Small Wars Journal

The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving Strategies

Mon, 05/13/2013 - 3:30am

Strategy is not a rigid, inflexible construct.  The purpose of a strategy is to develop a structure upon which to base national campaign efforts.  Such a structure helps planners and operators plan long term operations, select targets and allocate necessary resources.  The strategy should always be reviewed to ensure that it supports national goals.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case; a strategy can also serve as an anchor tossed to a drowning swimmer.  Strategic planners may become too wedded to a traditional concept to be able to recognize looming failure.  Personal pride and overconfidence may blind leaders to strategic weaknesses and obsolescence.  Such mindsets easily secure national defeat.  Nations and organizations must be able to objectively review the effectiveness of their strategies and adjust them to ensure success.  Strategies must be allowed to evolve to meet changing threats and national interests.  The Tripolitan War of 1801-05 serves as an excellent case study illustrating the need to maintain an evolving strategy to ensure victory over potential adversaries.

The Tripolitan War holds particular significance in American history.  It was the first American war fought entirely in foreign lands and waters.  It was the nation’s first small war fought against a radically different culture.  Less than two decades old, the nation struggled to balance critically short resources with its desired goals.  Fresh off of an undeclared naval war against France, the war with Tripoli taught the young republic the value of maintaining a standing military and a sufficient force projection capability. 

The Tripolitan War was the culmination of growing hostilities between the Barbary states of North Africa and the fledgling United States, collectively known as the Barbary Wars.  The Tripolitan War was largely forgotten until the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Historians and social theorists have examined this conflict, compared it to these modern counterparts and taken away a variety of lessons.  Many of these examinations attribute American victory to one or two individual efforts while overlooking the complexities and overall conduct of the war.  American victory in the Tripolitan War was a result of the willingness and ability of American leaders to adjust and change the national campaign strategy in order to overcome the challenges posed by the Tripolitan adversaries.

This article examines the Tripolitan War through the lens of modern western twenty-first century strategic thought.  The retro-application of this modern concept to a centuries-old conflict presents unique challenges.  When one examines the strategy of a conflict one must assume that the hostile parties executed the war with a cohesive plan for victory.  This is often not the case even today.  Transatlantic wars in the age of sail were drawn out affairs with news taking weeks or months to cross the ocean.  Deployed field commanders and diplomats heavily relied on their own initiative and interpretation of aged orders.  National leaders made strategic decisions based upon outdated field reports, never fully confident in their situational awareness.  Out of necessity, strategies became amorphous concepts where only the current situation and desired endstate were framed.  To analyze such strategies one must assess the combatant’s goals and overlay them upon the conduct of the conflict.

In its simplest form, a nation’s strategy is composed of three components.  The first is the set of objective’s that the nation wants to achieve from the conflict.  The second is the nation’s concept of how to conduct the campaign.  The third component is the set of resources required to execute the strategy.  Arthur F. Lykke Jr. described strategy as the  combination of ends, ways and means.[1]

A nation’s strategy must pass a test to evaluate its relevance to the campaign at hand.  When one tests a strategy one must consider three categories, or components.  The first component, suitability, tests whether the strategy achieves the nation’s desired endstate and goals.  The second, feasibility, evaluates whether the available means are sufficient to execute the concept.  The final component, acceptability, tests whether the strategy achieved acceptable results without excessive expenditure of resources.  If the strategy fails any category it will likely lead to the nation’s defeat.  Any national campaign strategy must carefully balance and adjust the relations of these three basic components.


Tripoli—modern day Libya—was one of the four Barbary states of North Africa.  Three of these states—Tripoli, Algiers and Tunis—were vassal states of the Ottoman Empire exercising varying degrees of autonomy and independence from the central government, or the ‘Sublime Porte.’[2]  The economy of each was heavily based on piracy and profits from stolen cargo and the ransom of captured crews.  European nations traditionally paid tribute to the states to prevent attacks and avoid distractions to their own geopolitical conflicts. 

At the close of the eighteenth century the United States was far from the military power that it would later become.  Distrustful of standing armies, the new nation reverted the Continental Army to state militias and disbanded the Continental Navy.  Riding on a post-revolutionary high, American optimism saw commerce as the key to “bind the globe together in one common system of interests and benevolence.”[3]  The world, they thought, would see the value of commerce and abandon warfare.

America quickly learned the futility of this utopian vision.  Faced with sea pirates and growing hostilities in Europe, the United States found itself unarmed and unprepared.

The U.S. conflict with the Barbary states began shortly after gaining independence from Great Britain.  American merchant ships fell victim to Barbary piracy without the former protection of the Royal Navy.  The dissolution of the Continental Navy left the United States with few options other than diplomacy and the payment of tribute.  By 1796, the United States completed treaties with Morocco, Algiers and Tripoli.  American efforts to deal with the Barbary states halted with the eruption of the 1798 Quasi War with France.  An undeclared naval war fought in the North Atlantic, the Quasi War forced the United States to establish a standing navy to defend against French attacks.  As a result, American payments to the Barbary states were delayed or ceased altogether.

