While traveling to Texas to spend Thanksgiving, I finished reading Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, which is being pushed in conservative circles because the book attempts to subtly get across the authors' message that President Obama is soft when it comes to fighting Muslim terrorists.
Of course that's only implied in the narrative written by Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade and collaborator Don Yaeger, which details Jefferson's decision to build a fleet of warships to stop the plunder of American merchant vessels by North African pirates who confiscated cargoes and enslaved American sailors, who were often forced to convert to Islam.
I actually enjoyed the book. In recounting how young naval officer Stephen Decatur sneaked into Tripoli's harbor to set fire to the captured USS Philadelphia, which had run aground, it reminded me of some of the biographies for adolescents that I favored as a youth. I liked the way the book provided the background for the opening stanza of "The Marines' Hymn":
From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country's battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
But I was reminded of the writers' latent intent when I finished the book's final chapter and got to its acknowledgements, which included paeans to professional Obama critics Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly, brothers in the Fox family, and Glenn Beck, who on his online show said it's time to stop hitting ISIS "with flowers and cupcakes" and order a "blitzkrieg" to "wipe it out."
Their agitation reminds me of the chicken hawks of the Vietnam era, who were quick to endorse military escalation so long as they didn't have to join the actual fighting. I was never a soldier, so I hesitate to suggest sending others to war, which is not to say I'm a pacifist. I'm a believer in the Bible, which acknowledges there is a time and place for war. The crucial question is, to what end?
In the first Barbary War (1801-1805), Jefferson was trying to win respect for the infant United States of America, which couldn't afford to keep paying tribute to the Muslim rulers of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli to keep merchant ships safe and ransom captured sailors. The second Barbary War (1815-1816), waged by President James Madison, finally ended the piracy threat to American ships. Religious ideology didn't play a large role in either fight, though captured Americans were treated as infidels.
In contrast, ISIS seeks to establish a Muslim caliphate that, like an octopus, could extend its tentacles across the globe. So today's fight is almost all about religion, which is why a solely military solution is unlikely to have the outcome envisioned by conservatives who think a "blitzkrieg" is all that's needed to win the war. In fact, carpet bombing Syria would mushroom noncombatant deaths, which would likely entice even more Muslims to join the ranks of ISIS.
I don't even think President Obama likes his current strategy to topple ISIS, which more than anything resembles a holding pattern. He doesn't want to repeat his mistake of declaring a red line, and then not taking the military action necessary to punish those who cross it. He doesn't want to jeopardize his legacy as a president who ended wars, rather than escalated them. But neither can he sit on the fence with more than a year left in his tenure as commander in chief.
There's no simple solution to Obama's dilemma. If there were, we would have heard it by now. Instead, we mostly hear complaints or ideas that don't address the philosophical root of the war on terrorism; which is that radical Islamists fervently believe they are carrying out the will of God. The only way to dispel that notion is for the vast majority of Muslims, who say they don't agree, to proclaim that fact in their homes and mosques and regain ownership of a religion they say should be equated with peace.
Sending in the Marines won't make that happen.
The Barbary wars were fought against real states with territorial boundaries, though their rulers acted like pirates. The war on terrorism isn't against a state, though ISIS claims to be one. This war is against an insidious ideology that apparently persuaded a seemingly ordinary couple in San Bernardino, Calif., to abandon their 6-month-old baby and start killing people in the name of God. You can't win that kind of war on the battlefield. Winning it will take more than regime change in Syria, or the cooperation of Iran. It will take changing people's hearts, which could take a very long time.
Harold Jackson is editorial page editor for The Inquirer.