Bush in Iraq; Napoleon in Egypt

This piece is far too optimistic and soft on Bush, but perhaps the writer wants the president to listen, and is phrasing his critique thusly. We think that’s a lost cause, but the historical analogy is still worth considering. Richard Bulliet writes for the International Herald Tribune, Aug. 2:

Bush and Napoleon
What does George W. Bush share with Napoleon Bonaparte? Perhaps only one thing. Both men launched spectacular attacks on Arab countries, won stunning initial victories, and then became bogged down in a hopeless military occupations.

If Bush has the wisdom to do what Napoleon did, he may yet be remembered as a leader of historic stature.

All he has to do is cut and run.

In March 1798, Napoleon invaded Egypt in pursuit of a grandiose dream. He wanted to conquer the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and, in alliance with Iran, march on India. Britain’s greatest fear was losing access to this linchpin of imperial might and source of the money that funded its opposition to revolutionary France.

At the Battle of the Pyramids (a propaganda term, the pyramids were miles from the battlefield) Napoleon’s infantry squares, with their devastating firepower, blew away Egypt’s Mamluk army. But the French ran into stiffer resistance and a plague epidemic when Napoleon pushed on into Syria. Meanwhile, Britain’s Royal Navy annihilated his fleet, leaving Napoleon and his army stranded.

His initial war plan a shambles, Napoleon, like Bush, still had a pseudo-rationale for war to fall back on. In an Arabic propaganda broadside printed aboard ship while his army crossed the Mediterranean, he proclaimed his intention of liberating the Egyptians from their Mamluk oppressors. And he brought an army of scholars and advisers with him to make the occupation of Egypt a model of European benevolence.

“O people of Egypt, should they say to you that I have only come hither to defile your religion, this is but an utter lie that you must not believe. Say to my accusers that I have only come to rescue your rights from the hands of tyrants, and that I am a better servant of God – May He be praised and exalted – and that I revere His Prophet Muhammad and the grand Koran more than [the Mamluks] do.”

Not surprisingly, the Egyptians and Syrians found Napoleon’s claims of liberation and esteem for Islam as nonsensical as Bush’s vision of saving the Iraqis from Saddam and destroying their country in the process. Guerrilla resistance grew. Cut off from their naval supply train, the French Army had no hope of imposing permanent rule over Egypt.

The first to realize the folly of his grand strategy was Napoleon himself. After 15 months of campaigning, he boarded ship in August 1799, evaded the British sea patrols, and returned to France and destiny. His army stayed on until 1801 when its sorry remnant returned home by arrangement with the British and Ottoman governments.

Ironically, if Napoleon had never gone on to become the Emperor of France and conquer most of Europe, his role in Middle Eastern history would still be celebrated. Even today, most historians date the beginning of the region’s “modern” history to 1798.

It isn’t so much the “shock and awe” of the invasion itself that grabs the historian’s imagination as the outcome of a chaotic, multi-sided, struggle for power that followed the French evacuation. Muhammad Ali, an Albanian general sent by the Ottoman sultan, won that shoot-out and established a ruling dynasty that lasted until 1952.

More importantly, Ali grasped and implemented many of Napoleon’s ruling techniques, such as conscription, creation of modern military schools and industries, and centralization of the Egyptian economy. When copied by other rulers, these European practices transformed military and governing policies throughout the Middle East.

Bush’s invasion has shaken local assumptions about how to manage politics, warfare, and ethnic and religious identity as deeply as Napoleon’s did. But Bush’s insistence on “staying the course” is an obstacle to any resolution. So long as the United States continues to pull the strings that make his puppet Iraqi authorities in the Green Zone dance, neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran will hold their applause and plot their strategies for when the puppet-master departs.

If the Napoleonic past has a lesson for Bush’s future, it is that regardless of American planning, the regional struggle following the American withdrawal will determine the future of the region. But this does not preclude the realization of some of Bush’s dreams of victory. In fact, it will be surprising if regional responses to post-withdrawal instability do not include openings toward democracy in some countries, and toleration of multiple ethnic and religious interests in others.

As these changes occur, people will forget the toppling of Saddam’s statue, the humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and Bush’s repeated calls to “stay the course.” The kings, presidents, militia leaders and terrorist masterminds who will actually design the new Middle East have already forgotten these fleeting incidents. For them, the post-withdrawal era has already begun, even though arrangements have not yet been made for the American departure.

Napoleon’s final message to Bush? You’ve already made history. Now get out of the way and let it happen.

Richard Bulliet is professor of history at Columbia University and author of Islam: A View from the Edge and The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. This article was distributed by Agence Global.

See our last posts on Iraq and the politics of the GWOT.