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Bonaparte and Bush on Deck
August 26, 2007 8:20 PM   Subscribe

Lessons from Past Western Incursions in the Middle East. A speech by Juan Cole at the New America Foundation in which he 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. A shorter version, covering many of the same points, is in this article: Pitching the Imperial Republic.
posted by homunculus (17 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
God I hate introductory speakers...
posted by delmoi at 8:34 PM on August 26, 2007


Interesting reading, thanks.

I was especially struck by the passage describing Napoleon's ~36,000 troops being stranded in Egypt because of a British blockade.

If you think about it, the safe and inexpensive sea/air travel that we enjoy is the only thing that makes our adventure in Iraq possible.

If a small, cheap, simple and mass-produced missile were made -- a missile that could reliably shoot down transport aircraft, or sink ships hundreds of miles out at sea -- massive long-range military operations would virtually become a thing of the past.
posted by Avenger at 9:16 PM on August 26, 2007


Damn it! So much for my planned historical novel on the Napoleonic occupation busting new ground.

That said, the Egyptian campaign is endlessly fascinating. The Battle of the Nile alone was one of the most dramatic engagements ever fought.
posted by Iridic at 9:26 PM on August 26, 2007


If a small, cheap, simple and mass-produced missile were made -- a missile that could reliably shoot down transport aircraft, or sink ships hundreds of miles out at sea -- massive long-range military operations would virtually become a thing of the past.

I've often imagined a machine that could throw a tiny projectile at high speed. It might be powered by strong springs, a steam piston, or even tiny explosions. Such a projectile, especially if many were thrown together, would pierce human flesh and cut down an army as a scythe cuts down grain.

Imagine! No nation would dare invade another, for its armies would be destroyed instantly at the border. War would become impossible. Humankind would enter a golden age of peace.

If only such a machine could be invented.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 9:50 PM on August 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


I hate internet like scarcasm. Unless Slithy Tove was talking about this kind of gun.
posted by anthill at 10:07 PM on August 26, 2007


-like
posted by anthill at 10:08 PM on August 26, 2007


If only such a machine could be invented.

Zing! Touche.

Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of the cost of ships and planes vs. the cost of these hypothetical missiles. A $10,000 missile or two that can sink a 4.5 billion dollar ship is quite a good return on investment.

The only reason why machine guns didn't stop world war 1, IMO, is because each individual soldier didn't cost (say) a billion dollars to train. Our boats and planes are, ironically, less expendable than our troops, and far too expensive to just throw away.

Anyway, this was a /derail, continue with thread.
posted by Avenger at 10:25 PM on August 26, 2007


and far too expensive to just throw away.

But that simply isn't true. We don't actually "spend" money for military stuff, in the sense that we run out. If that was the case, Iraq wouldn't have happened at all, or would have been folded upon the Jumpsuited One declaring "mission accomplished."
posted by maxwelton at 10:54 PM on August 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's true. There is a long and troubling history of what we consider the West invading, occupying, enslaving, or exploiting what we consider the East. We could learn a lot from this history, and we don't.
posted by Shakeer at 11:45 PM on August 26, 2007


Did you hear the bit about Britain in India? It's like visiting a bizarro world; everything's backwards.

We know that British imperialism "took" in India because India ended up being democratic. So... if I'm following his logic here... the ultimate goal of all the bloodshed and destruction visited on India by the British was to bestow upon the Indians democracy... which they would then use in their efforts to drive the British out of India.

So I guess after all those British troops got back to their homeland, they patted one another on the back for having accomplished their mission. Everything went exactly as they'd planned.

And this isn't the only place in his lecture where he runs headlong into the absurd contradiction. When he's talking about Napoleon and Egypt, he says that the French intended to make it a Republic. Oh, and they also intended it to be subordinate to France. He just sort of slips that last bit in there, like, eh, you know, it's not real important or anything. Never mind that there's a massive contradiction between calling a country a republic - which means it's answerable to its citizens above all others - and saying that it answers to France. Then, to add insult to injury, he proceeds to give several very logical strategic reasons why France wanted control of Egypt (as a buffer against British expansion, for trade, etc.). Well, obviously, if Napoleon controled Egypt, the Egyptians didn't.

