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Obama Cairo Speech and the Tripoli Treaty - Blackmail?

By Jay Shapiro
6/10/2009, 12:00 AM

Plus ça change plus c’est la mĕme chose

In his speech in Cairo, Egypt, United States President Barack Obama noted that in the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797, Morocco was the first nation to recognize the newly established United States . This is historically incorrect and President Obama also neglected to describe the interesting background to this treaty that has implications for 21st century dealings between Moslem nations and the West.

In the late 18th century, piracy was one of the many risks associated with foreign trade. After gaining independence, American shipping was no longer protected by the powerful British fleet and many vessels fell victim to the Barbary pirates of North Africa who stole goods and sold seamen and passengers into slavery. Agreements were reached between the United States and rulers of the Barbary Coast in which in exchange for cash payments, the rulers pledged to guarantee the safe passage of American ships and to put a stop to the practice of maritime kidnapping. Before signing the treaty, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded and received a payment of "forty thousand Spanish dollars, thirteen gold watches, silver & pinsbach, five rings, of which three of diamonds, one of saphire and one with a watch in it, One hundred & forty piques of cloth, and four caftans of brocade,and these on account of the peace concluded with the Americans".

Indeed, Article 10 of the treaty explicitly states "The money and presents demanded by the Bey of Tripoli, as a full and satisfactory consideration on his part, and on the part of his subjects, for this treaty of perpetual peace and friendship, are acknowledged to have been received by him previous to his signing the same, according to a receipt which is hereto annexed, except such as part as is promised, on the part of the United States, to be delivered and paid by them on the arrival of their Consul in Tripoli; of which part a note is likewise hereto annexed. And no pretense of any periodical tribute of further payments is ever to be made by either party".

However, the amount of goods stipulated in the treaty was still deemed insufficient according to the Pasha of Tripoli and an additional $18,000 dollars had to be paid by the American Consul upon his arrival in April, 1799. It was not until this final payment was made that the Pasha recognized the Treaty as official.

In 1801, the Pasha demanded an additional $225,000 from the new Jefferson administration which, unlike the previous Adams administration, refused to pay any additional amount. Consequently, in May 1801, the Pasha declared war on the United States . Algiers and Tunis soon followed their ally in Tripoli . In response, Jefferson sent a fleet to defend American interests in the Mediterranean including the USS Constitution, famously known as "Old Ironsides," berthed until today in Boston harbor. The USS Constitution supported the landing of Marines "on the shores of Tripoli " in an action that was subsequently immortalized in the Marine Corps Hymn. The Americans destroyed the harbor that served as the headquarters for the pirates and the Pasha signed a treaty which effectively ended the First Barbary War.

Michael Oren, Israel's new ambassador to the Unites Sates, provides further background on the events leading up to the 1797 treaty in Power, Faith, and Fantasy, a study of relations between the United States and the Middle East since 1776. He describes a meeting held in Paris several years before the treaty was signed, attended by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who met with a representative of the Bey of Tripoli in an attempt to resolve the piracy problem. The emissary repeated his demand for one million dollars and further declared It was…written in the Koran that all nations who should not have acknowledged their [the Muslims] authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.

George Washington's attitude toward the Barbary blackmail was expressed in a statement made to Lafayette "Would to Heaven we had a navy to reform those enemies to mankind or crush them into nonexistence". He is further recorded as having said that "..he felt the highest disgrace" in seeing America "become tributary to such banditti who might for half the sum that is paid them be exterminated from the earth."

Those with some knowledge of American history can appreciate the fact that Mr. Obama’s reference to the Tripoli Treaty is even more appropriate to today’s situation than most people realize – including, perhaps, Mr. Obama himself. One can only hope that the Jeffersonian determination in the face of piracy and financial blackmail will serve as a model for the way to deal today with terrorism and nuclear blackmail.