From the Halls of Montezuma
To the Shores of Tripoli;
Thus opens the battle hymn of the United States Marines. The Halls of Montezuma sound Mexican — and so they were, so it’s not surprising that the marines saw action there. But what about ‘the shores of Tripoli’? Whether the Tripoli being referred to is the one in Lebanon or the one in Libya, it’s rather a long way from home for our intrepid warriors.
Nevertheless, the historical record is clear: the shores of Tripoli, in what we now call Libya, were visited by the marines in 1805, long before the Mexican-American War brought them to the Halls of Montezuma — in fact, not long after the US came into being. They were there as part of the First Barbary War, launched in 1801 by President Thomas Jefferson — and the enemies then were the Barbary Pirates, operating out of the Barbary States — Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Tripolitania (now eastern Libya). These naughty people — any association with the term ‘barbarians’ is clearly politically incorrect and therefore wrong — engaged in raids on American ships, in which they captured both booty and prisoners and then ransomed them back to the US at exorbitant prices.
Interesting, to say the least, but I’m not telling you this to make any comparison between prisoners, ransoming and exorbitant prices then and now. The real point is that the fledgling US went to war across the ocean with a bunch of pirates. So did the British, continuing a long-standing tradition of maritime powers down the ages. Indeed, before the English invented Britain and the British Empire, they were themselves pirates, although it is not generally acceptable to apply to ‘heroic’, ‘swashbuckling’ figures, such as Francis Drake, such pejorative labels. Fortunately for them, they and the Dutch eventually destroyed the Spanish empire, enabling later historians to write the history books in their favor.
And now back to the present. The major global development over the last week — shocking though this may be to the citizens of Israel — was the downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. The question of whodunit is still wide open, and a great deal, in terms of global power politics, may turn on the answer. That’s why there is so much angst in Europe, because if the Russians did it, even indirectly via the Ukrainian separatists, then they are on the wrong side of an issue that unites almost every other nation. You can invade other countries (Georgia, Crimea), slaughter your own dissident rebels (Chechnya) and be generally beastly — but you may not attack other countries’ ships or planes.
The fallout from the Ukraine event helps explain why the American and European regulatory agencies suddenly decided to restrict their airlines’ flights to and from Israel, after two weeks of rocketing from Hamas. The rocket that landed in Yehud, down the road from the airport, raised the spectre of another air disaster at or near Ben Gurion Airport. Whether this decision was a panicky over-reaction or simply playing by the rules, most of the Israeli commentariat jumped to the conclusion that the semi-closure of Israeli airspace was a major achievement for Hamas, despite the relatively rapid rescinding of the restriction.
But, as John Podhoretz noted in the New York Post, that might well prove to be a ‘hollow success’, as he termed it, or even a pyrrhic victory. After all, the Marines operated on the shores of Tripoli in 1805 not to spread the values of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, but to make it clear to the barbarians that you don’t mess with our trade.
The apparatus of trade — ships, sea lanes, ports and now planes, flight corridors and airports — are existential issues for most countries and an attack on them is almost always a casus bellum. Not only that — an attack on one country’s ships or planes is generally viewed, by a remarkable broad cross-section of ‘the international community’, as intolerable behavior and, in effect, an attack on all trading nations.
Just ask the Somali pirates — poor people trying to make a fast buck who have been driven out of business by the combined efforts of nations from India to Canada. The implicit message is crystal-clear — you can engage in murder, rape and general mayhem onshore, but don’t mess with the world’s sea-lanes or flight paths. There is no room for exceptions to this approach, because, as the world discovered in the 1970s, if PLO hijackings of Israeli planes go unpunished or are applauded, other people will hijack other planes. Politically, one man’s terrorist can be the next man’s freedom fighter, but geo-politically, one country’s pirate is almost always the next country’s pirate as well — and going after pirates, into their lairs, is legit, kosher and halal.