Juan Cole: from Bonaparte to Bush

Behind a facade of lawmaking and reasonableness visible in Bonaparte’s correspondence crouched the grim realities of corruption, power, and terror. When Bonaparte ordered General Menou to the key port city of Rosetta near Alexandria to organize that province, he wrote with unusual candor, “The Turks can only be led by the greatest severity. Every day I cut off five or six heads in the streets of Cairo. We had to manage them up to the present in such a way as to erase that reputation for terror that preceded us. Today, on the contrary, it is necessary to take a tone that will cause them to obey, and to obey, for them, is to fear.” He meant by “Turks” all Muslims, of course.

Juan Cole, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East , pages 104-5.

The resonances and repetitions in history never come as much of a surprise. The shocking part is just that we so studiously ignore the pattern in what we’re doing, and the warnings.

The indispensable blogger-scholar on Iraq, Juan Cole of Michigan, had the idea of rethinking Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the mid-nineties when it seemed a nicely academic project. On completion today after five years of the war in Iraq, Cole’s historical reconstruction, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East , reads like the map of folly we never consulted, an ugly walk through history we were determined not to know.

Whimsical arrogance in a war of choice is the start of the links. When General Bonaparte (then 28!) gathered his expeditionary force at Toulon in May, 1798, not even his war minister knew where Napoleon was headed — for a round-about attack on England, perhaps, or eastward somehow to disrupt England’s commerce with India. Napoleon’s version of “Bring ’em on!” was the promise to his troops about the slave soldiers of the Ottoman Empire in Egypt, the mamluk. “A few days after we arrive,” Napoleon vowed, “they will no longer exist.”

How do you say “fubar” in French? Napoleon had provided heavy woolen uniforms, and no water canteens, for troops who were prostrated by heat and thirst, and killed themselves in substantial numbers. They were also confronted and killed by an “insurgency” that kept building toward the Cairo revolt in late October, 1798 — a broad uprising with a “nativist dimension,” of merchants and guildsmen, Bedouin and peasants from the Cairo hinterlands. The French response was a draconian spectacle of mass executions, in the spirit of Napoleon’s order: “Burn that village. Make a terrifying example of it.”

By then, however, Britain’s Admiral Nelson, in alliance with the Ottomans, had destroyed Napoleon’s fleet in the Battle of the Nile. French forces in Egypt were cut off (eventually to be ferried home on English ships) and the mission was effectively doomed. Not that the cheering ever stopped, or the pretense of a mission civilisatrice, a project of liberty and modernity constructing a “French Republic of Egypt,” was ever abandoned by those who believed it in the first place. Cole’s history quotes a familiar-sounding Captain Say in Napoleon’s engineering corps: “The people of Egypt were most wretched,” Say wrote. “How will they not cherish the liberty that we are bringing them?”

Napoleon in Egypt and George Bush in Iraq were book-end fiascos, Juan Cole argues in our conversation — for neatly opposite reasons. Napoleon was too early in Egypt — before the Ottoman sick-man was ripe for dismemberment, before European arms could overwhelm native resistance; but in fact he set the course of French imperial expansion in North Africa and also Southeast Asia. George Bush hit Iraq too late, Cole says, long after bullying colonialism’s day was done.

That’s the historian’s Two Centuries in Review. Juan Cole, the impassioned real-time observer of Iraq, also gives us a Five Years in Review, on the war, and a Surge in Review, on 2007.

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  • Nick

    A most edifying three-quarters of an hour. Back in the day, I had an Anglophobic Bonapartist history professor; Cole’s take on Napoleon certainly serves as a corrective to that sort of revisionist historiography. I suppose the comparison of Bush/Iraq to Bonaparte/Egypt holds as many perils as most such comparisons of wars and eras, but it’s also the single most appropriate comparison I can think of. Most importantly it’s WAAAAAY more accurate a comparative-lens than the common, endlessly parroted WWII comparative-lens.

    Whatever this utterly stupid Bush-Iraq adventure is, it is NOT WORLD WAR II.


    It ain’t comparable in any rationally supportable way.

    It peeves me no end that the lowlife chicken-hawk Cheney spreads this kind of self-serving disinformation to groups like the VFW and American Legion, whose elders fought in a horrible but genuinely necessary total war.

    Iraq is NOT a 21st century “European” or “Pacific Theatre” of that putative 21st century version of WWII, “The Global War on Terror”. Much better indeed to think of 1798-99 Egypt, or of any of a slew of other European colonial intrusions. Thank you, Juan Cole.

