Home Essays The Tripolitan War through the 2011-U.S. Intervention in Libya

The Tripolitan War through the 2011-U.S. Intervention in Libya

By Othman Ouaarab

Casablanca – As the end of the eighteenth century approached, the region of North Africa, known as the Barbary States at that time, was undergoing many changes. The key word that is associated with this period is piracy. The term Barbary was derived from the Berber-speaking people who originally inhabited the region. The Barbary States refer to president-day Morocco, Algiers, Tunisia (then Tunis) and Libya (then Tripoli). The economy of these Barbary States was based on piracy, tributes paid by the countries whose ships were captured off the Mediterranean coasts and ransom for the crews of those ships.

The Mediterranean region served as a battleground for many centuries. In 1551, the Ottoman Empire stretched its rule to North Africa. Piracy existed in the region centuries before the arrival of the Turks. A pirate of note was Khair Ed-ddine, once an admiral in the Turkish fleet, was one of the prominent pirates at the time; he was nicknamed Barbarossa. With his aid the Ottomans took over Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli and appointed governors in each state; the Dey in Algiers, the Bey in Tunis, and the Basha in Tripoli. Earlier, in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain took over Granada and expelled the Moors heading to North Africa. Some of them joined the pirates, both to earn their living and to take revenge on their Spanish oppressors.

Also, the Mediterranean area was strategically important to trade for centuries, especially European. This trade was characterized by the vast number of merchant ships from all over Europe. The pirates took advantage of this prolific trading by capturing merchant vessels and extorting money from their European owners. Many of these owners had no choice but to relent to the pirate’s demands and aggressions. Although the French attempted to put an end to this barbaric practice, ultimately they failed because the Barbary States were heavily fortified. In addition, the rivalry among the European countries prevented them from combining their efforts against the Barbary States; therefore, they signed treaties with these states. These treaties contained terms for the amounts of money and presents to be delivered annually to provide peace within the region and for the trade routes.

In 1775, the U.S took its independence from Great Britain. Soon after the latter recognized the independence of America, the American ships were no longer under the protection of Great Britain in the Mediterranean. Thereafter, the American ships were exposed to the danger and malice of the pirates.

As a new nation, the United States was seeking recognition from European countries of its independence. Morocco was the first country to recognize the sovereignty of the U.S. The emperor of Morocco, Mohamed Bin Abdellah, tried in vain to persuade the Americans to enter into a treaty of peace and friendship. It was not until the Moroccans, under the order of the Sultan, captured the American ship, the Betsey, that the Americans started to consider the offer of the Emperor of Morocco. With pressure from the Emperor, the Americans relented and entered into an agreement allowing their ships to sail safely within the waters of Morocco; as did ships from European countries with which Morocco was at peace.

Following the capture of the Betsey, Algiers, in 1785, seized two American ships; the Dauphin and the Maria. Faced with severe economic problems, the U.S could not afford the ransom the Dey of Algiers demanded to conclude the peace treaty. It is worthy to note, that during the 1780’s, the U.S Congress, operating under the Articles of Confederation, and without a president, could afford ill afford these types of payments. However, with the adoption of The Constitution in 1790, the country’s financial status improved. The United States then started building its own navy as a safeguard against the European powers.

By the end of the year 1796, the U.S. had entered into peace agreements with all the Barbary States. And, in following the example of the Europeans, established their own consuls in the states of North Africa. As a newly independent nation, the U.S engaged in the Quasi-War with France from 1798, until 1800. Luckily, for the U.S., the frigates the Congress authorized were just launched and used against the French. The U.S, however, walked out of this war exhausted, especially financially, and found it difficult to meet its promised demands for the Barbary States. Thomas Jefferson, the president of the U.S., preferred to meet the pirates with force and preserve the “nation’s honor” rather than succumb to their “humiliations.” At this time, the Basha of Tripoli, Yusef Qaramanli, started urging America to fulfill its promises. This issue led to what is known as the Tripolitan War.

