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The United States and Barbary Piracy, 1783-1805

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The United States waged war from 1801 to 1805 to compel the Islamic regency of Tripoli - what might be called a quasistate - to cease piracy (privateering) against American merchant ships in the Mediterranean, and to release Americans held captive. The Jefferson administration and its officials on the scene employed steadily escalating political-military measures against Tripoli, but the threshold of pressure necessary to alter the regency's behavior proved much greater than anticipated. The United States - as much by accident as design - finally succeeded by threatening the Pasha of Tripoli's larger strategic ambitions. The U.S. experience with the Barbary regencies provides considerable grounds for reflection on the enduring requirements for deterrence of non- or quasistate actors. The United States must properly estimate the level of effort required to deter or coerce quasistates motivated by nontangible factors such as honor, prestige, or religious obligation - and especially by a sense of grievance. Judicious U.S. threats or forceful military operations can alter the balance of motivations, causing the quasistate's leadership to recognize that self-interest and survival depend on coming to an accommodation. But the "tipping point" for effective coercion/deterrence may be considerably higher than the United States, or even the quasistate, originally calculated.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA

Publication date: October 1, 2007

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