Invading the Middle East: Napolean to Bush




Juan Cole, a widely respected expert on the Middle East, teaches history at the University of Michigan. He is a guest on major news programs. He is the author of many books including Sacred Space and Holy War. His latest is Napoleon’s Egypt. I talked with him at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

BARSAMIAN: Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness writes, “They were conquerors and for that you want only brute force. They grabbed what they could for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale, and men going at it blind.” Talk about Conrad’s observations about conquest and the notion of an idea and Napoleon’s Egypt.

COLE: Napoleon’s Egypt may have been the first non-European country to have been conquered in the name of liberty because the French and American Revolutions had invented this rhetoric. It occurred to Bonaparte—he had done this in Italy—that elections and a certain amount of personal freedom could be installed by foreign military conquest. So you have this mixture of generals ruling, but then holding elections and trying to endow everything with some sense of popular sovereignty.

Many high-minded things are said in such situations, but, typically, if you look closely at what’s actually happening, there are attacks on villagers, there is theft of livestock to pay taxes. For example, in Italy the entire country was looted of its great artwork and that formed the core of the collection at the Louvre. A similar kind of looting of Egypt went on under Bonaparte. They weren’t able to get most of that stuff back to France because they lost their fleet to the British. But there is this combination of brutality and violence and oppression and theft on a grand scale.

What memory did the Crusades play in terms of the Arab Middle East?

Literate Egyptians, clerics, and historians remembered the Crusades and were writing about them at that time. Bonaparte was afraid that the general Egyptian public might interpret his invasion as a renewal of the Crusades so he was careful to disassociate himself from Christianity. He boasted that he had attacked the Pope in Italy and he let the Egyptians know about that so that they wouldn’t think the Pope had sent him.

Instruments of state propaganda were rather modest then compared to today. How did Napoleon sell his project?

Bonaparte brought a printing press with him. It wasn’t the first time Egyptians had ever had experience of a printing press because there was printing in Istanbul at the time and Lebanon. But he worked it overtime making pamphlets in which he stressed that he had only come to fight Egypt’s oppressive ruling caste, which had their origins as slave soldiers captured in the Caucasus. So he coded them as foreign. They had for some time refused to pay their tribute as vassals of the Ottoman sultan. So Bonaparte said, “I’ve come to punish them on behalf of the Sultan. The Sultan sent me, in a way.”

And then he claimed to be a Muslim of some sort or about to convert. His argument was that French deism of the time—it was associated with the French Revolution—didn’t reject the existence of God, but rejected Christian theology, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the church hierarchy, and so on. Bonaparte’s argument was, if you take all those emphases of deism, the idea of God as a clockmaker, it’s basically like Islam. He understood that the illegitimacy of a Christian European ruling a Muslim country would stand in the way of the success of his enterprise so he tried to finesse things.

Talk about Egypt in terms of its special place in Western imaginations.

In the 18th century Egypt’s ancient civilization wasn’t known very well because they hadn’t deciphered the hieroglyphics. Then they found the Rosetta Stone that allowed the decipherment during the French occupation. That was one of the things that came out of the French occupation. They did know about ancient Egypt from Herodotus and other Greek sources and they associated it often with being a fount of wisdom. Pythagoras was said to have learned mathematics in Egypt and Moses, of course, had been brought up as an Egyptian prince.

In conquering Egypt, Bonaparte sought to cover himself with glory. And there is an argument that you find frequently in 18th century literature about France or Britain as appropriating an ancient civilization like Greece or Egypt to restore it to glory.

India as well.

With India they gradually discovered that it had been great in ancient times and they thought of themselves as the ones to restore it to its former glory if only India would let us rule them and tell them what to do.

You describe Napoleon as speaking flawed French with a Corsican accent. Nevertheless, he had a charismatic hold on his troops and, presumably, on large numbers of the French people. You quote a French officer at the time, who said, “I was seduced by the renown of the commander in chief and the glory of our arms. It was a delirium.”