Following the end of the Quasi War, American diplomatic efforts and payments resumed.  In 1801, the Bashaw of the second largest state, Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli, discovered that Algiers received more tribute from the United States than himself.  The United States refused his demands for increased payments citing the 1796 treaty.  On 14 May 1801, Yusuf’s forces entered the U.S. consulate and cut down the national flag declaring war on the United States.[4]

The Karamanli clan came to power in Tripoli when Ahmed Karamanli seized power at the end of a civil war in 1711.  He solidified his hold on power by killing over three hundred Ottoman janissaries, looting their possessions and sending the booty to the Ottoman Sultan.  The maneuver won the approval of the Sultan and secured Karamanli autonomy from the Porte.

By 1793 Tripoli was embroiled in a civil war resulting from volatile dynastic struggles within the Karamanli clan.  For several years the Bashaw’s youngest son, Yusuf, challenged his oldest brother, Hassan, for power and position.  On 20 July 1790 Yusuf personally assassinated Hassan.[5]  Hamet, Yusuf’s surviving older brother proved too weak to counter the younger’s growing ability to threaten their father’s rule.  Yusuf fled the city to forge alliances with local tribes to seize the royal palace.  His plans for an overthrow came to a halt in July 1793.

A fleet of Ottoman ships arrived in Tripoli harbor on 29 July, 1793.[6]  A Turk named Ali Ben Zool presented a decree, from the Ottoman sultan directing him to depose the Bashaw and assume the throne.[7]  The Bashaw and Hamet fled to Tunis while Yusuf remained to muster resistance to the invasion.  The invader looted and pillaged the city until a combined Tripolitan and Tunisian army expelled him in January 1795.[8]  This chaotic period in Tripoli’s history left the state destitute, emasculated and vulnerable to attack. 

Hamet assumed the throne after the expulsion of Ali.  Yusuf deposed his brother and set about rebuilding the state and its economy.  He rebuilt the corsair fleet with French aid and unleashed them upon the Mediterranean shipping lanes.  Tripoli signed a treaty with the United States in 1796 agreeing to a one-time payment and no subsequent tribute demands in order to leave American shipping unmolested.[9]  Yusuf later noted differences between this treaty and American treaties with Algiers and Tunis and demanded a renegotiation. 

The American Strategy

The U.S. strategy for the Tripolitan War did not remain consistent through the conflict.  Instead, the strategy evolved to overcome the challenges facing it and its own internal troubles.  Driven by Tripolitan insults and slights to its citizens and national honor, the United States was motivated to achieve both victory and redemption.  American leaders quickly realized that they had more to gain than lose from the conflict.  Such motivations drove the evolution of American strategy.

The U.S. strategic goals remained consistent throughout the war.  The first goal was to eliminate Tripolitan pirate attacks against U.S. merchant vessels.  The second, the elimination of Tripolitan demands for tribute payments from the United States, was closely tied to the success of the first goal.  The final goal of the American strategy was to secure the release of all American citizens held captive in Tripoli.  The abuse and enslavement of these citizens sparked outrage from the American population.  Economic necessity and popular moral outrage made these goals of primary importance to American strategy.

The United States initially adopted a diplomatic strategy to deal with the approaching conflict.  American leaders initially did not see the need for a standing navy and saw diplomacy as the cure for pirate activity.  When direct diplomacy began to fail, the United States turned to Europe in an attempt to build a common consensus to confront Barbary.  Europe showed little interest in North Africa as France hurtled toward the Napoleonic Wars.  Instead, the major powers used Barbary as proxies to harass the merchant shipping of their enemies and trading rivals.  In 1801, tensions with Tripoli soared when President Thomas Jefferson rejected Yusuf’s demand for regular tribute. 

The American diplomatic strategy suffered from a fatal flaw.  The United States initially assessed Tripoli to be a vassal state of Algiers.  The 1796 treaty between the United States and Tripoli contained a provision that treaty disputes would be referred to the Dey of Algiers for settlement.  For the United States, this was the equivalent of referring a vassal to his lord.  For Yusuf, this was initially seen as the arbitration of a mutual friend.[10]  As the United States worked to catch up on its missed tribute payments it placed Tripoli behind the other states in priority.  This misunderstanding angered Yusuf and drove him even more to demonstrate his status as an independent state.

