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by Khody Akhavi

Iraq is Like Pre-Withdrawl Vietnam and Postwar Japan, Bush Tells Vets

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- President Bush likened the U.S. presence in Iraq to the Vietnam War last Wednesday, unexpectedly embracing a historical parallel that his administration has downplayed for five years.

Some left-leaning analysts have been drawing parallels between Iraq and Vietnam for years as part of their critiques of the Iraq War. A new book by a prominent Middle East scholar, however, has suggested that even more important lessons may be learned from looking back even further, to the time of Napoleon.

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 invested in the production of knowledge about an imagined and stagnant "Near Orient" than in the actual facts on the ground.

In sharp disagreement with this Orientalist cadre stands Juan Cole, a respected scholar of Middle Eastern history and author of "Informed Comment," a widely read blog on politics in the region. His new book, "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East," sheds light on the Iraq War through an analysis of Napoleon Bonaparte's military misadventure in Egypt in 1798. It describes Napolean's invasion and the Bush administration's Iraq War as historical bookends to modern imperialism in the Middle East.

The same week that Bush told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo., that leaving Iraq would provoke the kind of bloody retribution that followed U.S. withdrawals from Indochina, Juan Cole gave a speech about Napoleon's invasion of Egypt at the New America Foundation, an eclectic Washington-based think tank of the self-described "radical center."

At the lecture Cole discussed his most recent work, outlining some lessons that we can learn from past Western incursions in the region and the fallacious logic that justified those interventions. He also described 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 Colen. "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 neocolonial 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, military occupations orchestrated by ostensibly "democratic republics" that wanted to craft occupied lands in their own image ended up creating Islamic republics.

If Napoleon failed in his attempts to make Egypt a lucrative colony of the French Republic, why would Bush have an easier time turning Iraq into a "beacon of democracy" in the Middle East?

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

Napoleon's military adventure in Egypt lasted only three years, but his failure to subjugate the country's population 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' "surge strategy," its ostensible failures and partial successes are only the latest in a string of military tactics that will not remedy the more complex and increasingly intractable political situation, he said.

"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. The decrease is ostensibly a credit to the surge and ordinary Iraqis frustration with al-Qaida 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 [U.S. officials] misrepresent as serial," he said.

The Bush administration's longest-running justification for staying in Iraq involves the "bogeyman" of terrorists -- the iconic and largely inflated al-Qaida, Cole said. Foreign fighters who may ostensibly be linked to the terrorist organization number in the hundreds or a little more than a thousand at most, he said.

General Petraeus just had to talk to a few tribal sheiks in Al Anbar province in order for al-Qaida's insurgents to be killed off there. Even so, anybody who associates himself with the transnational 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's phone number in Iraq? This al-Qaida business is just spin," Cole said.

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Albion Monitor   September 4, 2007   (

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