This great expedition to Egypt was initially seen as very attractive. More than one memoirist talks about the vast army and navy that was assembled in Toulon on the Mediterranean coast to go to Egypt as having all of the festivity of an elaborate marriage ceremony.

You compare Napoleon’s France with the North Atlantic states who later invaded the Middle East and you talk about “persistent pathologies.” What do you mean by that?

I talk about the persistent pathologies of the enlightenment republic. Famously, Aristotle talked about the three major forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. He thought each of them could deteriorate so a monarchy eventually becomes a tyranny and an aristocracy eventually becomes a junta. What can happen to democracies is that they can be seduced by a charismatic leader, they can turn somewhat fascist.

I think it’s implicit in enlightenment ideology and in the French and American Revolutions that each nation would have sovereignty, that people would be free to rule themselves. But both the United States and France later went on to impose a kind of odd republican imperialism on other places. The United States did this in the Philippines in the early 20th century, which most Americans have now forgotten. It’s estimated that several hundred thousand Filipinos died in the course of this attempt to impose American rule. And now, of course, Iraq is a very similar sort of situation.

It’s possible for a republic to betray its belief in popular sovereignty. This seems to be the direction in which democracies decay. Sometimes they decay altogether and you get the Weimar Republic turning into Nazi Germany, but sometimes they keep the semblance at home of democratic institutions, but they engage in activities abroad that are entirely incompatible with their founding principles.

Muslim societies, as some Americans are discovering—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and elsewhere—are complex. What role does that play in the formulation of attitudes toward them?

This is something that the French discovered in Egypt. First of all, you have diversity with regard to social class. At the time, probably 80 percent of the people were villagers and peasants. Then you had townspeople and Bedouins who made their living by raising livestock and wandering around with it. The French discovered that the attitudes of the Bedouin were very different from those of the townspeople so that you had to deal with them in different ways. Often the fact that they were all Muslim wasn’t what was most important about them. A lot of Middle Easterners at that time, and some even today, organized on kinship groups or clans. Those clans have rules for behavior and norms and expectations. And one of them is solidarity. So the cousins may fight among themselves, but if an outsider attacks one cousin, all the other cousins would rally in defense. There was also a code of revenge. 

The tendency for modern Western armies is to search and destroy. When you have an enemy, you find the troublemakers and there are arms caches and then you kill them and get rid of the arms. Then everything will be quiet. That’s the assumption, anyway. But if you’re dealing with a kinship society, there is this sense of honor and revenge. If you track an insurgent down and kill him, you may be incurring a big feud against 25 cousins. Search and destroy tactics can actually start a spiral of violence.

The people that planned the Iraq war were ignorant about Iraq as a culture and a society with a set of values and they were arrogant about their ignorance. They knew Iraqi expatriates who told them things and they took those at face value.

Bush, just weeks before the attack on Iraq, did not know that there were Sunnis and Shi’as in the country.

That’s what Ambassador Peter Galbraith reports, that there were Sunnis and Shi’ites and there might be some reprisals. Galbraith reports Bush as saying, “I thought they were all Muslims.” So he doesn’t seem to have had a clear idea of what a Sunni and a Shi’ite is.

The United States has something like a $13 trillion economy, and it spends $600 billion a year on war industries. If you have those kinds of resources, you don’t really have to know very much about Iraqi culture to conquer the Iraqi army. You send in the Third Infantry Division and they run off to Baghdad and you send in helicopter gunships and a tank-killing air force and you make mincemeat of the Hammurabi Brigade. So conquering a country, especially a small country, is not difficult at all. The difficulty comes when you try to run the country without knowing anything, that’s hard.

You cite Edward Said about orientalism. One of Said’s points is that there is a cadre of scholars who put themselves at the service of power.

