A little more than 200 years ago, a bombastic U.S. agent named William Eaton (today he would be special op) led a handful of U.S. Marines, several hundred foreign mercenaries scraped from the taverns and brothels of Alexandria, and a pack of hired bedouins in a march across a desert that hadn't been crossed in force since classical times. They captured Tripoli's second largest city, then defended it against counter-attack, and in the end they had won a tremendous victory.
Eaton went there with a purpose. The tyrant of Tripoli had captured a U.S. warship and enslaved its 300 sailors. When some of them died in captivity, the Bashaw Yussef threw their bodies to the dogs in the street. The Jefferson administration wanted the survivors freed. America in those days knew what "honor" meant.
The administration approved Eaton's mission, as part of a multi-pronged effort, but it didn't expect it to succeed. Until then, the only thing the U.S. Marines had going for them was a Washington, D.C., marching band which the citizens loved but the violin-playing Jefferson despised. Instead, he trusted the wily diplomats, who played the game the European way. Headlines in the administration mouthpiece newspaper blared "Millions for Defense but not a Cent for Tribute," but secretly Jefferson authorized ransom for the sailors.
So with a rival for the Tripoli throne, Hamet Bashaw, in tow, Eaton and his rag-tag army surprised everyone, Jefferson included, and conquered the city of Derne. It provided a line for the Marine song every boy used to know:
From the halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli
We will fight our country's battles
on the land as on the sea.
First to fight for right and freedom ...
And so on. It also provided the curved Memeluke sword on the Marine dress uniform that still commemorates what was, no matter what else, a glorious and honorable victory.
But the Marines' victory, when it came, was almost an embarrassment to the administration The diplomats were working things out smoothly with the tyrant, agreeing in principle, haggling over prices. They made sure Eaton and his followers never had a chance to upset their work. The administration not only paid ransom, it accepted a treaty with a clause that set a going ransom rate for U.S. prisoners, thus encouraging the pirates to try to take more of them.
Worst of all, it sold out every honest ally the U.S. had in Libya. All the North Africans and Bedouins who had cast their lot with the Americans, all the residents of Derne who had helped the Americans defend it, the Arab women who had slipped between the lines and warned Eaton of their enemies' plots and plans, were left to their fate. Everyone knew the town would be looted and the inhabitants massacred when the Americans left. Eaton wrote from Derne to a friend describing his feelings when he read the diplomatic order to withdraw the American forces and the details of the deal that had been cut:
You would weep, Sir, were you on the spot, to witness the unfounded confidence placed in the American character here, and to reflect that this confidence must shortly sink into contempt and immortal hatred; ... but if no further aid comes to our assistance and we are compelled to leave the place under its actual circumstances, humanity itself must weep: The whole city of Derne, together with numerous families of Arabs who attached themselves to Hamet Bashaw and who resisted Yussef's troops in expectation of succour from us, must be abandoned to their fate -- havoc & slaughter will be the inevitable consequence -- not a soul of them can escape the savage vengeance of the enemy.
A pusillanimous political class, an attention-deficit public, an inept administration, and a malice-blinded media all seem to drift toward a premature American exit from Iraq.
The good people of Iraq will have to stand and face the bad people of Iraq and many other lands, on their own. It always was going to have to be them who won this war, not us. We went to Iraq to lose -- to be told to go home. It was the only way to make the place what we wanted it to be: A strong, free, prosperous, and law-abiding country ruled transparently by its people. The question was, whether we would stay long enough to help build that country and receive its orders to depart, or whether it would be jihadis and thugs who would force us to leave too soon.
It seems clear now that we don't have the will to continue this war. There will be consequences. The Kurds will feel them. But so will we. Weakness displayed before a weaker enemy is an invitation to further disaster. Just read Bin Laden.
Whatever the good, hard work being accomplished by our people in the country, there's nothing left here at home but the egos. Whatever the hopes and prospects once were for helping Iraq up on its feet as a strong and functioning democracy, we have broadcast to the world that we are not going to stick around long enough to do it. And no one else wants the job.
The people who ought to have supported and promoted this effort failed. That would include me. The people who worked from the beginning to defeat it won. And they seem to have convinced themselves they have no idea of the hell about to be unleashed.
I see the posters and stickers at the rallies. They're jarringly unreal. "Stop the war?" The real war begins after we leave. "Too many dead?" U.S. casualties over four years amount to a bad afternoon in 1944. The real threat begins after the enemy knows he's chased us out. No port, no off-base tavern, will be safe. "Deaths of innocents?" You've seen nothing yet.
They seem to think, on some unexpressed level, that the American failure they proclaim and support will simply re-set the clock to 2002.
In the limits of my experience, for most of the anti-war crowd this war always has been principally a domestic political issue. Concepts of national sovereignty, international rule of law, anti-imperialism served them as argument window dressing, but not consistently or sincerely (and in fact often in blatant contradiction to other stated goals of such people).
Once the last U.S. National Guard private has boarded the last flight out of Iraq, as I read these anti-war folks, America will enter a period of national self-mortification, humbled and humiliated, doing penance before a wiser world. They actually seem to think this is a good thing and anticipate it with some pleasure. Expect the next American U.N. ambassador to stand up and deliver a lengthy and formal apology to that august body.
And, as I think a great many people now perceive it, even after the war ends it will continue to function as a domestic issue chiefly: A cage to contain the new leaders' rivals. The memory of it will be like a family story that can be retold at any convenient moment to embarrass and check old stupid dad. "Remember that time you thought it would be a good idea to liberate Iraq? Oh, yes you do. Don't listen to anything he says; he's a fool."
One-time rah-rah war supporters are now sullenly silent. But there's still work that needs to be done, and there's no one but us to try to do it. Prepare for the catastrophe that will come with the defeat our anti-war leaders have invited into the house. Prepare for the new, ugly global realities that these people seem not to realize we'll face, instead of the pacifist utopia they dream.