    Cole’s book will hopefully prove a boon, but I doubt it will be influential enough to counter our voting populace’s massive worldly ignorance. Our educational system just doesn’t educate enough, and, unlike that other source of our historical common knowledge, there’s no History Channel footage of the Napoleonic Wars to shine a dingy grey light into that part of our species’ filthy basement. “What? There were other wars? Not just WWII? Nah, I don’t wanna read about it. I’ll wait for the History Channel to cover it.”

    Like an ancient, giant yellow poplar in a Michigan swamp, we molder and lean, degree by inexorable degree, ever closer toward the supine horizontal, slowly decaying in stupefied, superstitious ignorance.

    Still, thanks for trying, Chris!

    (This is a podcast I’ll listen to several more times, I’m already certain.)

  • Amarium

    Cole’s work will be valued for its critique of the salient points. However, as a student of history what I have found most worrisome throughout the prism of U.S. experience since late 2001: the warriors immediately went to the library to conduct diligent research; the administration’s policy leaders were nowhere to be seen in the stacks. Cole’s work is an excoriating reminder: those who do not research history will repeat the defeats of past armies, kings, and zealots. We all know that Walid Phares is right when he states that we are in the midst of a War of Ideas. If the West is to turn the tide in this war and ultimately gain the upper hand to roll up the propaganda machine and religious half truths of the jihadis, the West must first abandon the notion of armed regime takedown followed by military occupations designed to bring the rule of law to middle eastern societies.

    With an unprecedented and rising youth bulge in the middle east, America has to offer more than brute force to entice those under 30 years of age to adopt moderate Islamic views compatible with norms of international law and conduct as part of a larger campaign to bring economic prosperity to the Middle East.

    When Arabs and Persians are ready for more open societies based on human rights, the rule of law as well as free market economies, they will come to the West.

    However, in the near term we have done near fatal harm to the goal of separating the fanatical jihadists from their tilted rhetoric and unseating them from the theological commanding heights of Islam. The good news, if there is any, is that the future contains many outcomes, all of which remain unwritten. The gravity of the situation, as we look to the 2008 US presidential election is that amongst all the candidates, precious few have the combination of courage, knowledge, statesmanship, desire, and energy to bridge the chasm between Islam and the West.

    Mr. Cole’s work is first class historical research. I can only hope that America has the intelligence to comprehend that we are not immune from folly and failure. The next ten years in America promise to be one of this nation’s most important periods in the last 100 years.

  • Let the record reflect that I coined the “Thucydides of our time” thing under the comments for “Thucydides: Ur-Historian of the Ur-War” thing. However, this being “Open Source” I hold, nor desire any claim to it.

    Beyond that I heartened by Professor Cole’s refuting of the “age old hatred” meme that has taken root in the American consciousness. People who really should know better have parroted that line for far too long as the idea of (soft/hard) partition has bloomed in American political thinking. “Thinkers” in the United States do not favor partition because it is best for the people of Iraq, or because they think it will produce long term stability–they favor it because it is the least complicated and easy solution from an American perspective to get us the hell out. This war has never been about the interests of the “liberated” Iraqi people and our exit will be no different.

    Raed Jarrar has been telling anyone who is willing to listen that the conflict is much more about power than faith. It is a conflict of nationalists versus sectarians. Sunni Nationalists desiring to return to a strong central government with them in the position of leadership fighting against Shiite Sectarians in the south. The media’s choice to use the nomenclature of religion over those of ideology is indicative of their desire to move papers over their desire to inform.

    Mr. Cole’s

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Excellent show, thank you Professor Cole and Chris for this conversation.

    Lancet surveys of casualties of the Iraq War

    A personal favorite fictional character of this period is from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Quotes What will future Terry Gilliam(s), or Mark Twain(s), Joseph Heller(s), Voltaire(s) for that matter, make out of U.S./Iraq conflict? The satirists, if not having the last word and laugh on such weighty matters, tend to have some instructive thoughts and insights on these matters of great emotional intensity; humor, when handled well, can heal and bridge the intractable questions, as well as, illuminate both our coarser and sweeter angels with subtle efficacy. Enmity’s roots struggle in grounds fertilized with the equilibrium of conviviality … and so I suspect, this war ,and it’s polarized denizens too, shall crawl through the gauntlet of the satirist spanking machine in the future.

  • hurley

    OCP deserves an Open Source Brazil nut for his last two posts. Let’s hope he shares it with the equally deserving Nick…Good to hear Juan Cole state the facts of the matter. Bush league realpolitick rules the day. Leni Riefenstall’s Triumph of the Will should be updated, but how? Suggestions, please. Triumph of the Lethal Banal? Triumph of Suburban Bad Faith, Oedipal Resentment, and Dynastic Political Ambition? Bushisms intercut with atrocity footage from Iraq? Shall we script this?

