Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Unnecessary War

We just finished the HBO series John Adams. Contra the New York Times review, we both enjoyed Paul Giamatti’s, and Laura Linney’s, performances, and overall I thought that the miniseries was excellent. I had a few quibbles, such as the self conscious filming style, with the constant steadicam and camera tilt, and the constant buzzing of flies in key scenes, meant I assume to be some form of symbolism that I didn’t care enough about to decode. But my largest complaint was how brief the entire thing was, even condensing his entire presidency to less than a single episode. It’s understandable of course, seeing how the entire series is ten hours already and there is so much of interest to cover, and more to the point, I thought they did a good job with the condensing. Just because I find his presidency to be of great interest doesn’t mean that everyone else would want to sit through a 40 hour miniseries, and I had better be thankful that the series got made at all – under 2 million watched the finale.

In the brief sketch made of his presidency, one interesting item that was ignored was the Treaty of Tripoli. During the 18th century, American shipping (like that of the European nations) was under constant attack by the Barbary Pirates. Prior to the revolution, Great Britain defended American Shipping, and during the revolution, France did. But after the revolution we were on our own.

The Barbary pirates were from a series of Islamic principalities on the North African coast, remnants of empires that waxed and waned from the time that initial Muslim invasions back in the seventh and eight centuries overran the remnants of the Roman Empire. Their main economic function was piracy, forcing people to fight or pay bribes. After the Revolution, America was not in a position to fight, so John Adams decided to pay bribes instead. Yearly tributes were authorized by Congress, culminating in the payment of a large sum, with the ratification of the Treaty of Tripoli by the Senate and signed by President John Adams.

The treaty was originally written in Arabic, and it was an English translation that was officially ratified. Part of the treaty ensured the release of numerous Americans that had been abducted aboard ships, and the bulk of the treaty covered renumerations that the United States paid to the Islamic principalities. Of most interest, though, is Article 11 of the treaty:

‘As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.’

Quite the argument on the separation of church and state. Now in the past two centuries many people have argued for the irrelevance of the article, as there is some doubt over whether it actually was part of the original Arabic treat document. But ultimately it is an irrelevant point, as the version of Article 11 in English is what was ratified by the Senate, signed by the President, and made into the law of the land.

In the end, the treaty didn’t matter. Adams always preferred bribery to war, and Jefferson, his successor as President, preferred war to what he perceived as an unjust tribute. Ironically as well, since the only way to fight was to raise a national navy, and Jefferson loathed federalizing anything, especially armed forces. Nonetheless, war broke out and in the end another peace treaty was signed in 1805, but it also included American payments of ransom. But that still didn’t solve things, and fighting continued for years more, until a final treaty was signed in 1815, by which point the tides had already turned against the Islamic states – their end was coming, and they ultimately became colonies of France.

But the longest lasting remnant of those pointless wars remains the forgotten Article 11 of that original treaty, now gaining further relevance in our current age of pointless wars.