Tripolitan War

Tripolitania, inArabic ?ar?bulus, is the region that now comprises the north-western part of Libya. In the seventh century BC, the Phoenicians established three colonies in the region: Labqi (Leptis Magna, modern Labdah), Oea (Tripoli) and Sabratha (?abr?tah). These colonies then collectively took the late Roman name Tripolitania (“Three Cities”). It was invaded by various civilizations: the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantine Greeks, the Arabs, the Spaniards, the Turks and the Qaramanli dynasty in 1711, under the sovereignty of the Ottomans (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Ahmad Qaramanli solidified his position as the Basha of Tripoli and established a hereditary rule. In 1793, Tripoli embroiled in a civil war, where the youngest son, Yusef Qaramanli, of the ruler Ali Qaramanli, expressed his yearning for power. Three years earlier, in 1790, Yusef assassinated his older brother Hassan Qaramanli. The Ottomans took advantage of these circumstances and recaptured Tripoli. The Basha and his son, Ahmad Qaramanli, sought refuge in Tunis, while Yusef remained in Tripoli. The Basha and Ahmad led a Tripolitan-Tunisian army and restored the throne by 1795. Few months later, in the same year, Yusef deposed his brother, Ahmad, who assumed the throne after the expulsion of Ali.

The writing and interpretation of this history is replete with problems and moreover, its rewriting or revisiting is even more problematic. The Tripolitan War (1801-1805), is a prime example of this issue. There are at least two versions for this story. The first, the American version, although there are versions within the same version, maintains that the cause of this war was the Basha of Tripoli, Yusef Qaramanli. However, the second version, Kola Folayan’s version, which is dealt with here, attributes the war to the Americans.

When Yusef Basha signed the treaty with the U.S in 1796, he insisted, beside the tributes, that the U.S send its consul to Tripoli. The treaty was negotiated with the assistance of the Dey of Algiers, to whom they both agreed to refer in the event of future disputes. The Adams’ administration thought that Tripoli was subordinate to Algiers. However, Yusef Basha considered the Dey of Algiers, nothing more than a mediator.

Due to a harsh weather, the American consul, James Leander Cathcart, did not arrive in Tripoli until 1799. Yusef Basha complained about the delay of the tributes agreed upon and he threatened that he would declare a war on the U.S.

In 1800, the Quasi-War between the U.S. and France was ended. A year later, Thomas Jefferson assumed office. The Congress decided to sell most of their frigates and ships. Jefferson found himself facing a dilemma. He was for using force against the pirates, but he had some reservations concerning the navy. Another problem he had at the time, was coping with his rivals. They were accusing him of cowardice, as it was the Congress which had the right to declare war.

Despite all these issues, Jefferson sent the first squadron of ships to the Mediterranean, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale, with the instructions to protect American commerce. No sooner had Dale reached Gibraltar, than he found the Tripolitan navy already there. Yusef Basha had already declared war on the U.S. on May 14, 1801. For a year, Dale succeeded in his blockade of Tripoli and in 1802, he returned home.

On February 6, 1802, the Congress authorized Jefferson to use force against the pirates. He, therefore, sent another squadron. Although the squadron was stronger than the first, it proved to be an utter failure, owing to Captain Richard Valentine Morris’s bad conduct.

By the year 1803, the U.S. navy grew in strength. This hardening was due to their unprecedented ship and gunboat designs. Jefferson now needed a highly qualified commander for the third squadron. His choice was Captain Edward Preble. Under the command of Captain Preble, many accomplishments were achieved. He blockaded and heavily bombarded Tripoli. He was simply the hero of the Americans and a grand teacher. He taught the officers, known as “Preble’s boys,” under his authority, how to fight. They were the heroes of the War of 1812, and put an end to the Barbary pirates. Yet, his operations were handicapped by the capture of one of their best ships which ran aground, the Philadelphia. Realizing that its recovery was impossible, Preble ordered Stephen Decatur, in 1804, to burn it.

When the news of the Philadelphia reached out to the U.S., Jefferson assigned a fourth squadron of ships to Captain Samuel Barron, who was as successful as Morris. After all of these naval operations, the U.S. opted for a more diplomatic way to achieve its goals. The former U.S. consul to Tunis, William Eaton, and Yusef’s brother, Ahmad Qaramanli, formed an army of mercenaries, with a few marines, and marched from Egypt to Derne, which they seized in 1805.

Yusef Basha now felt threatened and signed a treaty which was favorable to the U.S. Eaton, waiting for more supplies from the U.S. army, so that he could capture Tripoli, received an order of evacuation instead. Hence, the peace treaty was concluded with Tripoli, and the U.S. was the victor of the war. This is, more or less, the American version of the Tripolitan War.

The Nigerian, Kola Folayan (1972), however, offers another version of these events. His analysis of the war was based upon the viewpoint of Tripoli, rather than that of America. For him, it is not only that America failed in its naval operations against Tripoli, but the success of the Tripolitan defense was achieved thanks to four main factors.