Jefferson turned to a military-based strategy to counter the Tripolitan threat.  Armed with the new navy forged during the Quasi War, Jefferson dispatched a naval squadron of four warships to the Mediterranean in May, 1801, to protect American shipping and ascertain if any of the states had declared war against the United States.[11]  The squadron commander sailed with orders to blockade the ports of the combatant states and to “chastise them in a like manner.”[12]

The American military strategy remained a naval-based campaign throughout the war with Tripoli.  Persistent diplomacy and naval shows of force prevented the states of Morocco, Algiers and Tunis from formally entering the war.  Jefferson initially believed that this limited campaign would serve to intimidate Yusuf into compliance; it failed.  The campaign was initially undermanned with too few vessels to maintain an effective blockade and disrupt corsair activity.  The campaign suffered from timid senior leadership that failed to use the power available to it.  After a promising start, Jefferson fired the second commander in 1803 angry with what he called the “two year’s sleep.”[13]

The year of 1803 signaled a dramatic change in the American strategy.  Commodore Edward Preble assumed command of the reinforced squadron to aggressively prosecute the campaign.  Preble wasted no time in pursuing his enemy.  He ordered frequent bombardments of the Tripolitan capital, tasked ships to hunt down and destroy the Tripolitan navy and launched amphibious raids.  The U.S. campaign now had a competent commander willing and able to use the forces available to him.

Preble placed greater emphasis on crew readiness and training.  Constructed during the Quasi War, the American warships were built to outrun and outfight their European counterparts.  As a result, individual American warships were more than a match for their corresponding Tripolitan counterpart.  The U.S. Navy also placed heavy emphasis on the crew’s gunnery skills.  These factors translated to the newer conflict enabling individual ships to engage multiple corsairs and bombard coastal targets outside the effective range of Tripolitan land-based batteries.  Preble’s change in the U.S. naval campaign allowed the United States Navy to maximize its economy of force due to its limited size and lengthy lines of communication.

The shift in the American strategy was not limited to the military arena.  American diplomats forged an alliance with   the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies securing the right for U.S. ships to make port calls for repair and resupply.  The Sicilian government loaned badly needed specialty ships to pursue corsairs and bombard Tripolitan targets.  The Sicilian king used his diplomatic influence to gain support for the American campaign among the minor European powers.  This alliance proved critical to the success of the American strategy.

The following year presented a second, more dramatic, change in the American strategy.  In 1801, William Eaton, U.S. Consul to Tunis, and Jeffrey Cathcart, former U.S. Consul to Tripoli, proposed an overland campaign to capture key Tripolitan cities.  They proposed to place Yusuf’s deposed brother, Hamet, at the head of a native army of mercenaries to retake the Tripolitan throne.  Jefferson refused the proposal.  The capture of the U.S.S. Philadelphia on 31 October, 1803, reversed the president’s decision.  Jefferson authorized the plan in 1804 and placed Eaton in command of the adventure.  The Jefferson Administration launched an information campaign to attack the legitimacy of Yusuf’s leadership citing the coup that brought him to power.  The nature of Yusuf’s murder of his oldest brother, Hassan, outraged Tripoli.[14]  His subsequent rule made many enemies among Tripoli’s more affluent Moorish population.  Hamet maintained enough support in Tripoli and other Barbary states to present a viable threat to Yusuf’s rule. 

Eaton arrived in Egypt in December, 1804, where he found the exiled Hamet.  He convinced the deposed leader to accompany him on the march to restore him to the Tripolitan throne.  The two men set off with an army of local tribesmen, European mercenaries and six U.S. Marines.  U.S. warships resupplied Eaton’s army along the way and provided covering fires and naval bombardment.  The army captured the Tripolitan city of Derne on 27 April, 1804 and defeated a subsequent Tripolitan counterattack and siege.  Faced with a sizable land threat and possible revolt, Yusuf signed a treaty with the United States ending the war on 10 June, 1805.  The treaty granted most favored nation trade status to the United States and provided for no future payments or annual tribute from the United States to Tripoli.[15]  Tripoli released all American captives and U.S. military forces departed the Tripolitan area.

Modern American military doctrine holds that strategies and military courses of actions must pass a simple test in order to be successful.[16]  The test is composed of three parts: feasibility, suitability and acceptability.  An analysis of the application of these components to a given strategy will determine the likely success of the plan.  When applied in a historical context, this test can reveal significant successes or shortcomings.

For a strategy to be feasible the means to execute it must be at hand or reasonably available and sufficient to carry out the plan.  The nation must have adequate, well trained forces with which to engage the enemy.  It must also have the equipment and weapons with which to arm the soldiers as well as the financing to support it.  If a strategy is not feasible for resources available and the challenge facing the nation victory will be impossible.

To be suitable the strategy must be able to achieve the desired result and address the challenge at hand.  The strategist must have a clear vision of what he wants the conflict’s aftermath, or end state, to be.  Once he understands the desired end state the strategist must formulate a plan that is suitable to achieve it.  If the strategic goal is to eliminate the naval threat posed by a nation, a strategy that attacks the threat’s air force without addressing his navy is inadequate to meet the end state.

Acceptability assesses whether a strategy produces results without excessive expenditures of resources.  Each strategic decision presents a risk.  The risk may take the form of the loss of life, loss of prestige or military defeat among others.  The strategist must be able to identify these risks and adjust the plan to minimize or mitigate them.  The associated potential risks must be within acceptable levels and be politically and militarily supportable.  The nation must be able to accept and absorb the risks posed by the strategy if and when they present themselves.