Said’s idea is more wide-ranging. I think he’s taking over from a French philosopher, Michel Foucault, the premise that all knowledge is entangled with networks of power, that knowledge and power are inseparable from one another. A lot of the ways in which the Middle East is talked about, even by people who are on the ground and know it fairly well, reflect ways of talking about it that go back to the 19th century. Even just calling these “clan leaders” and Ramadi “tribal chieftains,” that’s a Victorian phrase for them. 

There is a kind of excuse given for the brutal and vicious French invasion and occupation of Egypt—that is, at least Napoleon brought along scientists, archeologists, and philologists to measure Egypt up and down and they published this multi-volume description of Egypt. Of course, the occupation didn’t go very well and they had to leave, “but at least there was this monument of objective knowledge about ancient civilization that the expedition left behind, and maybe that makes it all worthwhile.”

But Said would say they measured Egypt up and down in order to rule it better. The attempt to know Egypt and the attempt to have power over Egypt were in a sense an identical enterprise.

In Napoleon’s Egypt, you say, “Bonaparte was inventing what we call the modern Middle East, an arena of North Atlantic military and economic hegemony with a hybrid culture and political institutions.”

You think about what is the Middle East. People think, well, it’s a Muslim majority area. There are a lot of people who speak Arabic and there is Arabic influence in the surrounding languages, like Persian. So you can think about what cultural attributes it has. But what’s really striking is how hybrid it is, how much it is a Creole mixture of European history and institutions and rule and local ones. I think it explains a lot about the Middle East. It’s not unique in this aspect, but I think it’s unique in the degree and constancy of it

It’s actually quite ironic. Napoleon had to escape from Egypt after only a year and then his army was run out in 1801. So the French conquest of Egypt didn’t go very well. Then in 1866 an Egyptian ruler, a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, instituted the Napoleonic Code as the law of the land. This is typical. Most Middle Eastern countries have a history of adoption of European civil codes. The Turks took over the Swiss civil code and much of the Turkish constitution is from the Swiss one of the 1920s. The Europeans ruled much of Egypt for a very long time. The French ruled Algeria from 1830 to 1962. All that time, who was making the laws and arranging for how things were done? It was the French. They didn’t do it in a vacuum as local people and institutions and customs got incorporated into all that. But it was experienced by the people in the Middle East as alienating to be ruled for long periods of time by foreigners and to have their whole culture and administrative apparatus and legal system shaped primarily by Europeans.

One of the explanations for the centrality of political Islam to contemporary Middle Eastern developments is that it’s a reaction against colonial impositions. One of the things political Islam asks is, Why should we have British, Anglo-Saxon, common law as the basis for our legal procedure? Why wouldn’t it be Islamic law, which is what we had before the British showed up? Then, of course, they romanticize the history of Islamic law. 

Many of the disputes are really about authenticity and one’s relationship to the former metropole and so forth. The Algerian civil war of the 1990s and early 2000s is, in a way, a fight between lower-middle-class Arabic speakers who don’t have much of the French heritage and the Algerian upper and middle classes—people in the oil industry and people in the army, many of whom went to school in France. So that cultural divide and the dispute over the colonial heritage are important for the destiny of the country.

One of the major issues in Islam, particularly in the Middle East, is the Sunni-Shi’a divide. What do people need to know about the differences?

The first thing to say is that the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, although it is long standing and has characterized the conflict in places like Iran and elsewhere in history, doesn’t have to be the basis for political identity. In 20th century Iraq, there was very little explicit mention of Sunni-Shi’ite differences as Iraqi nationalism grew up. If you read the Iraqi newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s, Sunni and Shi’ite divisions didn’t really get mentioned. They’re not part of the discourse. There are reports of peasant-landlord disputes, but those are class differences. Sometimes they overlapped. If you looked at it closely, the peasants would be one ethnicity or religion and the landlords another. But that wasn’t how people thought about it. The big question was, are you going to be a Communist or are you going to be a Ba’athist? What political party are you going to be in? This foregrounding of religious identity as a form of political identity is something that was alien to the Iraqi tradition, until maybe the late 1980s.