Firstly, Tripoli was morally and materially supported by the Barbary States of Morocco, Algiers and Tunis, as ‘brothers in faith’. Beside Tripoli, the three states agreed that the U.S. paid little or no regard to its commitments to them. Secondly, Tripoli was the exporter of the slaves to these states and the importer of their grain, among other provisions. This commercial chain, among these states, was threatened by America. In order to preserve their economy, they had to act against the U.S. Thirdly, the European policies towards the commercial links with Tripoli, helped the latter in its cause. Tripoli’s trade with Malta was immune from the American attack due to these policies. This trade helped the Basha to support his army and bolster his economy, which would otherwise go bankrupt. The final factor that contributed to the Tripolitan success, was the navy of Tripoli itself. On the one hand, it “made mockery of the American blockade,” and resisted the heavy bombardments on Tripoli, due to its officers’ dedication. On the other hand, since its establishment, it raised funds for the Basha and prevented starvation during the war, which would have led to surrender.

Folayan concludes by stating the significance of the outcome of this war. First, Tripoli had emerged as an international power in the Barbary coasts. Second, the Basha preserved his reign and dynasty. And lastly, Tripoli avoided a political coup, which threatened its independence, and which would have made room for an early American establishment in North Africa, before France imperialism.

The U.S intervention in Libya (2011)

In February, 2011, people began protesting against the Libyan regime which answered by the use of force. On February 15, 2011, Qaddafi arrested the human rights lawyer, Fathi Terbil Salwa, and the novelist, Idriss al-Mesmari. This incident incited even more protesters raise their voices against the regime. By February 20, 2011, Human Rights Watch announced that 233 people were dead; the number, however, is not accurate (Prashad, 2012). Most of the dead were from Benghazi, which was seized by the rebels on the same day. The Libyans formed the National Transitional Council (NTC) on February 27. With the situation in Libya worsening, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973, on March 17, in support of that which is referred to as R2P – “responsibility to protect.” This resolution allowed member states to take “all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas.” Resolution 1973’s establishment, was for the protection of civilians, an arms embargo and to impose a travel ban on Qaddafi and his regime members. On March 19, the US/NATO forces commenced their military operations, initiated by Operation Odyssey Dawn (OOP), with a six week bombardment on Qaddafi’s military infrastructure. Three days later, China, Russia and India called for a ceasefire, suggesting that the allied forces violated the UN’s mandate, which was to protect civilians, by exposing those same civilians to danger. Consequently, NATO assumed the responsibility from the U.S. for the U.N’s mandate on March 24. One day later, the United States imposed sanctions on Libya, closed its embassy there and began the evacuation of its citizens. Both parties agreed on ceasefire, but they disagreed over the terms. Qaddafi maintained that the US/NATO should stop the bombings, whereas, for the NTC, ceasefire was not possible with Qaddafi in power. The ouster of Qaddafi, however, was swift. The rebels entered Tripoli on August 21, thus ending Qaddafi’s rule over Libya, with his whereabouts unknown. On October 20, he was captured and killed in his hometown, Sirte. At this point, the future of Libya opened for all possibilities!

Since Qaddafi seized power in 1969, and before 2011, the American-Libyan relations were a constant hotbed of tension. The King Idriss, in 1953, signed a treaty with the British, whereby they were allowed to maintain their bases in the eastern Libya. The following year, the U.S. joined Britain with its Wheelus Air Base just outside Tripoli. “The cost,” writes Vishay Prashad, in his Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (2012), “was modest, $7 million and 24,000 tons of wheat as a down-payment and an annual rent of $4 million.” No sooner had Qaddafi assumed power than he reclaimed sovereignty over the established bases in Libya. Many other incidents, that were not in favor of the two countries relations, ensued.

At the onset of the Arab Spring in Libya, the U.S. recognized a chance to get rid of the aching tooth. On March 16, President Obama, announced that if Qaddafi was not stopped, “the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.” George W. Bush used the same argument against Saddam Hussein. Obama insisted that Qaddafi should go, and “go for good.” Yet, the U.S. needed a cover for its intervention in Libya. It reconstructed the idea of “humanitarian intervention” that it used to sustain its reputation in Iraq, and made a pretext of it. But, the question is why would the U.S. care so much about Libya? And why should this “humanitarian intervention” take the form of an attack? The answer comes from Francis A. Boyle’s Destroying Libya And World Order (2013) quoting the Arab Strategy Forum in Dubai, U.A.E. (13 December 2004):

The United States government will seek direct military control and domination of the hydrocarbon resources of the Arab and Muslim world until there is no oil and gas left for them to steal, using Israel as its regional “policeman” towards that end. Oil and Israel were behind both the Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. wars against Iraq. And now Bush Jr. is threatening to attack Syria, Lebanon, and Iran in conjunction with the genocidal apartheid regime in Israel. As the oil and gas in the Arab and Muslim world proceed to run out, the United States and Israel will become even more predatory, aggressive, destructive, and genocidal toward Arab and Muslim states and peoples…

Libya is not strategically as vital to the U.S., as it is to Europe, but its space provides the U.S. with many worries about its interests in North Africa. Qaddafi, Boyle argues, is an anti-imperialist and an anti-colonist. He supported the Palestinians against Israel, and put the hydrocarbon wealth, in the service of the African countries, for their benefit against imperialism. This is not in the interest of the U.S., as long as Libya provides America with a central space that will enable America to better dominate over the region and extend its agenda southward to other African countries.