The overall American strategy passes the feasibility, suitability and acceptability test.  Subsequent evolutions adjusted the strategy to better support American strategic goals.  The critical elements succeeded within each test component and led to U.S. victory in the Tripolitan War.

The American strategy passed the feasibility component of the test.  The strategy successfully ended Tripolitan pirate attacks against U.S. merchant vessels in the Mediterranean.  Despite this success, Barbary piracy at large continued.  Barbary state-sponsored piracy targeting American merchantmen did not end until the arrival of a larger U.S. fleet in 1815.  The strategy forced Tripoli to renounce demands for tribute payments from the United States.  It also succeeded in securing the release of all American hostages held in Tripolitan custody.  The feasibility of the strategic goals was critical to American victory. 

The American strategy passed the suitability component of the test.  It maximized the limited capabilities of its small military.  Although the strategy did not call for a large scale commitment of American forces, those initially committed to the effort proved too few for the task.  Jefferson’s change of commanders and reinforcement of the deployed forces reversed this trend and forced Tripoli to negotiate.  This adjustment of the strategy prevented American commitments and actions from exceeding its limited capabilities.

The strategy passed the acceptability component of the test.  The results of the war proved to be acceptable in both casualties and treasure.  Less than 100 Americans were killed; the war cost an estimated $3.6 million.[17]

The evolving nature of the American strategy overcame its initial flaws and shortcomings.  American diplomatic efforts were based upon a significant flaw.  The Adams Administration proceeded from the false belief that Tripoli was a vassal of Algiers.  Adams viewed Algiers as the linchpin of American diplomatic efforts in North Africa and relied upon the Dey of Algiers to settle American disputes with Tripoli.[18]  This led Yusuf to warn one diplomat that “[h]e was under no restraint or fear of the Dey of Algiers.”[19]  This warning fell upon deaf ears.  Jefferson drastically shifted the focus of American diplomacy in North Africa.  He no longer relied on Algiers to settle disputes preferring to engage each state individually and engaged other interested nations to bring pressure upon Tripoli.  This shift in diplomacy provided a range of options greater than that available to his predecessor.  Unfortunately, this shift proved too late to avoid the outbreak of the war.

Jefferson’s greatest improvements in initial strategic flaws lay in the military campaign. Jefferson rectified his initial failure to adequately man and equip the naval campaign by appointing more aggressive officers and pursuing regional alliances.  Jefferson’s willingness to reverse his rejection of Eaton’s plan allowed him to launch the action that threatened to destroy Yusuf’s grip on power.  This flexibility allowed the United States to accurately adjust its strategy to match American strengths against Tripolitan weaknesses.

The Tripolitan Strategy

Tripoli’s history of conflict with European nations formed the basis of its campaign strategy against the United States.  Past conflicts with Europe were largely naval affairs limited to ship to ship engagements and rare punitive raids against isolated Tripolitan garrisons.  Perpetual European internal conflict and rivalry prevented the powers from bringing their full military force to bear against Tripoli.  The Europeans ended their lackluster campaigns with treaties showering Tripoli with larger tribute payments than they had previously paid.  Tripoli only needed to stave off European retribution long enough for commercial losses and other rivalries to assert their effects.  Tripolitan success against the minor powers of Sweden and Portugal in the late 1790s reinforced this pattern of conflict in Yusuf’s mind.  Yusuf formed this strategy against the weak and distant American power based on this past experience.

Yusuf had three key goals for the conduct of the war.  The first was to defend against potential American attacks and preserve the tribute system.  Recent success against the more powerful European naval powers supported Yusuf’s confidence in this objective.  The second goal, to continue and expand pirate corsair operations, was vital to the national economy.  The final goal, to keep the Ottoman Porte out of the conflict, was critical to maintaining national sovereignty.  The goals had proven successful in Tripoli’s previous conflicts with Europe.  Yusuf’s observations of American activities and capabilities prior to 1801 convinced him of the continued validity of these goals.

Like the United States, Tripoli based it’s war strategy on its navy.  Tripoli’s economy was based on three elements: piracy, tribute and the African slave trade.  Two of the three depended entirely on the state’s naval capabilities.  Piracy not only supplied needed money and goods, it served as the means to extort the second element, tribute, from sea-faring nations.  The third element, the African slave trade, transited the open desert through areas controlled by tribes with long histories of periodic revolts.  These revolts often disrupted the slave trade tying down the Tripolitan army preventing it from posing a threat to American forces.  Tripoli’s navy served as both combat force and protection for its limited merchant marine.  Tripoli’s overdependence on a maritime economy and the nature of the threat it faced made the selection of a naval-based strategy unavoidable.

The Tripolitan navy proved to be unprepared to face the United States Navy.  Corsairs were effective at running early American blockades to attack unguarded merchant vessels.  Smaller and more lightly armed than their American and European counterparts, the corsairs sailed in squadrons to swarm their targets.  Their shallow draft allowed them to escape pursuers by sailing over underwater reefs protecting their safe harbors.  The Tripolitan navy proved ineffective as an offensive force against American warships.  Corsair crews were poorly trained in gunnery preferring to board targeted vessels to engage in hand to hand combat.  Corsairs that ventured too close to American warships were promptly shredded.  By early 1804 escape became impossible as the reinforced blockade pursued the pirates into their former sanctuaries.     