So, yeah, there are plenty of parrallels here (as is to be expected; colonialism tends to look very similar no matter where it pops up), and yeah, there are lessons to be learned. But he just walks right past the most obvious ones and doesn't even see them.
posted by Clay201 at 11:52 PM on August 26, 2007


Clay201: The two examples you cited was his explaining the contradictions of other people. The person who said that colonialism "took" in India was a war supporter, and Cole was explaining that position as an excuse of war supporters, not as his own position.

The second 'contradiction' you mentioned was not his own, but rather Talleyrand's

Do try to pay a little more attention.
posted by delmoi at 6:51 AM on August 27, 2007


If only such a machine could be invented.

Not a new concept. With unforked tongue firmly in cheek, perhaps slithy_tove is referring to Tesla's proposed "Death Ray" (actually an electrostatically-projected stream of mercury droplets).

As avenger suggests, in times when national power is frequently projected out of the barrel of a gun off the end of aircraft carriers -- the threat of effective anti-ship weapons might becalm many foreign misadventures.

How often is foreign policy dictated by how long national leaders think their (ahem...) sword is?
posted by cenoxo at 7:34 AM on August 27, 2007


The two examples you cited was his explaining the contradictions of other people. The person who said that colonialism "took" in India was a war supporter... The second 'contradiction' ...was... Talleyrand's.

Yeah, and he agreed with both of them. Not about the likelihood of success, but about the nature of (what Cole calls) neocolonialism.

Tallyrand thought Napoleonic France should have colonies but with "republican" governments. However, it's Cole, not Tallyrand, who points out the model that Tallyrand probably had in mind: Holland. He describes it as having, in Tallyrand's day, a government that was the "mirror" of France (which he's already described as a republic) but "nevertheless subordinate to France." Cole, obviously, is no more capable than Tallyrand of seeing that a "subordinate" (his word) government cannot be a republic.

Regarding the India reference, Cole never quite comes out and says that he thinks the purpose of British colonialism was to bring democracy to India, but he comes awfully close to it. He begins by quoting Bernard Lewis (I think that's the name; Cole sorta mumbles it), who said that democracy in the middle east didn't "take." Cole elaborates: "To be fair, I suppose his comparison would be to, say, India... The British colonial experiment in India 'took.'"

It's possible he's just paraphrasing Lewis, but I don't think so. If he is, he certainly doesn't make it clear. He tells us that India has "inherited" democratic institutions from the Western countries. He doesn't point out the obvious: that the Indians only have democracy now because they forced the British out. And remember, he only brings up India to provide an example of how Lewis's theory sometimes does (according to Cole) work.

But even if we're still not clear on his meaning, we don't have to sit and wonder. He immediately proceeds to lay all his cards on the table.

He says that the problem with Bush's plan to institute democracy in the middle east is the same thing that was wrong with the British attempts to do likewise in the first part of this century; it just won't work. The Iraqis (for various reasons) aren't going to go along with it, he tells us.(aprox. 17:45)

And this is where we run into that pesky contradiction again. Conquering and occupying a country and installing a puppet (oh, excuse me, "subordinate") government is not an attempt to create a democracy. It's an attempt to crush whatever democracy might rear its head. He's saying Bush is niave to try to democratize Iraq, not that the attempt exists only in the imaginations of his speechwriters.

Of course, this isn't surprising. Practically every voice I hear on CNN, MSNBC, etc. buys into the same ridiculous line of BS. What's particularly annoying here is that this guy obviously has an excellent grasp of the historical analogs and clearly he understands a great deal about them. But somehow he can't see what's right in front of his face.
posted by Clay201 at 10:32 AM on August 27, 2007


This is kind of creepy looking at this because my Geography prof did an elaborate presentation for our class on the last day of class exactly about this topic, comparing the napoleonic invasion to the american invasion of iraq. This was in 2004.
posted by PsyDev at 11:05 AM on August 27, 2007


"Let freedom reign!"
posted by kirkaracha at 11:32 AM on August 27, 2007


The two examples you cited was his explaining the contradictions of other people. The person who said that colonialism "took" in India was a war supporter... The second 'contradiction' ...was... Talleyrand's.
-- me
Yeah, and he agreed with both of them. -- Clay201

What? First of all how can you agree with a contradiciton? And secondly, what makes you think he agreed with them. It's fairly clear that he did not agree with the guy who wanted to invade Iraq, and Cole spent several minutes criticizing him.

