The Most Important War You Probably Know Nothing About

Gather round, children, and let me tell you about the War of 1812.

Can you feel the excitement in the air? June 18 is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, and I'm sure you're thinking: Why no parades down Main Street? Why no historical reenactors costumed as President James Madison, who signed the declaration of war, or Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the Hero of Lake Erie? Because Americans have a short historical memory, that's why. Or perhaps it's because we don't commemorate equivocal wars. But don't be fooled by the absence of huzzahs: The War of 1812 was one of the great liberating events of American history, and I'm here to tell you why.

One of the buried facts of our collective past is that the United States came very close to dissolving long before slavery sundered the union. America was in almost perpetual peril during the quarter century from the French Revolution to the Treaty of Ghent, which concluded the war with Britain in 1814. Throughout this period, the two great world powers of the time, France and England, sought to destroy each other; each tried to bribe, seduce, subvert, or intimidate the neutral states in order to tip the balance in their favor. In this great and cynical game, the United States, which at the time constituted what we would now call "an emerging nation," was one of the most valuable prizes.

American politics consisted of, in effect, an "English" party and a "French" party. This was scarcely unusual at the time: Both republican Holland and autocratic Russia, among others, tilted back and forth between partisans of the two. In America, however, the Founding Fathers recognized that this contest for supremacy posed a mortal threat to the nation. In his brief farewell address, George Washington ardently defended the policy of neutrality to which he had consistently hewed. The president warned his fellow citizens that "excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other."

Alexander Hamilton largely wrote Washington's farewell address; and Hamilton, an Anglophile, was using the president's immense prestige to warn of the susceptibility of Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party to France and the doctrines of the French Revolution. Federalists like Hamilton derisively referred to the Jeffersonians as "Jacobins" -- revolutionary camp-followers. France, for its part, sought to use the U.S. Republicans as an extra-territorial arm of the revolution. In 1792, France sent an ambassador to the United States with the express goal of enlisting Americans in its war with England. The minister, Edmond-Charles Genet, outfitted privateers in the pro-French South with the goal of preventing New England merchants from trading with England and encouraged the creation of "democratic-republican societies" to fight against alleged "aristocratic" tendencies in America -- until an outraged President Washington demanded that he desist.

France was the chief provocateur during this period. Like Russia after 1917, France saw itself as the standard-bearer of a global revolution; a levée en masse produced a standing army of 800,000 prepared to overwhelm the reactionary forces of Europe. A combination of diplomatic insults and attacks on American shipping drove President John Adams to the very edge of declaring war against France in 1798 (as I described here). Later, Napoleon channeled those revolutionary energies into the more traditional French goal of dominating neighbors and bringing England to its knees. Napoleon even dreamed of sending a force from Haiti up the Mississippi in order to seize the western territory of the United States. The plan came to grief when his army was decimated by yellow fever and Haitian guerillas. The emperor reacted to his failure with a magnificent gesture of disgust: He sold Louisiana to President Jefferson in 1803.

Although it was the greatest windfall in the nation's history, the Louisiana Purchase also came very close to dividing America in half. Federalists now feared -- rightly, as it turned out -- that the new citizens of the south and west would identify with the democratic Jeffersonians rather than with a party that looked back nostalgically to a pre-revolutionary European order. In late 1803 and early 1804, most of the leading Federalists plotted to secede from the union and seek an alliance with England. The conspiracy appears to have collapsed when Aaron Burr killed Hamilton in a duel (though Hamilton had not supported the secessionists).

France continued to intrigue against the United States, but even the most ardent American Jacobins lost faith in the revolutionary project once Napoleon placed the imperial crown on his own head. Washington's warning now applied far more to the partisans of England than of France. British ships patrolled the waters of the Atlantic hunting for U.S. merchant vessels carrying goods from the French West Indies and regularly boarded American ships searching for English sailors who had fled the abysmal pay and dreadful conditions of His Majesty's Navy. And while most Americans were outraged by these incursions on national sovereignty, leading Federalists sided with Britain and publicly excused their offenses. The party split between, in effect, a pro-British and pro-American faction, and the extremists, known as the Essex Junto, degenerated into precisely the kind of fifth column they had earlier accused the Republicans of being. At the Hartford Convention of 1810, the Junto once again sought to turn New England into a separate nation.

