment.

Prior to the American Revolution, the Colonies’ not inconsiderable merchant marine enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy.  One of the most important benefits of that was innoculation against the North African pirates roaming the Mediterranean at the behest of petty Libyan and Algerian Deys and Pashas, who also demanded “tribute” (aka: bribery) as the price of constraining them.  Prior to the English, the Knights of Malta performed this function, providing protection Knight and Dey.  Sorry.  I just couldn’t help myself.

Having gained independence, the US lost that protection.  The Country in those days was pathetically weak and her merchant ships were increasingly at the mercy of  what were known as the Tripolitan Pirates — that would be Tripoli, as in Libya.  Staunchly (and idealistically) isolationist and without a meaningful Navy, the only practical solution was to pony up to the various Deys, which is what the US did until about 1801.

USS Congress

The US had nearly gone to war with revolutionary France in the late 1790’s, causing President Adams to lose the election of 1800 to Jefferson; the good news is that he had had six powerful frigates built in case of war — you know — the French Navy — 6 frigates would about do it — the 1800 version of heavy cruisers.  They were the United States, President, Congress, Chesapeake, Constellation, and [blare of trumpets] Constitution.   Yes, that Constitution.

Back to Jefferson.  Jefferson was a pacifist and had the idea that if we were nice to other countries, they’d be nice to us.  Does this sound familiar?  His idea of a Navy was a bunch of small gunboats with a single gun on each, which would swarm any invading navy but would, more importantly, send the message to other countries that the US did not have imperialistic designs.  I mean, these things didn’t even have names, not wanting to insult anyone, but rather just numbers.  The actual message it sent was that the US was militarily weak and could be pushed around.  As I have pointed out elsewhere, this policy led directly to the War of 1812, when those gunboats proved useless, but that’s later. 

The US shipping industry bridled at having to pay the Mediterranean pirates to lay off American ships so, thanks to

Preble's squadron in Tripoli Harbor. Dey's over.

Adams, Jefferson had the means to deal with it, and did, sending Commodores Bainbridge, Barron, Preble, Lt Decatur, and a bunch of US Marines to the shores of Tripoli, providing a sunset for the Dey and the end of the bribery.  Strength had proven more effective than Mr Nice, as it generally does in foreign policy.  There are plenty of examples throughout history, the highest profile recent example being Neville Chamberlain’s dealings with Adolph Hitler, tho there is a good deal of ignorance and hindsight in the common condemnations of Chamberlain’s actions.

Fast forward to today:  stunningly (and frustratingly for some of us) Mr Obama campaigned on making the same mistake Mr Jefferson had, promising the Group Hug approach to foreign relations.  This approach assumes, among other things, that those who would wish us ill operate on the same set of values and world view that we do.  Didn’t we go thru this with Jimmy Carter?  This is the product of ignorance and naivete unworthy of a US President.  Mr Jefferson at least had the excuse of extreme US weakness and popular revulsion at repeating the imperialist policies of Great Britain.  Carter and Obama had no such excuse.  Their “conciliatory” foreign policy, seen simply as a sign of US weakness by those who dislike us, is now bearing the predictable fruits in North Africa, as did Carter’s in Iran in 1979.  Will we never learn?

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