Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Jefferson's War

I couldn't find any portraits of him with Sally Hemings... 

Like the rest of the world, I watched the Arab spring unfold in awe.  Most recently that awe has been centered on Libya. A lot of pundits have pointed out that it is oddly fitting that it is in Libya – the place where the Stars and Strips flew for the first time in battle on foreign soil – that the United States has taken its first stumbling steps in reevaluating the way we intervene abroad.  I count myself among the chorus who were very happy to see the U.S. relinquish the driver’s seat to our European allies.  But, when the “rebels” entered Tripoli on August 21st, this was not at the forefront of my mind; I was thinking of Thomas Jefferson. 

Thomas Jefferson was President at the time fo the U.S.`s first foray into Libya during the first Barbary War in 1805 (the word “Barbary” stems from the Berber population of North Africa and also, probably, from the not so subtle similarity in English to the word “barbarism”).  At Marine boot camp every young recruit learns the story of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon raising the American flag over Derna (in what is modern day Libya) during one of the crucial battles of the first Barbary conflict. The part of the Barbary adventure that most Marines are chiefly concerned with is the presentation of the Mamulke sword to Lieutenant O’Bannon by the Viceroy of the Ottoman Empire as a testament to his (and the nascent United States Marine Corps’) valor in battle.  Marines (me included) love the story of O’Bannon leading a ragtag band of leathernecks to victory on a foreign shore and the modern Marine Corps officers’ sword is modeled on the Mamulke blade. 

In Marine Corps boot camp you learn the organization’s history similar to the way you memorize the effective range of the M-16 A2 assault rifle: without the burden of too much context.  So, while the Barbary War is immortalized in the first line of the Marine Corps hymn (“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”), at boot camp I didn’t consciously make any connection between Libya and the U.S.’s first intervention abroad.  What can I say?  I was a kid.  While the military is one of the few institutions in American society where 17, 18 and 19 year olds are expected to conduct themselves as adults, a teenager is still just a teenager and I was probably less mature than most. 

A few years after boot camp I attended the “Corporals’ Leadership Course.”  One of the exercises in the course was the presentation of a small research paper to our peers.  The subject I drew was the Marine Corps’ involvement in the Barbary Wars.  I was psyched and approached the project with gusto.  Probably a little too much gusto; I exceeded the allotted time limit by more than 15 minutes and ended up getting a pretty low mark.  I spent the majority of my outsized presentation pointing out the very executive nature of the Barbary conflict. 

Thomas Jefferson was freshly inaugurated as president when he requested permission from the congress for authority to deal with the Barbary pirates with “all the hostility as a state of war will justify.”  Congress granted this authority, but it never formally declared war on the Barbary States.  To a large extent, Jefferson’s actions in 1805 set the stage for the way the executive office has approached conflict abroad since.  That is to say without too much congressional oversight.  I was at the “Corporals’ Leadership Course” in 1999, so in my presentation I compared the broad executive authority exercised by Jefferson during the First Barbary War with Clinton’s disregard for the War Powers Resolution in the Kosovo conflict.  Ironically, in the early days of the most recent Libyan campaign Obama drew similar ire for supposedly ignoring the same (possibility unconstitutional) resolution.

Interesting.  But, this isn`t the only part of Jefferson`s legacy that is wrapped up in Libya.  As the drafter of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson helped established the modern concept of human rights: 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.  That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.   

In1859, Abraham Lincoln put it thus:

All honor to Jefferson: to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.         

This “abstract truth“ is the modern notion of human rights and one can draw a line directly from the American Declaration of Independence to the modern concept of  “Responsibility to Protect,” which got its first real test in Libya this year.  I dislike the acronym “R2P” (it sounds like a droid in Star Wars), but it’s so ubiquitous nowadays that there’s no point fighting it.  R2P contends that state sovereignty does not just entail rights, but also responsibilities.  When states fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, than other states have the responsibility to protect those populations by, if necessary, armed intervention.  In a statement that would have made Jefferson proud, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described R2P as follows: 

Sovereignty should no longer be seen as a privilege but as a very heavy responsibility.  Every State has to protect its people: it is only when States respect fundamental human rights and uphold the dignity and worth of each person, that sovereignty will be recognized as credible and legitimate.


The UN adopted the principle at the 2005 World Summit and (crucially) the UN Security Council affirmed its support for the international norm in 2006.  In January 2009 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued, “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect,” which outlined the principles of R2P.  R2P takes its cue more from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a direct descendant of the American Declaration of Independence), than the UN charter, which solely addresses state-centric security issues: 

Nothing contained in the present charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. (Article 2, Part 7).   

The Libya case once again demonstrates that many of the threats to international security today do not stem from inter-state rivalry, but rather from deteriorating conditions within states.  The concept of R2P is still dangerously elastic.  Hopefully Libya will prove a stepping-stone for further formalization of R2P and eventually lead to a much-needed rewrite of the entire UN charter (as the Russians say, “hope dies last“).   

I`m constantly being accused of looking at the world through “American tinted glasses.“  It`s a charge that I don`t go to a lot of trouble to deny.  Maybe this post is further evidence of some truth to the accusation.  But, so many of his legacies are wrapped up in Libya that it’s the first thing that popped into my head when I watched the footage of the rebels entering Tripoli: Jefferson’s war.  It’s not just that he dug black chicks that makes him my favorite president.