Headlines, Middle East & North Africa, North America

POLITICS-US: A Quagmire of Napoleonic Proportions

Khody Akhavi

WASHINGTON, Aug 27 2007 (IPS) - President George W. Bush’s most recent defence of his Iraq war policy was striking for its embrace of a historical parallel the administration has painstakingly tried to avoid for the last five years.

Prof. Juan Cole Credit: Paul Jaronski/U-M Photo Services

Prof. Juan Cole Credit: Paul Jaronski/U-M Photo Services

Last Wednesday, Bush offered selective “lessons” from U.S. military involvement in Vietnam to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Missouri, arguing that leaving Iraq would provoke the kind of bloody retribution that followed U.S. withdrawals from Indochina. In an attempt to maintain some glimmer of support for a war which most U.S. citizens have lost their stomach for, the president – as many historians and critics pointed out – once again mangled history.

Is the U.S. quagmire in Iraq similar to the situation in Vietnam thirty years earlier? Perhaps, but not quite in the way Bush imagines it. The White House, it seems, continues to rely on a cadre of Middle East experts – among them Orientalist scholar Bernard Lewis and his disciples – who are more vested in the production of knowledge about an imagined and stagnant “Near Orient” than the actual facts on the ground.

If there are historical lessons to be learned from the Iraq debacle, Juan Cole’s new book “Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East” may be a good place to start. Cole, a well-respected scholar of Middle East history and author of “Informed Comment”, a widely-read blog that covers politics of the region, describes Napoleon Bonaparte’s military misadventure in Egypt in 1798 and the Bush administration’s Iraq war as historical bookends on modern imperialism in the Middle East.

In a Friday lecture at the New America Foundation, an eclectic Washington-based think-tank of the self-described “radical centre”, Cole discussed his most recent work, offered some lessons from past Western incursions in the region and the fallacious logic that justified those interventions, as well as the political realities that may ultimately precipitate a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

“[Bernard] Lewis seems to think that Middle Easterners are like play-doh, but they are not – they talk back,” said Cole, referring to the soft modeling compound made in bright colors and marketed for children. “There are real people living in Iraq, with real aspirations.”

In Cole’s view, the Bush administration’s rhetoric of “liberating Iraq” from the clutches of a tyrannical leader with a hankering for weapons of mass destruction can’t mask its long-term neo-colonial ambitions. Like Napoleon, Bush has a tendency to believe his own propaganda. Both invasions deployed rhetoric of liberation. Like the French general, Bush had a desire to create a “Greater Middle East”, only to face an insurgency that viewed the foreign presence as an occupation, not liberation.

The idea that Bush’s war would somehow bequeath a democratic polity in Iraq doesn’t add up in the final analysis either. As Cole observes, Bush “willy-nilly was pushed into holding elections early,” which resulted in the ascendance of Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a Shiite political body led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and supported by the U.S.’s regional foe, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Two hundred years earlier, Napoleon appointed a group of Sunni scholars from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University to “rule” on behalf of Egypt’s “newly liberated” population. In both examples, a military occupation by ostensibly “democratic republics” – who wanted to craft occupied lands in their own image – ended up with Islamic republics.

And if Napoleon failed in his attempts to make Egypt a lucrative colony of the French Republic, why would Bush have any easier of a time turning Iraq into a “beacon of democracy” in the Middle East?

“The age of colonialism passed for very sociological reasons. Populations can mobilise in very effective ways and will not be crushed,” said Cole. “The idea that America can just go in to shape a country is a very 19th century idea.”

Napoleon’s military adventure in Egypt only lasted three years, but his failure to subjugate the country’s population, which was then a distant province of the Ottoman Empire, did not limit his ambition for more power. He returned to France and, falsely boasting of his victories and conquests in the lands of “the Orient,” positioned himself to launch a coup, crowning himself emperor. As Cole notes, “In politics, a failure and screw-up doesn’t mean you can’t win.”

Bush may not be so lucky. The U.S. has “kicked off a decade or two of regional instability” because of its military occupation of Iraq, according to Cole. General David Petraeus’s “surge strategy”, its ostensible failures and partial successes are only the latest in a string of military answers that will not remedy the more complex and increasingly intractable political situation.

“When you hear these numbers, be very critical,” said Cole, referring to Lt. General Raymond Odierno’s comments regarding a significant decrease in U.S. troop deaths in July, ostensibly a credit to the surge and ordinary Iraqis frustration with al Qaeda terrorists and other insurgents. Even the most “fanatical” insurgent would think twice about targeting U.S. troops in the unbearable July heat in Iraq, he said.

“There are things that are seasonal that they [U.S.] misrepresent as serial,” he said.

The Bush administration’s longest-running justification for staying in Iraq involves the “bogey-man” of terrorists – the iconic and largely inflated al Qaeda, according to Cole. Foreign fighters who may ostensibly be linked to the terrorist organisation number in the hundreds or a little more than a thousand at most, he said.

It is evidenced in the fact that General Petraeus just had to talk to a few tribal sheiks in Al Anbar province in order for the al Qaeda linked insurgents to be killed off. Even so, anybody who associates himself with the trans national terrorist network is doing so in order to bolster his insurgent credentials and to appear as an implacable and shadowy enemy.

“Does anybody have Osama [bin Laden]’s phone number in Iraq? This al Qaeda business is just spin,” said Cole.

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