`Our country, right or wrong'

LAST Monday's US bombings of Libyan terrorist sites are reminiscent of the nation's early history with that part of the world. Relations with the so-called Barbary States of North Africa -- Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli -- began in controversy over issues not dissimilar from today's: provocation, terrorism, and piracy; leadership and national power in the Mediterranean; and, most of all, the defense of national honor. As a British colony, the United States saw the mother country begin the policy of paying tribute to the rulers of the Barbary nations, which claimed hegemony over the Mediterranean. In return, ``protection'' of British commerce would be assured. Pursuit of this protection from pirates encouraged or supported by the Barbary rulers became America's policy after the Revolution, on the ground that the paying of tribute would be less expensive than war.

Because the ante was continually increased, ransom for captured American seamen demanded, and the tribute system subject to humiliating ceremonies, the US eventually went to war against Tripoli in 1801, and also against Algiers. European nations continued to pay.

The Tripolitan War was replete with emotional incidents and heroes. Young Stephen Decatur of the schooner Enterprise captured a Tripolitan vessel that was renamed the Intrepid -- after its cargo of courageous US seamen.

Specifically, the Intrepid was appropriately disguised, placed under Decatur's command, and ordered to sail into Tripoli's harbor for the purpose of setting fire to a US frigate that had been captured earlier. Why this action against a US ship named the Philadelphia, especially since it had once been the flagship of Decatur's father? Honor appears to have been the major reason, as well as the fact that the Tripolitans were using the man-of-war against other US ships.

On the night of Feb. 16, 1804, the mission to set the Philadelphia afire was completed without loss of any American lives. Stephen Decatur was awarded a captain's commission. Later in the war he narrowly escaped death in a dramatic capture of two other enemy ships. Peace came in 1805.

After the War of 1812, Decatur again sailed for the Mediterranean, to suppress new piratical incursions. Exacting treaties in which tributes were renounced, captives returned, and indemnities paid to the US, Decatur returned home a hero. His appearance at a victory celebration in his honor in Norfolk, Va., in 1816, however, provided an enigmatic twist to what otherwise seemed a satisfactory conclusion to the Barbary Wars.

During the innumerable toasts of the festive occasion, Decatur contributed his own. ``Our country,'' he noted, ``in her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, but our country, right or wrong.''

Unfortunately, Decatur's letters and other sources shed little light on the deeper meaning of his words. But Americans at the time were in no mood for questioning either Decatur or the ultimate outcome. They delighted in their military and diplomatic course, honored their heroes, and for a time did exactly what diplomat John Jay had prophesied years earlier when he wrote that a war with the Barbary nations ``does not strike me as a great evil. The more we are ill-treated abroad the more we shall unite and consolidate at home.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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