History Lesson

America on the High Seas

With all the trouble in Somalia, it’s a good time to remember that the United States’ first international crisis, at the dawn of the republic, was with the Barbary Pirates, who were devastating Mediterranean trade. In today’s Wall Street Journal, historian Michael B. Oren writes that the solution to Somalia “can be gleaned from America's experience with Barbary.” In 1790, without its own navy, the United States government was paying an astounding 20 percent of its federal income to the Barbary pirates. By 1801, it had built six frigates, and a trek by U.S. marines across 500 miles of Libyan desert to Tripoli in 1805 resulted in the pirates’ capitulation. Today, “any attempt to bargain with [the pirates] and to pay the modern equivalent of tribute will beget more piracy. Now, as then, the only effective response to piracy is a coercive one.” Luckily for the United States, Europe, which would not help in Barbary, is willing to do so today.