Regime Change in Tripoli? Part 1


The events of the last few days in Tripoli are in many ways quite reminiscent of events which took place in that North African nation over two hundred years ago, when our nation was very young and struggling for it’s identity on the world stage. At that time, there existed in Tripoli a regime which supported, indeed officially took part in the terrorist activities of a band of pirates who roamed the Mediterranean Sea preying on the commerce of neutral nations, hijacking their ships and holding their crews hostage until and unless a hefty ransom was paid.

Back during the Spring of 1805, the concept of international cooperation failed, and the idea of “regime change” was put forth, and actively pursued by our country. Ultimately, the whole enterprise came to an inglorious end for our country, because our leaders lacked the political will, and our country lacked the necessary firepower. While regime change does appear to be at hand here in the Tripoli of the Summer of 2011, many have accused our current leaders of the same lack of will, and have often blamed a similar lack of firepower.

The Barbary States of North Africa

By the latter portion of the 18th Century, the coast of North Africa had been occupied for several hundred years by a people who were known as the “Berbers” — even by the Arabs, who got the term from the adjective “barbari”, which means “foreign and primitive”. The Berbers remain a significant ethnic minority in the area, and in Libya down to the present day. At that time, the term “Barbary” was applied to these people and their states. It comes probably from the either the Greek word “barbaros”, or the Latin “barbarus” meaning “barbarian” which is a term the Romans applied to anyone at all who did not speak either Greek or Latin.

By this point in time, the area was home to four states which were nominally a part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, and thus were officially responsible to the Sultan of that Empire. This was, however, true only in outward form. These Muslim states were in reality independent fiefdoms each responsible only to their own rulers. The head of each of these states was a semi-hereditary monarch called “the Dey”. And it is correct to call them “semi-hereditary” because the death of one such ruler would ostensibly bring a son or a brother to take his place, but this succession was frequently challenged and indeed changed by another candidate who had the necessary military backing.

This “tradition” would prove to be a key in the American backed effort to effect a regime change in Tripoli. The states were Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli, all of which corresponded to their present-day locations and names with the exception that what was then called Tripoli comprises most of modern day Libya. But the capital city was indeed the same Tripoli which in recent days appears to have fallen to rebels opposed to the ruling government of Colonel Ghadaffy.

The Barbary States and Piracy

These states had for years been allowing their ships to raid the commerce of the Mediterranean Sea for plunder, and for the purpose of taking the sailors of the merchant ships hostage in return for tremendous ransom payments. The major powers of France, Spain, Portugal and Great Britain all had more than sufficient naval forces to put these acts of piracy by the Barbary States to an end. But as they were almost constantly at war with one another, they found it useful to allow these Barbary Pirates to operate, making a mess of their rivals commerce, in return for Treaties of Protection which would fall in and out of effect, depending on the shifting fortunes of war, as well as the whims and greed of the individual Deys.

While we were a set of thirteen colonies our merchant ships enjoyed the protection afforded by the great British Navy. But once we had acquired independence from Great Britain following our Revolution, and we became the United States, our ships began falling victim to increasingly brazen acts of piracy. The United States was initially governed by the weak Articles of Confederation, and thus had no standing navy, and only the weakest national government with which to contest these piratical seizures.

When an American vessel,the “Betsey” was seized on Oct. 11, 1784, and her crew taken hostage, it was only with the help of the Spanish government that the crew was released. But by the time the ships Maria, and the Dauphin were taken and their crews imprisoned and enslaved in July, 1785 by Algerian pirates, Spain had concluded a peace treaty with the Algerines. Thus the Spanish would not help. The United States, with neither the military capability, nor the diplomatic clout to effect the release of her sailors, had to resort to ransom and considerable diplomatic wrangling, begging and pleading to get the job done, and still it took a huge amount of time during which the prisoners were subjected to slave labor and horrid conditions. It was not until a huge payment in gold bullion could be arranged, some $200,000, that the surviving hostages were released – in February of 1797, after nearly TWELVE YEARS of captivity.

The Newly Constitutional United States Takes Action

By 1789, the United States had written and ratified a new Constitution. In 1798, President John Adams created a Department of the Navy, and six magnificent new frigates were being built. But it would take time for these ships to be built, and still more time for them to become an effective fighting force. So for the present at least, diplomacy and ransom were still the only means available for dealing with the Barbary States. In 1798, President Adams appointed a blunt, pugnacious, and rugged Connecticut Yankee, former army officer William Eaton as Consul General to the Dey of Tunis, with instructions to negotiate a Peace Treaty and Trade Agreements with Tunis. By February 1799 Eaton, fellow diplomat William Cathcart, and several ships captains were making courtesy calls at Algiers on their way to Tunis. Eaton’s first meeting with the Dey would set the tone for all of his future dealings with the Barbary leaders. Eaton, et al were led into a private audience room.