Tripoli’s strategy depended heavily on diplomacy.  Yusuf openly placated the Ottoman Porte in an attempt to avoid its direct intervention in the conflict.  To strengthen this placation, Yusuf provided covert aid to the growing Mamluk insurgency in Egypt to insure that the Porte remained distracted from Tripolitan affairs.  He strengthened his relations with Europe in order to increase arms shipments.  He exploited residual resentment between Great Britain and the United States to prevent an Anglo-American alliance against him.  Yusuf used economic coercion to augment his diplomatic efforts.  He threatened to cut off Tripolitan cattle shipments to the Royal Navy garrison on Malta if the British failed to provide an armed escort along the route.[20]  This tactic succeeded in securing an opening through the American blockade for Tripolitan trade and smuggling efforts through Malta.  Yusuf’s deft use of diplomacy prevented the feared Anglo-American alliance and avoided Ottoman interest in Tripolitan affairs.

Tripoli used its economic ties to other Barbary states to reinforce its diplomatic efforts to maintain their support throughout the conflict.  The Algerine and Morrocan economies depended on grain exports to Tripoli.  Both states relied on Tripolitan slave exports for their labor pool.[21]  Yusuf secured Moroccan cooperation to reflag threatened Tripolitan ships as Moroccan vessels.  Morocco sailed the ships through the American blockade threatening war with the United States if they were interfered with.  Tunis and Algiers bypassed the blockade by shifting their cargo shipments to overland caravans to.  Yusuf’s leveraging of Tripoli’s economic power significantly reduced the effectiveness of the American blockade.

Yusuf used a focused information campaign to place blame for the war on the United States.  He cited the United States’ failure to meet its treaty obligations to Tripoli as the cause of the war, a sentiment echoed by other Barbary states.[22]  Yusuf compounded his claim by demanding larger payments in order to restore peace then publicizing American refusals to pay.  He exploited Tripoli’s religious ties with the other Barbary states to paint the conflict as an infidel power attacking a Muslim state.  The Emperor of Morocco confirmed this relation when he warned the American consul that Moroccan assistance to Tripoli would continue because it “is the country of Moors, our brothers in Religion.”[23]

The Tripolitan strategy failed two components of the overall feasibility, suitability and acceptability test.  Each component relies on the others in order to support the national strategy.  Like the proverbial three legged stool, the collapse of one endangers the stability and success of the strategy.  The critical elements failed within these individual components led to Tripolitan defeat. 

The strategy failed the feasibility component of the test.  Yusuf successfully remained in power after the war and managed to negotiate the removal of the greatest threat to his legitimacy, Hamet.  He also succeeded in preventing the Ottoman Porte from intervening in the conflict and interfering in Tripolitan internal affairs.  However, the strategy failed to secure the continuation and expansion of pirate operations and the tributary system.  Yusuf renounced tributary demands on the United States and ceased corsair attacks on American merchantmen in order to secure peace.

The strategy passed the suitability component by playing to the state’s greatest strength: its navy.  Tripolitan corsairs proved to be capable blockade runners.  Their lighter construction and shallow draft enabled them to escape into shallow waters.  The presence of the corsairs limited direct American landing efforts against coastal targets to brief indecisive raids.  The strategy spared the Tripolitan army the additional strain of facing a direct ground threat against the Tripolitan seat of power.  Although the army was capable of maintaining internal order and suppressing uprisings it was ill-equipped to face the army of a nation state.  It was not capable of defending against an external threat in addition to inherent Tripolitan internal threats. 

The strategy failed the acceptability component of the test.  The Tripolitan navy suffered significant damage and casualties during the conflict leaving the state vulnerable after the war.  Despite its capabilities, the navy proved to be easy prey for American warships.  The Tripolitan defeat permanently damaged the state’s prestige and fierce reputation emboldening European nations after the end of the war.  After Napoleon’s final defeat the Europeans stationed larger navies in the Mediterranean to pursue the corsairs.  The success of Eaton’s army revealed Yusuf’s failure to understand Hamet’s appeal to internal dissidents.  The strategy failed to account for the possibility of a direct threat against the legitimacy of his leadership.  Despite these failures the strategy proved successful in establishing the legitimacy of the Tripolitan struggle with the United States in the eyes of Yusuf’s Muslim neighbors.  Yusuf painted the campaign as a communal struggle against the non-Muslim infidel; a common tactic seen today.  This narrative gained the covert support of Tripoli’s neighbors to sustain its combat capabilities and supplies to lessen the commercial impact of the blockades.

Although successful against European powers in previous decades, Tripoli’s strategy was ill-suited to face the United States.  The strategy depended on the United States both conforming to European behavior patterns and to be willing and able to pay higher levels of tribute.  Although Tripoli understood its own strengths and weaknesses it failed to recognize those of the United States.  Tripoli failed to credit the United States with the ability to change tactics in order to bring its strength directly to bear against Tripoli’s weaknesses.  As for himself, Yusuf failed to understand the level of support for Hamet as a rival to the throne.

