Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Lessons of History: Juan Cole and George Bush

Juan Cole's recent essay "Pitching the Imperial Republic - Bonaparte and Bush on Deck" published at Tom's Dispatch once again shows why Cole is our most insightful Middle East observer. (This same essay is also available in The Nation retitled as "Bush's Napoleonic Folly".) Using his research for his new book Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East he compares President Bush to Napoleon and the relevance and lessons of Napoleon’s expedition in Egypt to our current American occupation of Iraq.

THIS IS A MUST READ for anyone who accepts that history has any value. Otherwise, you might just as well forget all about history and accept the propaganda that Bush feeds you.

Here are a couple excerpts from this marvelous comparison of the two republican tyrants.

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.

Both men were convinced that their invasions were announcing new epochs in human history. Of the military vassals of the Ottoman Empire who then ruled Egypt, Bonaparte predicted: "The Mameluke Beys who favor exclusively English commerce, whose extortions oppress our merchants, and who tyrannize over the unfortunate inhabitants of the Nile, a few days after our arrival will no longer exist."

Bonaparte's laundry list of grievances about them consisted of three charges. First, the beys were, in essence, enablers of France's primary enemy at that time, the British monarchy which sought to strangle the young French republic in its cradle. Second, the rulers of Egypt were damaging France's own commerce by extorting taxes and bribes from its merchants in Cairo and Alexandria. Third, the Mamluks ruled tyrannically, having never been elected, and oppressed their subjects whom Bonaparte intended to liberate.

This holy trinity of justifications for imperialism -- that the targeted state is collaborating with an enemy of the republic, is endangering the positive interests of the nation, and lacks legitimacy because its rule is despotic -- would all be trotted out over the subsequent two centuries by a succession of European and American leaders whenever they wanted to go on the attack. One implication of these familiar rhetorical turns of phrase has all along been that democracies have a license to invade any country they please, assuming it has the misfortune to have an authoritarian regime.

Liberty as Tyranny

For a democracy to conduct a brutal military occupation against another country in the name of liberty seems, on the face of it, too contradictory to elicit more than hoots of derision at the hypocrisy of it all. Yet, the militant republic, ready to launch aggressive war in the name of "democracy," is everywhere in modern history, despite the myth that democracies do not typically wage wars of aggression.

Here's a great example of the "liberation" of those who oppose "liberation". How does one spell "Falluja"? My how we have evolved! Resistance fighters were then called half-savage barbarians and now we call them terrorists.

"Heads Must Roll"

In both eighteenth century Egypt and twenty-first century Iraq, the dreary reality on the ground stood as a reproach to, if not a wicked satire upon, these high-minded pronouncements. The French landed at the port of Alexandria on July 1, 1798. Two and a half weeks later, as the French army advanced along the Nile toward Cairo, a unit of Gen. Jean Reynier's division met opposition from 1,800 villagers, many armed with muskets. Sgt. Charles Francois recalled a typical scene. After scaling the village walls and "firing into those crowds," killing "about 900 men," the French confiscated the villagers' livestock -- "camels, donkeys, horses, eggs, cows, sheep" -- then "finished burning the rest of the houses, or rather the huts, so as to provide a terrible object lesson to these half-savage and barbarous people."

Cole's history clearly shows that Bush (and those in Congress who continue to vote to fund the Iraq invasion and occupation) have not learned a thing from history. It can't even be said that Bush and his posse had learned from Napoleon's mistakes and crafted a new and improved invasion of liberation. No, instead from the phony rhetoric of "liberation" to the bombing of civilian areas of resistance Bush has merely repeated the pattern of Napoleon's delusions and depredations.

It is interesting to compare Cole's trenchant historical comparisons with Bush's feeble attempt to evoke history in his recent Asia speech. Most of the news reports about Bush's speech focused on his comparison to Vietnam and his claim that to pull out of Iraq now would result in disaster for the Iraqis and their neighbors as the pull-out from Vietnam did for the Vietnamese and Cambodians. Bush of course ignored the facts by conveniently forgetting the role of the US bombing in Cambodia in the rise of Pol Pot. Bush also conveniently forgot that the original partition of Vietnam by foreign powers was a non-starter and that there would be no end to the Vietnam conflict until there was a fair vote on reunification, a vote which the USA had promised Ho Chi Minh and then reneged on. Likewise today, the major news media ignore that the invasion of Iraq by foreign forces was a non-starter in terms of "nation building" and that until the illegally ensconced foreign troops are removed from Iraq that there can be no resolution to the creation of a civil government.

In the virtually unreported other portions of Bush's Asia speech Bush made reference to the continued occupation of Japan by US troops now going on for over 50 years. (Yes, we are still occupying Japan.) Mark Shields, the "liberal" analyst on PBS's The News Hour, pointed out two important differences: first, in the over 50 years of occupation of Japan not a single US soldier has been assassinated by a resistor to the occupation, and second, and most important in my view, during the reconstruction of Japan not a single reconstruction contract went to an American corporation. Thus, even when Japan provided an historical example of an occupation that succeeded, this most fundamental variable (of how to rebuild a nation by giving the contracts for reconstruction to the nationals) was ignored by Bush in favor of making his friends, cronies, and political contributors rich with US tax dollars. This is how the modern republicans and Republicans plunder the treasury.

If you care to learn from history don't believe George Bush, just read Juan Cole.

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