Tuesday, July 12, 2005

JUST DON'T YELL "THOMAS!" IN YOUR THROES OF PASSION. You have to wonder whether Christopher Hitchens' heart is in the job anymore. In his latest terror-war fist-shaker, except for his now-traditional condemnation of people who disagree with him as "stupid," Hitchens expends most of his words on Thomas Jefferson. Well, when one's mission is to explicate the work of G.W. Bush to upmarket readers, I can see how, in the long course of contemplation and composition, the bust of one of our more thoughtful Presidents might be more inspiring than Dubya's.

Most of the Jefferson analysis is unobjectionable, even pleasing, but has little to do with the alleged subject, named in the subhead as "Jefferson's ideas presaged the Bush doctrine." While it is true that Jefferson hoped the American example would embolden men to seize freedom, there is no evidence that he wished our soldiers to wander the globe in search of philosophically dissonant states to overthrow. That looks far more like Napoleon's dream than Jefferson's.

Hitchens closes by comparing the Iraq adventure to the First Barbary War:
The most successful "export" was Jefferson's determined use of naval and military force to reduce the Barbary States of the Ottoman Empire, which had set up a slave-taking system of piracy and blackmail along the western coast of North Africa. Our third president was not in a position to enforce regime change in Algiers or Tripoli, but he was able to insist on regime behavior-modification (and thus to put an end to at least one slave system). Ever since then, every major system of tyranny in the world has had to run at least the risk of a confrontation with the United States, and one hopes that the Jeffersonians among us will continue to ensure that this remains true.
When I was a boy American schools still taught history. We were told then that Jefferson sent the Marines to Tripoli because the Barbary pirates kept holding American ships and sailors for ransom, and Jefferson preferred fighting to the payment of tribute. In fact, I see that is still the accepted version.

The pirates, in other words, had directly attacked Americans, and promised to attack still more, and Jefferson responded to those attacks. It is true that Jefferson "was not in a position to enforce regime change in Algiers or Tripoli," but neither was he of a mind to do so -- he was protecting American interests in the most basic terms.

Perhaps in some alterna-history universe -- one, say, in which a bunch of Berbers blow up a warehouse full of New Yorkers, and Jefferson invades some non-piratical North African nation-state in hopes that this nation-state-building example will reform the rest of the region -- there would be some connection between the actions of our third President and those of our forty-third.

Or maybe there is some other version of history left over from Hitchens' socialist days -- some stunning refutation of prior accounts of the Tripolitan War, suppressed by bourgeois historians -- that makes the comparison more clear. Maybe we'll get that clarification is some future installment, to be issued after we've bugged out of Iraq.

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