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Jefferson, Obama, and the Problem of Piracy - A Scholar's View

Guest commentary

It is a rare thing for historians of early American foreign policy to see their subject discussed on national cable outlets. In the mid-1990s, when I first began my research on the Barbary War, the last major study of the subject had sat on library shelves for nearly 60 years and to have called the conflict a footnote in Jefferson scholarship would have generous. As late as October 2008, when a conference that I co-chaired touched on the issue of Jefferson’s Mediterranean War, the notion that American foreign policy could be preoccupied with tales of maritime heroism and hostage-taking would have seemed bizarre. The fact that the daring rescue of Captain Phillips was conducted on the deck of a warship named after William Bainbridge, whose career blossomed in Jefferson’s fight against Tripoli and Algiers, only added to the excitement and irony.

A full discussion of Jefferson’s military and political strategy goes well beyond the short space I have for comment on this matter. I’ll confine my remarks to a few points about the similarities and differences of American anti-piracy operations under Presidents Jefferson and Obama. Strategically speaking, Jefferson’s Barbary War was an effort to protect American assets from attack well as to demonstrate American resolve to Britain and France, the dominant powers in the Mediterranean and modern Middle East. While Obama’s National Security Council still frets about the former goal, the latter is inconceivable in this age of American military supremacy and shows that Jefferson faced the harder task. If Obama were to ask Jefferson’s analysis of the problem of piracy, he may very well hear the following:

What seems the same:

The most conspicuous similarity between Jefferson’s world and ours is the brutal violence of piracy. Weapons have changed but the equation of power is the same: lightly crewed freighters are overwhelmed by small bands of men armed to the teeth. Hostage taking and the narrative of suffering it leads to are the same today as when American papers carried stories of captive sailors 200 years ago. Moreover, the sheer size of ocean and light footprint of the attackers makes defense difficult, even in the age of GPS technology. Perhaps the greatest similarity is not strategic but actuarial: the inescapable logic of insurance. Jefferson feared that skyrocketing insurance rates would soon make the Mediterranean unprofitable for American traders (exactly what London and Paris wanted) and only by defending the American merchant fleet with force would those rates drop. Today, large shippers such as Maersk do not want armed men on the decks of their vessels: carrying weapons drives insurance rates up: it’s far cheaper to pay the occasional ransom. Pirates know that the bottom line ultimately works in their favor, and it is pretty cheap to pull off.

Major Differences:

While these facts and terrific stories of naval heroism—either SEAL sharpshooters or Stephen Decatur’s burning of a captured American warship—attract a great deal of attention, the reality remains that operations off Somali bear little resemblance to Jefferson’s world. Jefferson operated against the backdrop of American weakness: he wanted to assert American claims to trade in the Mediterranean against vastly more powerful European states who could, if they so desired, have crushed the United States in 1801. Jefferson was thrilled that British papers spoke highly of American naval ingenuity and that Lord Nelson called Decatur’s raid “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Obama has no such need to assert U.S. military power; indeed, this issue is an irritating distraction to more important problems in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, Jefferson was up against states, albeit weak ones. The “Barbary pirates” were technically not pirates but paramilitaries who pretty much did the bidding of a government. Counter-intuitively, this made negotiations more complex because other nations with bigger treasuries and navies than America’s were bargaining with the same people against him. The Somalis who seized Captain Phillips were indeed typical pirates: small gangs acting on their own looking for a quick buck—while subject to no real authority, they also do not have well-financed agents operating in European capitals against U.S. demands. A British saying of the period that Benjamin Franklin reported home claimed that “If there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.” For this reason Jefferson was the first American President to authorize “regime change” against a foreign government—Tripoli, in 1805, a move that has been immortalized in the Marine Hymn. In Jefferson’s day the idea that American trade could be crippled, if not strangled, in the Mediterranean was not fantasy. Today, no one seriously claims that Somali pirates will cut into U.S. GNP. Jefferson deployed a brand-new Navy that was untested in long deployments; today such efforts are routine. In 1803 Tripolitan attackers captured one of the most expensive and advanced warships in the American fleet—the Philadelphia—and Jefferson continued the fight. Could we imagine Somalis capturing one of our nuclear aircraft carriers, and what the reaction would be if they did? Another major difference is the manner in which operations are carried out—Jefferson, fearful of Congressional reproach, sent the Navy to the Mediterranean on his own authority and kept the war as secretive as possible. Obama, at least so far, has been public on the matter and the wide press coverage has worked to his advantage.

What to Do?

President Obama’s Monday speech about the “scourge of piracy” and his standing order to use force to free American captives was borrowed straight from the Jeffersonian playbook. Jefferson’s solution was to treat anti-piracy as maritime counter-insurgency: using relatively light assets in constant small engagements against attackers and moving the battle to inshore staging areas and land bases. His goal was, as he put it, “to cut them to pieces piecemeal.” Today, this would mean a more active U.S. presence on the Somali coast, possible intervention in the coastal towns, and committing naval assets to the area indefinitely. But again, Obama has the lighter burden: the navies of the world powers—including China—are all in league against these pirates, and the burden can be shared. Public opinion, of course, is another matter. John Adams told Jefferson that Americans “Will not endure” a long war against pirates. This, alas, remains as pressing for our 44th president as for our third.


James R. Sofka is Adjunct Faculty at the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville, VA, former Fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies and the author of the forthcoming “’A Commerce Which Must be Protected’: The International Policy of Thomas Jefferson, 1786-1809.” Those interested in reading a full account of his work on the Barbary War can find it in “The Jeffersonian Idea of National Security: Commerce, the Atlantic Balance of Power, and the Barbary War, 1786-1805.” Diplomatic History, volume 21, number 4, Fall 1997. It is accessible online. A shorter version presented at a recent conference is also available at

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