The failure of the Tripolitan strategy is magnified when viewed within the overall context of the Barbary wars.  A militarily and financially weakened Tripoli inspired greater European resistance to Barbary piracy.  Yusef’s final renunciation of piracy at the muzzle of American cannon eliminated Tripoli as a major threat in the Mediterranean.  Economic instability led to a series of ruinous internal revolts attracting the attention of the Ottoman Porte.  In 1835, Yusuf abdicated in favor of his children in order to avoid civil war; later that year, an Ottoman fleet deposed the Karamanli dynasty and ending Tripolitan autonomy.

An Alternative Analysis

When one examines strategies of past conflicts one must be aware of any possible alternative analysis.  Such alternative views may serve to validate or refute a potential hypothesis and allow the analyst to refine his work.  One must also be aware that a competing analysis may prove incompatible with recorded history.

The late Dr. Kola Folayan, formerly a professor of history at the University of Ife in Nigeria, offers an alternate analysis of the Tripolitan War.  In his work detailing the history of Tripoli during Yusuf’s reign, Folayan presents the pasha as a flawed, yet well intended, leader struggling to free his nation.  This image clashes with that of the violent usurper that murdered his brother in front of their mother.  

Folayan places blame for the war squarely on the United States.  He argues that America failed to comply with its treaty with Tripoli and treat the state with proper respect.  President Adams’ flawed understanding of Tripoli’s relationship with Algiers, Folayan argues, set the stage for the war.  America’s refusal to treat Tripoli as Algiers’ equal was an insult to its honor.  He refutes American claims of Tripolitan piracy and Barbary faithlessness in their treaties with the Western powers.  He declares that American claims of Tripolitan piracy to be disingenuous and states that the United States could not substantiate any charge of piracy.[24]  In Folayan’s view, Tripolitan independence and offenses against its national honor were the central causes for the war.

In Folayan’s analysis, Yusuf had two strategic goals for the war.  The first was to secure Tripolitan independence.  To meet this goal, Yusuf needed to defend Tripoli against the American military.  In addition to this, Yusuf needed to avoid interference from the Porte.  The second goal was to secure recognition of Tripoli as an equal to Algiers.  This recognition of its national honor would aid the forging of a national identity and prepare for long term independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Folayan does not analyze the American strategy for the war.  He infers from the Eaton expedition that the ultimate American goal was control of the Tripolitan state.  Folayan provides little detail about the conduct of the war and little analysis of its conduct.

Folayan declares Tripoli to be the victor of the Tripolitan War.  He attributes this victory to three primary factors.  The first factory is Barbary unity and solidarity in mitigating the economic effects of the blockade.  The second is Yusuf’s exploitation of European politics to limit American power.    Yusuf’s successful defense against the attempted conquest by land, he argues, secured American defeat.  The final factor was Tipoli’s navy and its ability to make “a mockery” of the blockade.[25]  This victory gained Yusuf fame and prestige in Barbary for defeating yet another western power.   

The true nature of an alternate analysis is best understood within the context of the author and his time.  Kola Folayan earned his doctorate little more than a decade after Nigerian independence.  As a specialist in West and North African history, Folayan wrote during the aftermath of imperial decolonization.  African nations eagerly sought to forge a sense of national and cultural identity.  Folayan’s postcolonial point of view influenced him to discount opposing views of the conflict limiting his analysis and calling his objectivity into question. 

Folayan’s analysis of the Tripolitan War refutes the traditional Western history of the war.  Aspects of the analysis validate western records, others run counter to recorded accounts and discount evidence contrary to his view.  Folayan’s account of the war provides a nonwestern view of the conflict giving analysts a broader view of the nature of the hostilities.

Significance of the Conflict

Although largely forgotten outside academic circles, the Tripolitan War is of historical significance to the United States.  The war demonstrated the difficulties and challenges facing the military campaigns of nations faced with limited resources.  Both combatants executed operations still used today.  The conflict also set the stage for the rise of one power and the collapse of another.

The Tripolitan War was of particular historical significance to the United States.  The war served as a confidence builder for the young republic.  Since independence, United States’ overseas economic activity was vulnerable to the whims of the more powerful maritime powers.  American leaders chafed at the nation’s inability to respond to hostile actions and national insults.  The conflict also elevated the reputation and confidence of the U.S. Navy in the eyes of foreign naval powers.  The tactical success of the navy brought acclaim from foreign powers.  Following Decatur’s raid to destroy the captured U.S.S. Philadelphia, British Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, the future hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, proclaimed the action to be “the most bold and daring act of the ages."[26].  The rebuilding of the navy during the Quasi War provided the republic a chance to redress these grievances and demonstrate the nation’s to take the fight to its enemies.