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Hey hurley, thanks for the nut, and Nick, yourself, and all participants are more than deserving of sharing a Brazilian nuts feast as far as I’m concerned. Keep at keepin’ ’em honest hurley! Tangentially, I’ve come to think of The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson as a partial precursor to the Adolph Eichmann archetypal and its manifestation. As to an update to Triumph of Will, I haven’t any idea how that script will look; I feel a paradox of residing both too close to and too far from the emotional currents, as well as, lacking the necessities to lay bare some clarity in the fog and clouds of dust. Those gyres will widen. I await the Voltaire of our time to give this situation a thorough, meaningful going over … or a Rumi, I’d definitely settle for a Rumi of our time to reflect upon these matters. The poets and satirists are going to inherent much raw material from these follies…

  • Potter

    (will post this and then read the others—potter)

    Speaking of bookends, this interview for me is a “bookend” to the Kanan Makiya interview with regard to our invasion of Iraq. In this interview Juan Cole talks in heartbreaking detail of the terrible tragedy visited upon the Iraqi people and he compares that to the brutality of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. At bottom Cole blames the US invasion for all the horrors in Iraq.

    Kanan Makiya does not speak much or at all of the human tragedy in the interviews I have heard. But I feel the weight of it from him. Perhaps this is because he is on the defensive. But also he does not blame the invasion even though he speaks of the mistakes made. At least in part if not mostly, he blames Iraqi’s themselves; he is terribly disappointed that given their chance, with the lifting of the tyranny, Iraq fell apart as it did. It was for Makiya, in his telling, a revelation after the invasion that Iraqi society prior was already too weakened, on it’s way to breaking apart already because of the UN sanctions and the subsequent loss of the middle class and the weakening of institutions. Add as well the floodtide of emotions, the need for retribution, pent up from the years of tyranny, oppression, and the sudden turnaround in power after the invasion with the Shias becoming the lords.

    Isn’t this as different altogether from Napoleon in Egypt as the similarities?

    One way or another the tyranny had to end in Iraq, “somehow”. Juan Cole says nothing in the interview about that inevitability and the inevitable repercussions- with or without US invasion. As an historian he does not need to. But if he is making judgments he should take this into account. I have not read the book- perhaps he does.

    So Juan Cole does not address or mention the humanitarian reason for this endeavor in the interview except to say in passing that is was part of the propaganda in both cases. I differ- I think it had more weight in the case of Iraq and certainly it was everything for Makiya. There is a real difference between Napoleon’s use of the liberation rationale as mostly propaganda to invade Egypt for the sake of empire and the feelings that were arising in the international community as a whole with regard to the reign of terror of Saddam for a number of years.

    As Cole says rightly, the age of empire is over. Attempts are doomed to failure. We are more and more a global world society.

    Cole’s other points of why we invaded were, I agree, more primary. No question that the humanitarian issue was added on by Bush, used to sell the war to bring at least some on board. But it was a full fledged issue. I was having trouble myself on this as I say on the Makiya thread. I did end up being firmly against the war before it happened and shocked and appalled after and since. And also it’s true, as Cole says, that 9/11 and the fears that it produced that were promoted and then mined had it’s effect.

    On the campaign trail-especially on the Republican side, in the media, there is not much of this; it’s about “winning the war”-whatever that means. Cole’s point about the price that the Iraqi people have paid should be part of a larger conversation that Chris is missing that would have us reflecting on the path we have been taken on since 9/11 and what to do about it ( if I have that right).

  • Yo, Potter:

    Point me to the part I’m missing. I thought “the path we’ve been taken on since 9/11 and what to do about it” was just what perplexes me and keeps pushing the conversation. Straighten me out, please.


  • Potter

    Hi Chris It’s a grammatical error or an error in the way I put it that makes that quote read the exact opposite of what I meant. I was referring to your business at the end of the interview where you were, as you have been, wondering where this discussion is taking place outside of your conversation or our conversation here. It’s the part of the conversation that is missing generally that Chris ( and we should be) would like to hear more of…. ( am I getting myself into more trouble?)

  • Potter

    By the way I just bought the book to give as a present…(I’ll ask for it back).

  • Potter

    By the way I also noted that the first reason that Cole gave for invading was for the sake of Israel as perceived by some Israeli’s (rightwingers), and our neocons. I won’t hold it against Cole that he gave this reason first but I don’t think it deserves first place, nor do I think Cole does. But I don’t know. I did find an excellent and fair rendering of this “issue” on a website that I have visited before but need to go to again:

    Did Israel Lead the US into the War on Iraq?

  • Potter

    What Would George Washington do About Iraq?” by Joseph Ellis (op ed in today’s Washington Post)