The Makings of History / 'Shores of Tripoli' Redux

America's first war in an Arab country - the Tripolitan War or First Barbary War - took place 200 years ago, and American textbooks say it was the first war outside the United States that ended in victory.

Joseph Israel was one of America's first war heroes. He served in the navy. One of the destroyers deployed in World War I bore his name, and at the naval academy in Annapolis, a memorial statue is dedicated to him. He was killed on September 4, 1804, in a battle aimed at destroying enemy ships.

Something about the fact that a person with a name like this participated in America's first war in an Arab country - the Tripolitan War or First Barbary War, as it is known - fires the imagination. American textbooks say it was the first war outside the United States that ended in victory.

gadhafi - Reuters - March 7 2011

The ruler of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, had demanded nearly a quarter of a million dollars from the United States in return for free passage for its trading ships. That was a huge amount of money, about 2.5 percent of the income of the federal treasury at the time, about $100 billion in today's terms. The Americans refused to pay, and Tripoli declared war. The Tripolitans took about 300 Americans captive and enslaved them. There was a new president at the helm then, Thomas Jefferson, who was acquainted with the problem from his days serving as the country's ambassador to Paris. The war was much bloodier than had been imagined in Washington, and both sides suffered defeats.

In the end, the United States paid $60,000 for the release of the captives, but its trading ships were still required to pay transit fees in Tripoli. The arrangement held for about 10 years, until the next war.

The decision to embark on the Tripoli war came amid debates reminiscent of those accompanying America's involvement in later wars. Arguments were raised about whether it was appropriate to redeem the American prisoners, some regarding the deal as a humiliating blow to national pride.

Libya has served as an arena for many wars since ancient times. Only a few remember the Americans' first war in Libya; the world remembers the British victory there instead. That was during World War II. The enemy was Field Marshall Erwin Rommel of the Nazi army. The British found it difficult to prevent the advance of his forces, and only at El Alamein in Egypt did they manage to rout them. Israel owes them thanks for this. Stopping the Germans at El Alamein saved the Jewish community in the land of Israel from possible mass slaughter, and made possible the establishment of the State of Israel.

This week it was reported that U.S. President Barack Obama is still weighing the possibility of military intervention in Libya. It is hard to fathom whether such intervention is meant to hasten the fall of Muammar Gadhafi or rescue his regime. In either case, as in the Tripolitan War, this time, too, the main consideration is economic: oil prices. In the meantime, Gadhafi is trying to depict himself as a partner to Western values: Toppling his regime, he warns, whether in all seriousness or with a wink, will lead to the rise of extremist Islam.

To the extent that Gadhafism exists - it has little to do with Western values. In this context, it's worth leafing through the "The Green Book" he published in 1975. In the first part of the book, which offers a "solution to the democratic problem," Gadhafi explains that the world is mistaken: Constitutions, parliaments, political parties, elections, referendums - all these are tools of tyrannical governments that violate human liberty.

It is a mistake to think democracy is manifested in the people's supervision of the government. True democracy is direct democracy: The people supervise the people. Only popular committees can express the people's true will. "The Green Book" does not make it clear how these popular committees will be chosen and how they are different from any other representative parliament. However, it does make clear that there are only two sources of legitimacy for the country's laws: tradition and religion.

The final chapter in this part of the book addresses the media and freedom of speech. These days there seems to be a great deal of interest in what Gadhafi has to say about an individual's right to express himself, even if that person is completely mad and his whole point is to prove his madness. In this context Gadhafi offers a consoling insight: "When a person, for instance, expresses himself in an irrational manner, that does not mean that the other persons of the society also are mad."