Both Jefferson and Madison went to great lengths to overlook British provocations, especially the impressment of American sailors into the British navy. Both understood, as Washington had also observed in his farewell address, that owing to America's "detached and distant situation," "the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance"-- so long as the country could steer clear of European broils. They recoiled in horror from the pointless bloodshed of the Napoleonic wars, and worried that the United States would become a Europe of its own, divided into eternally warring states. Both men hoped that diplomacy would make war unnecessary; indeed, the U.S. had cause enough to go to war in 1807, when English depredations against American shipping began in earnest, though it would have been even more woefully unprepared than it proved to be in 1812.

The war itself was basically a draw: American land forces were humiliated in Canada, but sailors like Commodore Perry achieved stunning victories over the greatest navy the world had ever seen. The Treaty of Ghent merely restored the status quo ante. But the war had put a decisive end to the Federalists, who had barely been able to celebrate American victories. Even more important, the world war between France and England had ended with the ruin of the former. England no longer needed to block American shipping or to shanghai U.S. sailors to fill out a wartime navy. For the next century, Europe would basically leave America alone.

For the previous decades, American politics had consisted essentially of foreign policy. Only with the war's end could rival political parties form around differing visions of the country's own future: a strong versus a weak central government; a manufacturing versus an agrarian economy; and, ultimately, a nation of freemen versus one of owners and slaves. America was now free to fulfill its territorial, economic, demographic, and -- for better and worse -- political destiny.

So now you know. You still have two years left to organize the parade for the bicentennial of the Treaty of Ghent.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Sit this One Out

Why Obama shouldn't use drones to go after Mali's Islamic radical separatists.

Something ugly is happening in the Sahel, the vast stretch of desert in the Western Sahara. In March, an Islamist group known as Ansar Dine, fighting alongside Tuareg insurgents, ousted the hapless Malian army from the northern half of the country -- the desert half -- and proclaimed the independent state of Azawad. Now, Ansar Dine has imposed the same medieval version of Sharia law practiced by al-Shabaab in Somalia, or the Taliban during their rule over Afghanistan. "Women are now forced to wear full, face-covering veils," according to one recent account. "Music is banned from the radio. Cigarettes are snatched from the mouths of pedestrians." An Ansar Dine spokesman described al Qaeda as "our Islamic brothers."

So should America start worrying about yet another haven for Islamist terrorists? Intelligence officials have been speculating for years about links between Sahelian tribes and the group known as al Qaeda in the Maghreb, or AQIM. Azawad looks like the realization of their worst nightmares. AQIM could treat Azawad as a host site, just as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has done with southern Yemen. And with the recent killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi, al Qaeda's No. 2, American officials have begun to think that the locus of jihadi activity may increasingly shift away from the Afghan-Pakistani border to the Persian Gulf and to North Africa. Azawad, in short, could be the next destination for the armed drones which have become the Obama administration's weapon of choice in the war on terror.

This would be a terrible idea. Mali isn't Yemen, and Ansar Dine isn't AQAP. Iyad Ag Ghali, the Ansar chief, is a Tuareg leader who, along with others, adopted a harsh, South Asian version of Islam in the mid-1990s; Ansar Dine itself is an indigenous movement which seeks to impose a fundamentalist vision of Islam on Mali -- but only on Mali. A 2007 academic study of the group concludes that they "have done everything in their power to make it clear that their fight is not a part of a worldwide jihad." One European NGO official who has held talks with the group says that Ansar leaders "have a more Tuareg-y feel than an AQIM-y feel." Ansar, he says, is essentially an Islamicized local insurgency.

What's more, Ansar is only half the story in northern Mali. The group has joined forces with a Tuareg movement, known as the MNLA, which has been fighting the government in Bamako for decades. The MNLA is a secular organization, which in the past has sought greater autonomy for the region and a larger role for Tuaregs in the national government. And the two groups are not getting along very well. After announcing an agreement to form a joint government, the MNLA and Ansar have had a falling out over Ansar's demand for Sharia law, as well as the MNLA's insistence that Ansar distance itself from AQIM.

