- - Friday, November 6, 2015


We now know that President Obama was very wrong when he called ISIS “the JV team” of Islamic extremist terror groups. It would be more accurate to describe it as a deadlier version of Al Qaeda. Or, even more accurately, as the latest incarnation of a problem we’ve faced since our earliest days of independence.

Few Americans realize that our troubles with Islamic extremism began in 1785, before the Constitution was even adopted. Or that our first few presidents struggled to respond to enemies who believed that their religion justifies the killing of non-Muslims.

Even before George Washington became our first president, our nation had its first enemies: the North African Barbary States of Tunis, Algiers, Morocco, and Tripoli, which terrorized the crucial trade routes of the Mediterranean Sea. When the U.S. won its independence from Great Britain, the downside was losing the protection of the world’s dominant naval power. Pirates from the Barbary States felt emboldened to attack America’s merchant ships, plundering our cargo and enslaving our sailors.

Horrified by the inhumane treatment of our captured citizens and the serious threat to our economy, America’s two greatest diplomats, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, attempted to negotiate with an ambassador from Tripoli in March 1786. The response was shocking. Rather than accept a reasonable deal, the ambassador cited the Quran to justify his country’s acts of piracy. “All nations who do not acknowledge the Prophet are sinners whom it is the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.”

Jefferson had read the Quran and didn’t think this sentiment was part of Islam’s holy book. But he couldn’t budge the ambassador, who demanded large random and tribute payments. Otherwise, no American ship or sailor would be safe near the Barbary Coast. Without a Navy and in desperate need of Mediterranean trade to grow our economy, the U.S. government agreed to pay ongoing tributes.

Jefferson had protested this decision, but Adams had won by arguing that “We ought not to fight them unless we are determined to fight them forever.” Jefferson didn’t want war either, but he assumed that the price of free passage would only increase with time, and the attacks would resume. He turned out to be absolutely right. By the end of President Washington’s second term, the U.S. was paying twenty percent of its federal budget as protection money to the Barbary States.

Washington had commissioned the building of our earliest Navy warships so that future leaders would have the option to fight foreign enemies. But his successor, Adams, refused to use the Navy to secure the Mediterranean. By the time Jefferson became president in 1801, the situation had worsened to a crisis, with the demands for tribute far exceeding what the U.S. could afford.

Jefferson attempted to blockade the Barbary powers, and then escalated to war – bombardment by the Navy’s warships and a land campaign spearheaded by the recently founded Marine Corps. Jefferson’s show of strength brought our foes to their knees, before President James Madison finally finished off the threat a few years later.

Today the Barbary Wars are mostly forgotten, except for a famous lyric in the Marine Corps hymn: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.” But we should all remember what happened when a brave president decided to stand up to threats and blackmail.

Like President Obama, Thomas Jefferson believed in diplomacy and sanctions. But he understood that some enemies will only respond to swift and decisive military force. The challenges we face today are not so different from those he faced more than two centuries ago. Without decisive action, the threat of Islamic extremism – from ISIS as well as other groups and nations – will continue to worsen.

Time is running out, Mr. President. Don’t leave a ticking time bomb for the next man or woman who will hold your office.

Brian Kilmeade is the author (with Don Yaeger) of “Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History”. He cohosts Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends and hosts the national radio show Kilmeade & Friends.

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