I can think of many rear-guard fights that must be fought, and future calamities that ought to be anticipated. I know which one I intend to concentrate on: Let's try not to leave our friends behind to burn in the furnace of the enemy's victory celebration. This is where I'm going to choose to devote my energies as the expedition to liberate Iraq implodes.
The last remaining neo-cons must rouse themselves out of the funk of failure and take responsibility for what they own, and for what no one else will do. The Iraqis who took our offer to help them build a better future -- they are our responsibility. Everyone else wants to walk away from them, forget about them, let them disappear into the night of the long knives. They are inconvenient facts about to be ground like hamburger in the anti-imperialist narrative, which will be the story indoctrinated into our children about this war, as it was for me about Vietnam.
The Iraqis who shared our vision of their nation are about to be killed, with their families, and then forgotten. We know this, if no one else does. We care, if no one else does.
Let's work to get them out alive. Even if nobody ever gets credit for it, even if it does nothing to stave off the coming American grovel and the resultant repercussions for what's left that calls itself "the West." Even if it boosts the fortunes of our domestic political rivals by allowing them to have a relatively bloodless victory. Forget them; they will make their own hell. Do what is right. Do what you're responsible for doing.
I am thinking of the Iraqi interpreters who helped us. And the political leaders of secular or minority parties. And the Iraqi women who stood up for their rights. And the communists (I never said you were going to like all these people). The writers, the intellectuals, the doctors. Employees who worked for the allied agencies or contracted companies, down to the last secretary in the pool.
Get them out, with their families. Settle them here, or in some other safe place of their choosing. Australia, perhaps, or Kurdistan. Give them the freedom and security elsewhere that we promised them, and failed to give them, in their homes.
The administration hitherto has been reluctant to open the national doors to Iraqi refugees. As long as the White House was committed to succeeding in Iraq -- or at least to giving off the public impression of such commitment -- enabling the best and most useful citizens of Iraq to flee the country would have been counter-productive both politically and practically.
That time has passed. And so it's time to change the policy. And it's up to us to start pushing for it. Write to your congressman, and to people in power likely to have the skill and will to effect such changes. And keep writing. Keep calling. Keep up the pressure. Let's get some bills started. If that fails, set up private funds. Work with the people you know in the military, who will know best who over there needs a ride out. Find any allies and work with them; even if they're the loathsome types who likely will hold power here in a few years.
There is some practical virtue, after all, even in neo-isolationist realpolitik or sap-headed transnationalism, of being true to your friends.
The Britain of that time, newly confirmed as the world's great superpower by virtue of its naval might, offers the more interesting parallel to modern America.
The Barbary Coast ran 1,500 miles from the African side of the Straits of Gibraltar to the Gulf of Sirte in Libya. The rulers of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli nominally paid allegiance to the Ottoman sultan, but they were practically independent. Safe in their well-fortified port cities, with fundamentalist Islam as their guide and pretext, they sallied out into the sea and kidnapped Christians from Italy, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, as well as anyone they could take from any ship they could catch in the Mediterranean, including northern Europeans and Americans.
At one time, Algiers alone held as many as 25,000 white Christians as slaves. Wealthy captives usually could be ransomed. Others were enslaved, or held in chains, or tortured till they converted to Islam. Women who could not raise a ransom sometimes were raped and usually were married off to locals or sent to harems as concubines, after being fattened up.
The British Navy was incensed. In part, this was personal -- seamen were frequent victims of the corsairs. But in part it was awareness of the role a superpower ought to play in the world. The British military men knew they had the ability to destroy these impudent slave-states, but their government lacked the will.
Who held power in this government? Liberal evangelicals -- the two words were as firmly linked in that time and place as "conservative" and "fundamentalist" are in this. The mix of liberalism and Christianity was a potent force that accomplished much good in the world. But the liberal evangelicals exhibited an early example -- perhaps the earliest I've seen -- of a quality that has weakened their successors on so many occasions: I call it the altruistic double standard.
Though William Wilberforce and the other liberal evangelical MPs campaigned ceaselessly to abolish the slave trade, they meant by that only the enslavement of blacks by whites. They exhibited a sort of inverted Darwinism -- doubly perverse -- and took no interest in Christian slavery that had for its targets people most like themselves.
Some British citizens pleaded with the government to stamp out the Barbary Coast pirates. Admiral Nelson wrote in 1799: "My blood boils that I cannot chastise these pirates. They could not show themselves in the Mediterranean did not our country permit. Never let us talk about the cruelty of the African slave-trade while we permit such a horrid war." But the government took no interest.
That's where the Americans came in. The young country was not yet powerful enough to tackle the problem on its own, but its aggressive approach aroused the British government by shame and example. With the exception of Jefferson's under-the-table deal, America consistently refused to ransome captives with money and munitions, as the Europeans often did. This is the source of Jefferson's oft-quoted rhetorical line in the sand, much better known at the time than his secret double-dealing.
After 1803, Washington and the Barbary states were at war, in effect. U.S. forces usually won the direct battles and forced the Muslim rulers to sign treaties which they promptly broke as soon as the American ships sailed out of sight.
In 1815, after making peace with Britain, America began sending expeditions to the Barbary Coast again, forcing the rulers to hand over American slaves (and Europeans sometimes) and pay fines.
The British finally were roused to action by this example and the shame it cast on them. On an August afternoon in 1816, the British Navy broke the power of Algiers, sank almost its entire fleet, killed up to 8,000 soldiers and civilians, and damaged or destroyed every building in the city.
The punishment didn't entirely end the depredations, however. Only the French invasion and colonization of Algeria a generation later did that.