What is happening in northern Mali right now is fundamentally about Mali. The Tuaregs rose up against the central government in 1996 and 2006. Then they rose up again this year. They succeeded this time for two reasons: first, because in March a military junta overthrew Mali's democratically elected government, leaving the country in even greater shambles than usual; and second, because Tuareg rebels based in Libya returned home after Moammar al-Qaddafi was overthrown, and brought heavy weapons with them. 

This is a familiar story not only in Mali but across Africa: Either a feeble central government neglects the periphery, or an authoritarian government oppresses it. Ultimately, residents of the hinterland take up arms to support their claims. In recent years, this dynamic has played out in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Ivory Coast, among other places. In an e-mail exchange, Ibrahim Ag Youssef, a Tuareg activist (and former U.N. consultant) who lives in Timbuktu, the capital of the north, insisted that "the Tuareg are not fascinated with ‘independence,'" but have lost faith in the central government's promises of more equal treatment. "A new sound basis," he wrote, "is needed to rebuild trust and the willingness to live together."

At the same time, it's a complicated version of that story. There are in fact three actors in the desert: the MNLA, Ansar Dine, and AQIM. The MNLA plainly rejects al Qaeda, but Ansar's relationship is murkier. AQIM, which has earned millions of dollars through kidnapping, may be bankrolling the Malian group. One intelligence official I spoke to said that AQIM's numbers haven't grown in recent years, and the group is not known to have launched or planned attacks beyond its own territory, as AQAP has -- but, of course, that could change if the group could operate from a fixed territorial base.

Nevertheless, the breakaway state poses a fundamentally political problem which requires a political solution. The trick is to accommodate legitimate demands without accepting the fait accompli which led to the declaration of Azawad. The barely functioning government in Bamako is in no condition to take on the insurgents, or even to negotiate with them. Intriguingly, Mali's neighbors have taken the lead in trying to sort out the mess. ECOWAS, the West African regional organization, imposed severe sanctions on Mali in order to force the junta to step down, leading to the establishment of a very rickety interim government. Now ECOWAS is trying to deal with the rebels. Regional leaders agreed to seek negotiations with them while insisting on two red lines: Sharia could not be imposed by force, and a separate state could not be established through non-constitutional means. This seems like exactly the right framework, and argues growing sophistication on the part of this sub-regional body.

ECOWAS views secession about as gravely as the United States views terrorism, and the region is now buzzing with diplomatic activity. There is talk of dispatching a small force to Bamako to stabilize the government. Djibril Bassolé, the foreign minister of Burkina Faso, is seeking to convene the states with Tuareg populations -- Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, and Mauritania -- to initiate discussions with Ansar Dine and the MNLA. If efforts fail, as seem likely, ECOWAS plans to ask the African Union to go to the U.N. Security Council later this month to seek a resolution authorizing coercive measures, and even an intervening force. It all sounds very impressive, but this is one fait accompli that will be very hard to reverse. Unless the MNLA and Ansar Dine "rip each other apart," as the European NGO official puts it, "they'll be incredibly hard to dislodge."

So far, the Obama administration has steered clear of the conflict. The Pentagon is considering a request from ECOWAS for a military planner to help figure out what kind of force might be required, and what sort of mandate it would need. Otherwise, the administration’s efforts are focused on bolstering the interim government, keeping pressure on the military junta and its supporters, and putting postponed elections back on track. U.S. Special Forces teams operating out of the military base in Djibouti continue to track AQIM, and to assist local militaries (though not the preoccupied Malians just now). The administration seems content to let the neighbors take the lead -- and rightly so. There's not a great deal Washington can do to shape events in northern Mali.

When you have the wonder-hammer of drones, every problem will look like the nail of terrorism. John Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism chief, has become America's diplomatic face in Yemen, visiting regularly and dealing with the broad issues normally the province of the State Department. But Yemen is the kind of problem that can't be solved without drones (though it also can't be solved only with drones). We do not need to have the dronester-in-chief expand his portfolio to North Africa. It's in the U.S. interest to help put Mali back together. But that's a job for diplomats.