Eaton would write of this audience:

“Here, we took off our shoes and entering the cave (for so it seemed), with small apertures of light with iron gates, we were shown to a huge, shaggy beast, sitting on his rump upon a low bench covered with a cushion of embroidered velvet, with his hind legs gathered up like a tailor, or a bear. On our approach to him, he reached out his forepaw as if to receive something to eat. Our Guide exclaimed ‘Kiss the Dey’s hand!’ The Consul General bowed very elegantly, and kissed it, and we followed his example in succession. The animal seemed at the moment to be in a harmless mode; he grinned several times, but made very little noise….. Can any man believe that this elevated brute has seven kings of Europe, two republics, and a continent tributary to him when his whole naval force is not equal to two line of battle ships? It is so.”

Eaton Grows Exasperated With the Greed of the Deys.

Eaton moved on to Tunis where he was obliged to negotiate a treaty on positively userious terms for peace with that State. The Dey of Tunis was upset that some of the gifts promised to him, which included four pairs of pistols mounted in gold, a gold repeating watch with diamonds, and six pieces of satin in different colors, had not yet arrived. Nevertheless, Eaton was able to reach an agreement with Tunis. However, the Dey of Tripoli then began complaining that he was not getting his just share of all of this booty. Eaton was at his wits end. He fired off letter after letter to the State Department ranting about the perfidy of the Deys:

“So long as they hold their own terms, no estimate can be made of the expense of maintaining a peace. They are under no restraint of honor nor honesty. There is nor a scoundrel among them from the prince to the muleteer, who will not beg or steal….”

“Will nothing rouse my country!!”

The navy which Adams had brought into being was then engaged in a sort of undeclared naval war with the new revolutionary Republic of France, and was unavailable for service against the Barbary Pirates. By the time that “Quasi-war” had been successfully concluded, Adams who had successfully avoided getting America into a full-fledged shooting war with Revolutionary France, had been voted out of office for his troubles.

The new President, Thomas Jefferson, who had once been an outspoken opponent of paying ransom to the pirates, was now part of the crowd who were opposing naval expansion, and advocating accommodation with the apparently endless greed of the Deys. But the actions of the Barbary rulers became steadily more aggressive and insulting. The frigate USS George Washington was sent with ambassadors to pacify the Dey of Algiers when he demanded that the American ship lower her colors, hoist his flag and ferry him and his retinue to the Ottoman capitol of Constantinople. Humiliating though this was, the US captain was obliged to obey. Eaton was apoplectic:

“History shall tell that the United States first volunteered a ship of war, equipped, a carrier for a pirate… Frankly I own, I would have lost the peace, and impaled myself rather than yielded this coercion. Will nothing rouse my country!!”

Tripoli Declares War on the US; Eatons Plan

But the Pasha of Tripoli took matters into his own hands by sending his men to the US Consulate on May 14, 1801 to chop down the American flag, which was the traditional way of declaring war. Jefferson sent squadrons of the new and battle tested U.S. Navy to deal with the situation. Two years of warfare ensued, with the US squadrons sent by Jefferson taking action which proved ultimately ineffective in resolving the situation. Worse yet, the frigate USS Philadelphia had run aground in the harbor of Tripoli, and been captured by the enemy. Although the Philadelphia was later boarded and destroyed in a daring raid lead by Captain Stephen Decatur, her crew remained in the hands of the Tripolitans.

Eaton by this time had returned to Washington, and began pushing a scheme which he had been developing for what was effectively a plan for regime change in Tripoli. While in Tunis in June of 1801, he had met Ahmad Quarmanli, the deposed Pasha of Tripoli, and the older brother of Yusuf Quarmanli, the reigning Pasha. Eaton proposed that the US take Ahmad under their wing, assemble an army of various locals, under Ahmad’s banner, and then by giving them the necessary logistical support with the US Naval vessels then in the Mediterranean, effectively back their challenge to the regime in Tripoli.

Is any of this beginning to sound familiar? Providing logistical support to a rag-tag band of rebels in an attempt to bring about regime change… in TRIPOLI!! Of course this attempt was made without any sort of international backing as we are doing today. And while the US involvement today is being made in an attempt to stop a dictator from massacring his own people, we are still engaged in essentially the same endeavor: trying to back an indigenous attempt to remove a hostile regime in order to replace it with one less injurious to US interests in the region.

Click here for Part 2