Originally posted: August 23, 2007 @ 07:04
Updated: Aug. 27, 2007 with added video
By Tom Engelhardt
August 23, 2007
[Note for Tomdispatch readers: With this post, I will “vacate” Tomdispatch until Tuesday September 4th. Expect a new post that day. For readers in Washington DC, after checking out the following post by the incomparable Juan Cole, if you have a spare summer moment, rush to the New America Foundation and hear him speak on Friday the 24th at noon.]
It was the highest-tech military of its moment and its invasion of the Arab land was overwhelming. Enemy forces were smashed, the oppressive ruling regime overthrown, the enemy capital occupied, and the country declared liberated… then the first acts of insurgency began…
George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003? No, Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in June 1798. There are times when the resonances of history are positively eerie. This happens to be one of them. We all deserve a history lesson about the Napoleonic beginnings of our present catastrophe. (Too bad you-know-who didn’t get one before ordering that March 2003 invasion.) I got mine from a man whose blog, Informed Comment, I read every morning without fail and whose flow of commentary on Bush’s war in Iraq has been invaluable. I’m talking, of course, about Juan Cole who (evidently in his spare moments) has completed a history of the Napoleonic moment of “spreading democracy” to Arab lands, just published as Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East.
Some of the parallels are enough to make you jump out of your chair (if not your skin). For instance, Napoleon wrote a letter to one of his generals, well into the occupation, forbidding the beating of insurgents to extract information: “It has been recognized at all times that this manner of interrogating human beings, of putting them under torture, produces nothing good.” Okay, at least Napoleon could learn from experience, an ability our President seems to lack, but the issue, put that way, rings a terrible bell 200 years later.
Napoleon’s Egyptian moment lasted a mere three years. We are already into our fifth year in devolving Iraq with no obvious end in sight. Last Sunday, the New York Times printed a remarkable op-ed by an Army specialist, four sergeants, and two staff sergeants of the 82nd Airborne Division, now on duty in Iraq (one of whom was shot in the head while the piece was being prepared). In it, they wrote, “Viewed from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal… [W]e are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day.” Of the military mission of which they are a part they wrote: “In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.”
Whether these soldiers know the history of Bonaparte in Egypt or not, they have grasped the essence of what lurks behind the fine liberatory words of the leaders of the republic militant. Let’s hope it’s not too late to learn the lesson of Napoleon and slip out of “Egypt,” while it’s still possible. Though it hardly scatches the surface of his new book, here is a little taste from the Napoleonic lesson plan of Juan Cole. Tom
Pitching the Imperial Republic
Bonaparte and Bush on Deck
By Juan Cole
French Egypt and American Iraq can be considered bookends on the history of modern imperialism in the Middle East. The Bush administration’s already failed version of the conquest of Iraq is, of course, on everyone’s mind; while the French conquest of Egypt, now more than two centuries past, is all too little remembered, despite having been led by Napoleon Bonaparte, whose career has otherwise hardly languished in obscurity. There are many eerily familiar resonances between the two misadventures, not least among them that both began with supreme arrogance and ended as fiascoes. Above all, the leaders of both occupations employed the same basic political vocabulary and rhetorical flimflammery, invoking the spirit of liberty, security, and democracy while largely ignoring the substance of these concepts.
The French general and the American president do not much resemble one another — except perhaps in the way the prospect of conquest in the Middle East appears to have put fire in their veins and in their unappealing tendency to believe their own propaganda (or at least to keep repeating it long after it became completely implausible). Both leaders invaded and occupied a major Arabic-speaking Muslim country; both harbored dreams of a “Greater Middle East”; both were surprised to find themselves enmeshed in long, bitter, debilitating guerrilla wars. Neither genuinely cared about grassroots democracy, but both found its symbols easy to invoke for gullible domestic publics. Substantial numbers of their new subjects quickly saw, however, that they faced occupations, not liberations.
My own work on Bonaparte’s lost year in Egypt began in the mid-1990s, and I had completed about half of Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East before September 11, 2001. I had no way of knowing then that a book on such a distant, scholarly subject would prove an allegory for Bush’s Iraq War. Nor did I guess that the United States would give old-style colonialism in the Middle East one last try, despite clear signs that the formerly colonized would no longer put up with such acts and had, in the years since World War II, gained the means to resist them.
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Lessons from Past Western Incursions in the Middle East
Aug. 25, 2007
Juan Cole discusses his new book, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East and the relevance and lessons of Napoleon’s expedition in Egypt to the current American occupation of Iraq. New America Foundation/American Strategy Program Director Steve Clemons offers comments and moderates the discussion.
Juan Cole is a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, the President of the Global Americana Institute, and the publisher of Informed Comment, a blog that specializes in providing translations and commentary on the modern Middle East.
h/t: Atlantic Free Press