We Must Not Fear the Tyrants of Tripoli

The favored excuse for President Obama's inaction on Libya is that there were hundreds of Americans stranded on a ferry in Tripoli for several days, waiting for weather conditions to improve before they could leave for Malta. Apparently, President Obama was concerned that any action by the United States -- even direct verbal criticism of dictator Muammar Gaddafi -- could provoke him to take Americans hostage, or worse.

Was that really the reason? If so, there is no better illustration of how President Obama's foreign policy is weakening America. Never mind whether we can -- or should -- use our military to affect events in Libya or anywhere else in the Middle East. Put aside the tortured question of whether we ought to promote our democratic principles abroad. What is at stake is more fundamental: our ability to protect American citizens from harm.

This is not the first time Americans have been threatened by a tyrant from Tripoli. In the early days of our republic, pirates controlled by Tripoli and other Barbary Coast states attacked U.S. ships and kidnapped American sailors. When President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay tribute, Tripoli declared war in 1801. Jefferson asked for, and received, Congress's authority to use the new U.S. Navy to protect American shipping and lives.

In 1803, the USS Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli harbor. The entire crew was taken hostage, and the ship -- still in the harbor -- was turned into a formidable w eapon against American patrols. Instead of caving to Tripoli's demands, the U.S. sent the Marines on a daring mission into Tripoli harbor. Dressed in local garb and speaking Arabic to trick Tripoli's guards, the Marines boarded the Philadelphia, destroyed it, and escaped.

The First Barbary War ended after American ground troops captured the city of Derna in 1805, which had been controlled by Tripoli. The ruler of Tripoli gave in to Jefferson's demands, and freed his U.S. prisoners. The victory is marked by the Tripoli Monument at the U.S. Naval Academy, the oldest U.S. military monument. It reminds us of the purpose for which our military was created: to protect Americans at home and abroad.

Today the Obama administration trembles at the very thought that Americans might be taken hostage by Tripoli -- a fear that handed Gaddafi effective veto power over U.S. foreign policy. While the White House wrung its hands, Britain executed a daring military rescue of 150 British civilians, who were airlifted from the Libyan desert. It was an operation that redounded to the glory of Britain and to the disgrace of Washington.

The idea that America ought to fear the reaction of an embattled dictator is so feeble, and so contrary to 200 years of U.S. military tradition, that one wonders whether Obama believes it. Perhaps his political advisers, fearing a Carter-like hostage crisis (just as they hope to trap the GOP in a Clinton-era government shutdown), made a calculation that the political cost of provoking Gaddafi was not worth the benefit of toppling him.

Or perhaps the Obama administration really does believe its halting, self-contradictory policy toward the Arab uprisings is working -- that it got Egypt "about right," as Obama said in his Feb. 15 press conference, and that voting "present" in other crises ought to work as well. Liberal pundits like Peter Beinart are praising American inaction, declaring that "waiting on events" is better than "trying to remake the Middle East at gunpoint."

But in Tripoli, the issue is not remaking the Middle East -- it is protecting Americans, as well as the civilians being slaughtered by a madman we have the power to stop. President Obama refuses to accept that responsibility. His initial response to Libya and other crises has been to decry "violence" in the abstract, as if tyrants like Gaddafi and their terrorized people were equally guilty of using force to achieve their political aims.

Obama has long been ambivalent about American leadership in the world -- a doubt reflected during the Arab upheavals by his repeated references to universal human rights, rather than American values of freedom. Yet when we have the power to protect our citizens, we cannot be ambivalent about using it. That is why we have a military in the first place: so that the tyrants of Tripoli will fear us, not the other way around.

Joel Pollak was the GOP nominee for U.S. Congress in Illinois's 9th district in 2010.
The favored excuse for President Obama's inaction on Libya is that there were hundreds of Americans stranded on a ferry in Tripoli for several days, waiting for weather conditions to improve before they could leave for Malta. Apparently, President Obama was concerned that any action by the United States -- even direct verbal criticism of dictator Muammar Gaddafi -- could provoke him to take Americans hostage, or worse.

Was that really the reason? If so, there is no better illustration of how President Obama's foreign policy is weakening America. Never mind whether we can -- or should -- use our military to affect events in Libya or anywhere else in the Middle East. Put aside the tortured question of whether we ought to promote our democratic principles abroad. What is at stake is more fundamental: our ability to protect American citizens from harm.

This is not the first time Americans have been threatened by a tyrant from Tripoli. In the early days of our republic, pirates controlled by Tripoli and other Barbary Coast states attacked U.S. ships and kidnapped American sailors. When President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay tribute, Tripoli declared war in 1801. Jefferson asked for, and received, Congress's authority to use the new U.S. Navy to protect American shipping and lives.

In 1803, the USS Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli harbor. The entire crew was taken hostage, and the ship -- still in the harbor -- was turned into a formidable w eapon against American patrols. Instead of caving to Tripoli's demands, the U.S. sent the Marines on a daring mission into Tripoli harbor. Dressed in local garb and speaking Arabic to trick Tripoli's guards, the Marines boarded the Philadelphia, destroyed it, and escaped.

The First Barbary War ended after American ground troops captured the city of Derna in 1805, which had been controlled by Tripoli. The ruler of Tripoli gave in to Jefferson's demands, and freed his U.S. prisoners. The victory is marked by the Tripoli Monument at the U.S. Naval Academy, the oldest U.S. military monument. It reminds us of the purpose for which our military was created: to protect Americans at home and abroad.

Today the Obama administration trembles at the very thought that Americans might be taken hostage by Tripoli -- a fear that handed Gaddafi effective veto power over U.S. foreign policy. While the White House wrung its hands, Britain executed a daring military rescue of 150 British civilians, who were airlifted from the Libyan desert. It was an operation that redounded to the glory of Britain and to the disgrace of Washington.

The idea that America ought to fear the reaction of an embattled dictator is so feeble, and so contrary to 200 years of U.S. military tradition, that one wonders whether Obama believes it. Perhaps his political advisers, fearing a Carter-like hostage crisis (just as they hope to trap the GOP in a Clinton-era government shutdown), made a calculation that the political cost of provoking Gaddafi was not worth the benefit of toppling him.

Or perhaps the Obama administration really does believe its halting, self-contradictory policy toward the Arab uprisings is working -- that it got Egypt "about right," as Obama said in his Feb. 15 press conference, and that voting "present" in other crises ought to work as well. Liberal pundits like Peter Beinart are praising American inaction, declaring that "waiting on events" is better than "trying to remake the Middle East at gunpoint."

But in Tripoli, the issue is not remaking the Middle East -- it is protecting Americans, as well as the civilians being slaughtered by a madman we have the power to stop. President Obama refuses to accept that responsibility. His initial response to Libya and other crises has been to decry "violence" in the abstract, as if tyrants like Gaddafi and their terrorized people were equally guilty of using force to achieve their political aims.

Obama has long been ambivalent about American leadership in the world -- a doubt reflected during the Arab upheavals by his repeated references to universal human rights, rather than American values of freedom. Yet when we have the power to protect our citizens, we cannot be ambivalent about using it. That is why we have a military in the first place: so that the tyrants of Tripoli will fear us, not the other way around.

Joel Pollak was the GOP nominee for U.S. Congress in Illinois's 9th district in 2010.