It’s amazing what you can find on your own shelves. Staring upward last night, I spied a forgotten book that I had last scanned in 2005, when it arrived as a freebie from the publisher. The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 is a rollicking read, a cinematic historical excavation – and now, in the context of this week’s foreign news, it’s something else besides.Check it out for yourself. America’s first war against terrorism, its first fight on foreign soil, its first covert operation, took place…in Libya.And one of the main players was the president of the United States, a now-sainted figure (his face appears on the nickel in your pocket), who at the time was quite the two-faced operative – having secretly plotted to force regime change in Libya without first notifying Congress, then wimping out on the whole scheme.A military mission to depose a North African despot, a president stiffing the Congress and denying that the mission is really about regime change…whoever heard of such things?This is grist for an HBO mini-series: In 1801, Yusuf Karamanli, the ruler of Libya (a country known then as Tripoli), declared that his warriors would pillage American ships and enslave all crew members unless the new president, Thomas Jefferson, agreed to pay him a cash tribute. Karamanli warned that if Jefferson did not bow to this extortion demand, he would declare war on America. To show that he meant business, Karamanli seized the crewmates of the U.S.S. Philadelphia, and sold them all into slavery.Jefferson, who hadn’t served in the Revolutionary War and was eager to show he was tough on terror, decided that he’d rather fight than pay. Ships from the two nations clashed on Aug. 1, 1801, after which the war dragged on for years. Jefferson, clearly looking for a robust exit strategy, seized on the covert operation option. He chose, as his top covert operator, a war vet named William Eaton; granted, the guy was reputedly unhinged (he had previously been court-martialed), but Eaton at least knew his way around Tripoli, having once served there as a diplomat.Eaton proposed dumping Karamanli by military force, promising to do so with a small band of mercenaries, plus eight U.S. Marines. Jefferson and his Cabinet signed off, keeping Congress in the dark. Eaton and his team dutifully embarked. Months later, in April 1805, they marched across a desert without guides or local maps, and won a big battle against Karamanli’s forces in the city of Derne (hence the line in the Marines’ fight song, about “the shores of Tripoli”). As Richard Zaks, the author of Pirate Coast, pointed out in an interview, “If Eaton hadn’t been such a madman, his mission wouldn’t have worked out so well.”Actually, things didn’t work out so well for Eaton in the end. Unbeknownst to Eaton, Jefferson had cooled to the regime change idea. He had hedged his bets even at the outset, by sending Eaton abroad with a letter of commission that was carefully worded to give Jefferson a measure of plausible deniability. And once Eaton was on his way, Jefferson opted for negotiations. He sent diplomat Tobias Lear to Tripoli – with instructions to forge a peace deal with Karamanli.In the parlance of Mitt Romney, Thomas Jefferson was definitely “nuanced.” He had all his options covered. If America got a peace deal, great – and he could reap the credit. If there was no peace deal and Eaton managed to overthrow Karamanli, great – and he could reap the credit.The peace deal happened first. Eaton’s march to victory was halted at Derne. He sailed for home; in today’s parlance, he was seriously pissed. Meanwhile, Jefferson claimed the mantle of peacemaker – imagine how his Gallup approval numbers would have spiked – and that should have been the end of the story. It wasn’t. Eaton refused to shut up about how Jefferson had dumped him; in return, Jefferson routed him during a congressional showdown, dismissing Eaton as merely a “zealous citizen” who had acted in “error.”
Given Jefferson’s vaunted spinning skills, the fight was asymmetrical; as Zaks wryly writes, “All his life, he complained about the dirty infighting of politics, yet Jefferson over the years learned well how to sharpen his nails.” Eaton was dead from booze by 1811.As for Karamanli, he remained in power for nearly 30 more years, and retained his old habit of shaking down the western nations. Luckily for Jefferson, he was able to live out his 16 post-presidential years without being hammered nightly on cable and the blogs as a wuss who whiffed on regime change.Would it have been smarter for America to impose a new leader at the point of a gun? Would Karamanli’s replacement have behaved any better? How much presidential nuance and deceit is acceptable, in the conduct of war and peace? Are soldiers fated to be pawns for the politicians?So it went in Libya and Washington, more than two centuries ago. And how little has changed.