The Tripolitan War served as a training ground for the future naval commanders of the War of 1812.  In pursuit of his military campaign, Commodore Preble assembled a group of young, aggressive naval officers that matched his “violent and easily excited temper.”[27]  These officers, known as “Preble’s boys,” formed the Navy’s leadership in the subsequent conflict and secured their own fame in combat with the Royal Navy.  Their performance surprised the Royal Navy forcing it to divert larger numbers of ships from their war with France to engage the smaller American fleet.

The Tripolitan War set Tripoli on the road of slow decline.  Despite the renunciation of American tribute and attacks against its shipping, Tripoli continued pirate operations on a smaller scale against Europe.  Yusuf embarked upon a series of failed economic reforms that exacerbated internal unrest and tension.  The return of an American fleet in 1815 forced Yusuf to reconfirm his renunciation further damaging national prestige.  The British followed suit with a fleet of their own the next year.  By the 1820s, Tripolitan power and prestige had decline to the point that Sicily felt free to dictate terms.[28]  Yusuf’s family followed his earlier example launching their own campaigns for dynastic control.  The anarchy eventually resulted in the reassertion of Ottoman control over the regency. 

The Tripolitan War also holds significance in the realm of strategic thought and planning.  When planning the conduct of a military campaign strategic, planners must be able to define what conditions constitute victory.  With such conditions in mind, national leaders are able to provide their military clear and effective orders.  Clear orders enable military leaders to visualize the desired endstate and best use their limited resources.  The lack of such clarity hindered the early stages of the American campaign against Tripoli.

The war also demonstrated the importance of perception in conflict and strategic analysis.  Yusuf conduct what is now thought of as an information campaign in order to gain regional support.  His theme of American violations of treaty payments gained sympathy with the other states.  The theme of Muslim unity sealed their covert support.  The perceptions of the opposing party affect the strategic framing of combatant nations and can be used against them by knowledgeable strategists of the opposing nations.

The war also demonstrates the challenges posed when one analyses the opposing strategies of a conflict and the need for a reliable comparative process.  Victory is best assured when one party understands the goals and strategy of their opponent.  Such an assessment presents significant challenges and is far from a flawless process.  This difficulty is no easier when an analyst examines past conflicts through a modern lens.  The analyist must put aside his own bias and objectively, and fully, review the sides of the targeted conflict.  If the analyst were to fall sway to his bias, the analysis becomes unreliable.  One must strive to understand his opponent if he strives to defeat him.


One must take care when attempting to learn lessons from the Tripolitan War.  Researchers must review the full context of a potential lesson and understand its place in the conflict.  Scholars often tout specific lessons while discarding data that negate their personal views and bias in an attempt to criticize modern policies.  Others make tenuous connections from the Tripolitan conflict to modern cases to establish questionable political precedence.  Such loose analysis and liberal application of the war’s lessons negate their effectiveness and may lead to harmful applications.

Aspects of the Tripolitan War remain applicable to the conflicts of today.  Tripoli’s cultural alliances with other Barbary states and the identification as Muslim brothers remains a key aspect of Middle Eastern politics today.  Tripoli’s economic manipulation of other states parallels modern oil diplomacy.  Yusuf’s constant need to balance the need for external security versus the need to suppress the potential for internal revolt foreshadowed challenges faced by modern despots such as Saddam Hussein.  Eaton’s army proved to be the precursor of future United States and allied tactics still seen today.  T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, used this same tactic against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.  Similarly, the United States applied this same concept with the Montengards of South Vietnam and the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan.  Many aspects of both strategies still bear relevance to modern conflicts.

After a lackluster start, the Tripolitan War ended in an American victory.  This success was not a result of simply staying the course.  American leaders secured this victory by reviewing the effectiveness of the current strategy and making corrections to address its shortcomings.  Conversely, Tripolitan leaders placed their faith in a comfortable, outdated strategy.  Tripoli allowed its strategy to ossify and failed to recognize the petrifaction.  This failure led to Tripolitan defeat.

Strategy is not an off-the-shelf, plug and play technology.  A successful strategy used in one context will likely not succeed when applied in its entirety to another.  Each strategy must be specially tailored to its specific context to be successful.  Even such tailored strategies risk failure if leaders fail to assess its effectiveness and adjust accordingly.  Strategic ossification risks strategic failure.  The American victory over Tripoli solidified its independence on the world stage.[29]  As a strategic exercise it stands as a case study for the need of a well-considered, evolving strategy.  

[1] Harry R.  Yarger, “Toward a Theory of Strategy: Art Lykke and The U.S. Army War College Strategy Model.” in U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Issues Volume I: Theory of War and Strategy 3rd. ed., edited by J. Boone Bartholomees, 43-49. June, 2008. 43.

[2] G. N. Clark, “The Barbary Corsairs in the Seventeenth Century.” Cambridge Historical Journal 8, no. 1 (1944): 22-35. 24.

[3] Frank Lambert, The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 26.

[4] Kola Folayan, “Tripoli and the War with the U.S.A., 1801-5,” The Journal of African History 13, no. 2 (1972): 261-270.  261.

