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The Afghan War and the Spirit of Jefferson

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"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Today he is best known as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and in particular for that starburst of Enlightenment thought you see just above. It's because of the famed document that he largely wrote in June, adopted with a few edits by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, that we celebrate the 4th of July as Independence Day. But Thomas Jefferson wasn't just a writer, intellectual, and political theorist, he was a politician and a president.

And a rather cagey one at that, for all his famed idealism and lofty intellectualism.

General David Petraeus, just arrived in Afghanistan, says it will be "a tough mission." No kidding.

After serving as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War, Jefferson was America's first secretary of state, appointed by George Washington, and our third president.

One of the amusing intellectual parlor games of recent times is contemplating what some great historical figure might do. "What would Jesus do?" Or, more recently: "What would Don Draper do?"

So on this 4th of July weekend, with General David Petraeus taking command of U.S. and NATO forces there, what would Thomas Jefferson do in Afghanistan?

During the American Revolution, he conceived an "Empire of Liberty" to promote freedom and counter imperialism around the world. In bumper sticker form, that can be construed as American empire, with liberal streamers of human rights and democracy as the leading edge for occupation and exploitation.

In Jefferson's conception, it seems to be something else. Jefferson was a professed non-interventionist, as distinguished from being an isolationist.

He called for "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none."

"Let our affairs be disentangled from those of all other nations except as to commerce," Jefferson declared.

General David Petraeus landed yesterday in Kabul as the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Arriving with Petraeus were the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, retired General Karl Eikenberry, and NATO's Senior Civilian Representative, British diplomat Mark Sedwill.

For all his love of Europe, the former minister to France declaimed against the European powers as "nations of eternal war."

"It is our duty and our interest to cultivate with all nations a spirit of justice and friendly accommodation," Jefferson declared in his first inaugural address.

Thomas Jefferson, as the saying goes, never wore the uniform. He was a polymath, one of the great Renaissance men of his time. At a dinner honoring Nobel laureates, John F. Kennedy declared: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together in the White House; with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Yet Jefferson, though not a military man, was hardly a pacifist.

After moving against the draconian Alien and Sedition Acts instituted by John Adams (think some of the excesses of the eight years prior to Barack Obama), Jefferson halted the practice of paying tribute to Islamic North African states, the so-called "Barbary pirates" which, absent payment, preyed on shipping in the Mediterranean. He'd long opposed paying tribute as one of the new nation's leading diplomats. As president he could do something about it.

This amounted to America's first overseas war, the First Barbary War. Which America, under Jefferson's leadership, won. This was largely a naval war, leading to some of the Navy's most famous battles. But the nascent Marine Corps performed on land as well, leading to the famous first line of the Marines' hymn, "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli ..."

President Thomas Jefferson led the U.S. into its first overseas war, the First Barbary War.

Jefferson had long been a proponent of the Navy and Marines, having stated back in 1784: "We ought to begin a naval power, if we mean to carry on our commerce."

Jefferson established the basis of the professional officer class, founding the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which David Petraeus graduated 172 years later.

Under the guise of securing the port of New Orleans, Jefferson executed the so-called Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, doubling the size of the American nation in one fell swoop. This vast expansion of territory -- which still comprises a quarter of the U.S. -- made it crystal clear that Jefferson's vision for America went well beyond the original 13 colonies huddled along the Atlantic seaboard.

The trailer for the film Thomas Jefferson's World which opened in April 2009 at Monticello's Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center.

Napoleon, who knew a thing or two about power politics, had this to say about Jefferson's move: "This accession of territory affirms forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a maritime rival who sooner or later will humble her pride."

If there were any doubts about Jefferson's desire for vast westward expansion of the American nation, they should have been dispelled when he established the Corps of Discovery, better known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in 1804. With Pittsburgh as its jumping off point, the scientific and military expedition made its laborious way overland to the Pacific, mapping much of the vast lands that would later become part of the nation we know and celebrate today.

Jefferson quite obviously viewed America as a rightful great power in the world. But did he view it as a superpower, or a hyperpower?

Everyone, no matter how distinctive, is a product of his or her time. The term "superpower," with all that it has come to imply, might have no meaning to Jefferson. Though he would certainly discern "entangling alliances" in the present system.

But we do know that he deeply opposed imperialism, principally manifest in the world of his day in the form of the British Empire. And we do know that, for all his love of France, as minister to France his sympathies lay with the democrats rather than the aristocracy. Even though it was the old French regime, and its aristocratic admirals, which made America's independence possible, through the intervention of its navy against the British.

An imaginary election of 1800 anti-Jefferson ad from PBS.

Jefferson was quick to use military force to secure maritime rights of passage and lines of commerce for the young American republic. But that was an issue of fundamental interests, as well as a message to the world.

Would Jefferson see the massive military and nation building mission in Afghanistan as a wise and necessary course of action?

It's hard to argue that he would.

Jefferson didn't insist on deposing the ruler of Tripoli and imposing a government to his own liking. He merely insisted that he and his allies stop taking American ships. And he abhorred the thought of America as a "nation of eternal war."

President Barack Obama roused the troops in this surprise visit to Afghanistan in March. His meeting with President Hamid Karzai went poorly. Obama's speech was delivered at Bagram Air Base, constructed by the late Soviet Union during its losing war in Afghanistan.

We defeated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Though we quite inexplicably let Osama bin Laden and other top leaders escape.

The appropriate task in Afghanistan now is to prevent it being used again as a base of operations for attacks on us. We don't have to control the whole country in order to do that.

Incidentally, there was a Second Barbary War.

Ten years after Jefferson won the First Barbary War, in 1815, U.S. forces had to go back.

The piracy against American vessels, which halted in 1805, started up again as Britain sought to reimpose its will against its former colonies, leading to the War of 1812. With American forces obviously distracted and otherwise occupied, and with the Royal Navy keeping the U.S. Navy out of the Mediterranean, American ships were again captured.

But when the second war against the British ended, the Second Barbary War began, this time under the leadership of Jefferson's protege and former secretary of state, James Madison.

This war ended, not surprisingly, with the same result as the first, though much faster. The threat from the North African states to American commerce in the Mediterranean ended. And America didn't have to worry about trying to run countries on the other side of the world.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the day on which the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.