October 9, 2001

The Answer to Terrorism? Colonialism.

By Paul Johnson.
Mr. Johnson is the author of many books, including "Modern Times" and "The Birth of the Modern."

America has no alternative but to wage war against states that habitually aid terrorists. President Bush warns the war may be long but he has not, perhaps, yet grasped that America may have to accept long-term political obligations too.

For the nearest historical parallel -- the war against piracy in the 19th century -- was an important element in the expansion of colonialism. It could be that a new form of colony, the Western-administered former terrorist state, is only just over the horizon.

Significantly, it was the young United States that initiated this first campaign against international outlaws (most civilized states accepted the old Roman law definition of pirates as "enemies of the human race").

By the end of the 18th century, the rulers of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli had become notorious for harboring pirates and themselves engaging in piracy and the slave-trade in whites (chiefly captured seamen).

European states found it convenient to ransom these unfortunates rather than go to war. Admiral Nelson, commanding the British Mediterranean Fleet, was forbidden to carry out reprisals. "My blood boils," he wrote, "that I cannot chastise these pirates."

By contrast, the U.S. was determined to do so. Pirates were the main reason Congress established a navy in 1794. In 1805, American marines marched across the desert from Egypt, forcing the pasha of Tripoli to sue for peace and surrender all American captives -- an exploit recalled by the U.S. Marine Corps anthem: "From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli."

It was reinforced in 1815 when Commodores Stephen Decatur and William Bainbridge conducted successful operations against all three of the Barbary States, as they were called.

This shamed the British into taking action themselves, and the following year Admiral Lord Exmouth subjected Algiers to what was then the fiercest naval bombardment in history -- 38,667 rounds of cannon balls, 960 large-caliber shells and hundreds of rockets. However, these victories were ephemeral. The beys repudiated the treaties they were obliged to sign as soon as American and British ships were over the horizon.

It was the French who took the logical step, in 1830, not only of storming Algiers but of conquering the entire country. France eventually turned Algeria into part of metropolitan France and settled one million colonists there. It solved the Tunis piracy problem by turning Tunisia into a protectorate, a model it later followed in Morocco. Spain, too, digested bits of the Barbary Coast, followed by Italy, which overthrew the pasha of Tripoli and created Libya. Tangiers, another nuisance, was ruled by a four-power European commission.

The eventual decolonization of North Africa was a messy and bloody business. In Algeria in particular, which the French had ruled for over 120 years, they withdrew only after a horrific war that produced over a million casualties and overthrew the Fourth Republic. The Italian record in Libya was so bad that its memory was a key factor in Col. Moammar Gadhafi's seizure of power and the resumption of outlaw activities.

In the 19th century, as today, civilized states tried to put down piracy by organizing coalitions of local rulers who suffered from it too.

Arabia and the Persian Gulf were a patchwork of small states, some of which were controlled by criminal tribes that pursued caravan-robbing on land and piracy at sea. Pirate sheikhs were protected by the Wahabis, forebears of the present ruler of Saudi Arabia.

In 1815 Britain had to take action because ships of its East India Company were being attacked in international waters. But it did so only in conjunction with two powerful allies, the ruler of Muscat and Oman, still Britain's firm friend, and Mohamed Ali of Egypt.

British naval operations produced a general treaty against piracy signed by all the rulers, great and small, of the Arabian Coast and Persian Gulf. But Britain had learned from experience that "covenants without swords" were useless, and that the sheikhs would only stick to their treaty obligations if "enforcement bases" were set up.

Hence Britain found itself becoming a major power in the Middle East, with a colony and base in Aden, other bases up and down the Gulf, and a network of treaties and protectorates with local rulers, whose heirs were educated at the British school of princes in India.

The situation in South-East Asia and the Far East was not essentially different. Amid the countless islands of these vast territories were entire communities of orang laut (sea nomads) who lived by piracy. Local rulers were too weak to extirpate them. Only the Royal Navy was strong enough.

But that meant creating modern bases -- hence the founding of Singapore. That in turn led to colonies, not only Singapore but Malaya, Sarawak and Borneo. The Dutch had been doing the same.

It was a matter of complaint by the British that the Americans, while trading hugely in the area, rarely sent warships on anti-piracy missions -- President Andrew Jackson's dispatch of the frigate Potomac to bombard the pirate lair of Kuala Batu in 1832 was a welcome exception.

In this area then the war against piracy was directly linked to colonization -- British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish -- a fact finally recognized by the U.S. when it annexed the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.

The U.S. established a large naval base there, one of whose duties was pirate-hunting. The lesson learned was that suppression of well-organized criminal communities, networks and states was impossible without political control.

The great civilized powers, as now, preferred to act in concert. But this was easier said than done. In China, a vast but incoherent country, the Western trading powers had introduced the principle of extraterritoriality, whereby certain harbors were designated treaty ports and run by Western consuls and officials under European law.

In 1900, a militant Chinese terrorist group known as the Boxers seized control of Peking, with the covert approval of the Chinese government. Western embassies were sacked and the German ambassador murdered.

An international force was organized to retake Peking, and it included Americans and Japanese as well as European troops. In view of the German loss, Britain agreed that the commander could be nominated by Kaiser Wilhelm II, but was taken aback when that intemperate monarch instructed his field marshal:

"No pardon will be given and no prisoners taken. Anyone who falls into your hands falls to your sword! Just as the Huns created for themselves a thousand years ago a name which men still respect, you should give the name of German such cause to be remembered in China for one thousand years that no Chinaman, no matter if his eyes be slit or not, will dare to look a German in the face."

America and her allies may find themselves, temporarily at least, not just occupying with troops but administering obdurate terrorist states.

These may eventually include not only Afghanistan but Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Iran and Syria. Democratic regimes willing to abide by international law will be implanted where possible, but a Western political presence seems unavoidable in some cases.

I suspect the best medium-term solution will be to revive the old League of Nations mandate system, which served well as a "respectable" form of colonialism between the wars. Syria and Iraq were once highly successful mandates. Sudan, Libya and Iran have likewise been placed under special regimes by international treaty.

Countries that cannot live at peace with their neighbors and wage covert war against the international community cannot expect total independence.

With all the permanent members of the Security Council now backing, in varying degrees, the American-led initiative, it should not be difficult to devise a new form of United Nations mandate that places terrorist states under responsible supervision.