[5] Kola Folayan, Tripoli During the Reign of Yusuf Pasha Qaramanli,  (Ife-Ile, Nigeria: University of Ife Press), 9.

[6] Miss Tully, Letters Written During a Ten Years Residence at the Court of Tripoli Vol. 2, (London: Henry Colburn, 1819), 321.

[7] Miss Tully reported that British consular dragomen, or interpreters, claimed Ben Zool was actually a Turkish bandit operating without the sanction of the Ottoman sultan.  In a letter from November, 1793, Tully identified Ali as Michael Aga with no further identification.

[8] Richard Zacks, The Pirate Cost: Thomas Jefferson, The First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, (New York: Hyperion, 2005), 109.

[9] Robert F. Turner, “President Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates,” in Piracy and Maritime Crime: Historical and Modern Case Studies, edited by Bruce A. Ellemen, Andrew Forbes and David Rosenburg, 158-171. (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2010) 158.

[10] Folayan, Tripoli During the Reign of Yusuf Pasha Qaramanli, 32.

[11] Office of Naval Records and Library, Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers Vol 1, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939), 467.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Turner, 163.

[14] See Zacks’, The Pirate Coast, pages 107-111 for a detailed account of Yusuf Karamanli’s murder of his oldest brother and overthrow of Hamet Karamanli.  Yusuf asked his mother to arrange a meeting with his brother under the pretense of reconciliation.  The meeting occurred in her apartment in the castle harem.  Yusuf shot his brother in front of their mother with a pistol smuggled in by a servant.  As Zack’s states on page 107, “In one act, he shamed his religion, his mother, and  the sacred laws of the harem.”

[15] John S. Bowman, Facts About the American Wars, (New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1998), 133.

[16] Department of Defense, Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, (Washington D.C., 2011), IV-24.

[17] Frank Lambert, The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005) 322.

[18] Michael Kitzen, “Money Bags or Cannon Balls: The Origins of the Tripolitan War, 1795-1801.” Journal of the Early Republic 16, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 601-624, 607.

[19] Ibid., 611.

[20] Folayan, “Tripoli and the War with the U.S.A., 1801-5,” 268.

[21] Ibid., 267. 

[22] Ibid., 266.

[23] Ibid., 267.

[24] Folayan, Tripoli During the Reign of Yusuf Pasha Qaramanli, 32.

[25] Folayan, Tripoli During the Reign of Yusuf Pasha Qaramanli, 41.

[26] Willis J. Abbot, Blue Jackets of ’76, (New York: Dodd, mead and Company, 1888), 281.

[27] Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 17.

[28]John Wright, A History of Libya Revised and Updated Version, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 81.

[29] Lambert contends that the Quasi War with France and the conflicts with the Barbary States, culminating with the Tripolitan War, were extensions of the American War for Independence and served to show the international community that the United States would fight for its interests and deserved to taken seriously as an equal on the world stage.


About the Author(s)

Sean Lovett has served as an advisor on a Military Transition Team in Iraq and is currently assigned to the AF/PAK Hands Program in Afghanistan.  He holds a a Masters of Strategic Intelligence degree from the National Intelligence University. 


Bill C.

Wed, 05/15/2013 - 10:11am

In reply to by Bill C.

This might be a good place to again reflect on C. E. Callwell's understanding (Small Wars; Chapter 2: The Causes of Small Wars) of the nexus between commerce, conflict and war:

"The great nation which seeks expansion in remote quarters of the globe must accept the consequences. Small wars dog the footsteps of the pioneers of civilization in regions afar off. The trader heralds, almost as a matter of course, the coming of the soldier and the commercial enterprise, in the end, generally leads to conquest."

Bill C.

Wed, 05/15/2013 - 8:18am

In reply to by Bill C.

What would an "evolving strategy" look like today, if one came to associate commerce -- not with common interests and benevolence -- but, instead, with great and small wars and conflict and strife?

Engagement and Enlargement? An Era of Persistent Conflict? A Pivot to the East? Air-Sea Battle?

Bill C.

Mon, 05/13/2013 - 11:34am

"Riding on a post-revolutionary high, American optimism saw commerce as the key to 'bind the globe together in one common system of interests and benevolence.'[3] The world, they thought, would see the value of commerce and abandon warfare."

"America quickly learned the futility of this utopian vision..."

Is this (the failure to associate commerce with warfare and division rather than peace and togetherness) likewise our central problem today?

Consider this modification of the initial paragraph above:

Riding on a POST-COLD WAR HIGH, American optimism saw commerce as the key to bind the globe together in one common system of interests and benevolence. The world, the western world thought, would see the value of commerce and abandon warfare.

To wit: Utopian vision redux.

Thus, have we learned the appropriate lesson: That commerce is unlikely to "bind the globe together in one common system of interests and benevolence" but, indeed, is more likely to be the central driver in both great and small wars -- and both external and internal conflicts?

American national security preparations and preparedness to be based on this latter, much more accurate and much more realistic understanding of the nature of commerce?