It's possible he's just paraphrasing Lewis, but I don't think so.

Just possible? It's abundantly clear that he is, and is doing so sarcastically.

And this is where we run into that pesky contradiction again. Conquering and occupying a country and installing a puppet (oh, excuse me, "subordinate") government is not an attempt to create a democracy. It's an attempt to crush whatever democracy might rear its head. He's saying Bush is niave to try to democratize Iraq, not that the attempt exists only in the imaginations of his speechwriters.

Of course it's a contradiction, the contradictions were the focus of the speech. I don't understand how you could have listened to this and thought Cole didn't get them. As far what bush personally believes, it's entirely possible for dumb people to believe contradictory things.

As far as Cole's beliefs go, I find it hard to believe that a neo-con could be so well liked in the liberal blogsphere
posted by delmoi at 3:41 PM on August 27, 2007


It's fairly clear that he did not agree with the guy who wanted to invade Iraq, and Cole spent several minutes criticizing him.

He agreed with the pro-Iraq invasion crowd on one important point. He agreed that Bush is attempting to create a democracy there. He just disagreed with them about the chances of it working. He says that the Iraqis are not made out of clay, that they can't be molded into supporters of democracy.

I said: It's possible he's just paraphrasing Lewis, but I don't think so.

delmoi said: Just possible? It's abundantly clear that he is, and is doing so sarcastically.

No, it's really not. And the fact that he ends up agreeing with Lewis's principle assumption - that it is the intention of Western neo-colonialism to create democracies in the countries they invade - makes a strong case that he's in agreement.

the contradictions were the focus of the speech. I don't understand how you could have listened to this and thought Cole didn't get them.

I don't understand how you could have listened to this speech and thought that he did.

He says, point blank, that the problem with Bush's attempt to create a democracy in Iraq is that it won't work, that the Iraqis will reject it. So he assumes the attempt exists. He can't make this assumption unless he completely ignores the contradictions we've discussed.

Maybe I'm just not doing a good job of making this clear.
There's an old, old joke:

Two lunatics are trying to escape from the asylum. They make it up to the roof, but they're trapped there. There's nowhere to go. One of them says "Hey! I've got this flashlight. You shine it across to the roof of the building next door and I'll walk across the beam. Then, when I get to the other side, you toss me the flashlight and I'll shine the beam so that you can follow me across."

The second lunatic says "Oh come on. I'm not that crazy. I know what'll happen. You'll wait till I'm halfway across and turn it off."

Bush is the first lunatic, Cole is the second one. They both share an insane assumption, they just disagree about the results it will bring.

As far as Cole's beliefs go, I find it hard to believe that a neo-con could be so well liked in the liberal blogsphere

The assumption we're talking about - that the US invades other countries in an attempt to create democracies - is accepted without question by most liberals. At least, by those who commentate on CNN and MSNBC and those who work for think tanks. I cannot count the times I've turned on the news and heard some democrat/liberal/anti-war person (often from some Liberal Institute or Foundation) bashing Bush from here to hell and back... and also talking about Bush's 'attempt to export democracy to the middle east.' Even John Stewart has repeated this particular propaganda point as if it were a fact. Now, if you interview a cab driver in Minnesota and a housewife in NYC and a waiter in Atlanta who identify themselves as liberals, they might disagree with the TV people. But, of course, we rarely hear people like that pontificating on a cable news network.

It doesn't matter whether Bush himself personally believes that the current Iraqi government is democratic. We can't know that with any degree of certainty and, even if we did, it still wouldn't matter. What matters is whether the government actually is a democracy. Since it answers to Washington D.C. in all matters of importance, it obviously is not. Bush has not moved to change this, we can conclude that he's not making any attempt to create a democracy in Iraq. If I can figure this out, Cole should be able to as well.
posted by Clay201 at 5:44 PM on August 27, 2007


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