It is no wonder that the U.S/NATO violated the UN’s mandate, enforcing a “no fly-zone” over Tripoli. On April 30, the U.S/NATO forces attacked Qaddafi’s compound, killing three of his grandchildren. The U.S/NATO raged war against Qaddafi himself, not to protect civilians; their objective was to change the regime. As a result, Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League, complained: “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians”. These operations were better explained by Mahmood Mamdani, quoted by Vijay Prashad, saying that United Nations’ Resolution was “central to the process of justification, it is peripheral to the process of execution” (2012).

The “humanitarian intervention” and “R2P” violate the international law. Boyle (2012), contends that the U.S/NATO war against Libya was a “crime against peace,” according to the 1945 Nuremberg Charter (Article 6(a), Article 6(b), Article 6(c), Article 7, and Article 8). He further stipulates that the U.N. aided and abetted the U.S/NATO in the war against Libya with violations of Chapter 15 of the U.N. Charter, which requires total independence of the U.N. Secretariat from any manipulation of member states, which was not the case. In addition, the U.S., France and the U.K. violated Chapters 6 and 8 of the U.N Charter, which requires the “Pacific Settlement of Disputes” before the “enforcement action,” provided by Chapter 7. Moreover, the U.N. passed Resolution 1973, without any determination of “the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression,” as required by Article 39 of the U.N. Charter, under which the Resolution was passed.

Following the above stated violations, the U.S. intervention in Libya was unconstitutional and without congressional approval. The Obama administration attempted to justify this intervention by claiming that, it neither amounts to the “hostilities” defined in the WPR (War Powers Resolution), nor was it a “war” within the meaning of the Constitution. Obama’s action would be constitutional if the U.S. was attacked, which was not the case in Libya.


The Tripolitan War earned the United States a significant position in the Mediterranean. However, the recent U.S. intervention in Libya, was meant to maintain, perpetuate and bolster that position. As a newly independent nation, begging for recognition, the Tripolitan War, was of great importance to the U.S. and helped it to establish credibility among the European countries. Not only did this war contributed to the recognition of the U.S. as a rising power, but also as a reason behind this power. It is still relevant today, in some ways, to talk about the Tripolitan War. Many strategies, military and diplomatic, that were used by both combatants, are still used today. It is even used as a case study for war strategies from which the U.S. may still benefit in its future conflicts. The U.S. wars against some Arab and Muslim countries revived this old forgotten war among many U.S. historians. It is sometimes seen as a war on terror, resembling the present day, “war on terror,” as led by President George W. Bush and carried on by President Obama. Other times, it is viewed from the angle of wars between Muslims and Christians, or more strictly, as a continuation of the crusades.

Whereas, it is often described as a war triggered by commercial interests, and fought for profitable reasons. The U.S. engaged in both wars to protect its interests in the Mediterranean. The Tripolitan War, shares some aspects with the 2011, U.S. intervention in Libya. Of these aspects, is that which is related to presidential powers that is most similar. President Jefferson sent the first U.S. squadron to blockade Tripoli, without the authorization of the Congress; Obama did the same thing. The U.S. maintains that it learned the lessons from the Tripolitan War and highly praised its naval military force ever since. After the collapse of the USSR, it was still boasting that this military force was a superior power in the world. However, there is a similar situation in the Middle East to that of the Mediterranean which is worthy of investigation. The area concerned now is Syria, in which there is an ongoing conflict between Bashar’s regime and the “opposition.” Many military groups attributed to Al Qaeda, “independent” armed groups or the so-called Islamist groups are also taking part in this chaos. However, at this point, the U.S. has not yet militarily intervened in Syria, at least not as it did in Libya! It might have supported those groups on the battleground with weaponry, but that is speculation. Perhaps the ongoing war is serving U.S. and Israel’s interests in the region, or perhaps not. However, once these interests are threatened, the rules of the game will surely change.


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Edited by Peter “Clay” Smith.

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