It was Saddam Hussein who tried to make the Sunni areas in Baghdad and to its west and north a power base from which to beat up other parts of the Iraqi population, the Shi’ites and the Kurds. Saddam, I think, set this thing in motion. But even in the Saddam period it was a little bit muted most of the time. There was a Shi’ite uprising in 1991 after the Gulf War, but that was put down quite brutally. After that, those sorts of issues were in abeyance.

It was the U.S. destruction of the secular Ba’ath regime that then caused Iraqis to reorganize themselves and to rethink their position and often to make an appeal, as political entrepreneurs emerged, to religious identity as a way of winning elections and getting ahead. And then you had the Sunni Arab guerilla movement, some of it Ba’athist, some of it fundamentalist Sunnis or Salafis, who deliberately attempted to foment sectarian violence as a way of making the country ungovernable and forcing the Americans out.

The things that have happened since 2003 are now often talked about by observers, politicians, and journalists in the United States as age-old hatreds and millennium-old civil war. But actually it’s not like that. What we’ve learned from modern history in the Balkans and elsewhere is that people can learn to hate on some arbitrary basis or other really quickly.

Weren’t there also particular political decisions made by U.S. occupation forces that exacerbated sectarian divisions among Sunnis, Shi’as, Kurds, and Christians?

Yes. The American conception of how to rule Iraq was quite politically incorrect, given that it was a Republican administration. They had apportioned seats on the interim governing council in accordance with ethnic and sectarian membership, so they were careful to have a slight Shi’ite majority. Although, frankly, they were counting the Communist as a Shi’ite because that was the ethnic origin. It was kind of silly.

That’s part of what went on, but I think the bigger source of these problems was that the Americans more or less conducted a social revolution when they conquered Iraq, of empowering their Shi’a and Kurdish allies. Most of them had been at some point expatriates with the exception of the Kurds—and of allowing them to run roughshod over the Sunni Arab former ruling class. So nearly 100,000 people were fired from their government jobs—experienced bureaucrats, even high school teachers—for having been members of the Ba’ath Party. The army was dissolved: 400,000 armed men were sent home and made unemployed. The message to the Sunni Arab populations was drop dead. Those had been the equivalent of the Harvard MBA’s and the West Point graduates and the CEOs and the high government bureaucrats.

It would be as though a foreign country conquered the United States and put Latinos and African Americans in charge and told people in Connecticut that henceforth they’re unemployed and they might get to be janitors if they behave themselves. What do you think the people in Connecticut would do about that? They would mobilize all of their cultural resources and all of their material resources to conduct a counterrevolution. So the United States played a big role in forcing Iraq into this civil war.

In your book you write that Napoleon was “pioneering a form of imperialism that deployed liberal rhetoric and institutions for the extraction of resources and geopolitical advantage.” Can one perhaps insert the name of George Bush or some other contemporary leader and read the same sentence?

That was one of the things that I was talking about when I was discussing the pathologies of Enlightenment republics. It is possible to mobilize that rhetoric of liberty and popular sovereignty for essentially imperial purposes. It’s an odd combination because you can understand how an empire, like the Spanish Empire, might get involved in having colonies because from the point of view of an empire, what would it matter to the emperor whether they’re ruling Catalans or Mexicans. The nature of empire is to be polyglot and to incorporate as much territory as possible, without regard to what language people speak or what religion they are or whatever. So many empires have been quite mixed in their populations. The British Empire was majority Hindu, after all. We forget that Queen Victoria was Empress of India and therefore was the ruler of 300 million people, most of them Hindu. You can understand how monarchical empire works.

But what the French were really doing in the course of the late 18th century was developing sister republics or daughter republics. So the French re-formed Holland as a republic and called it Batavia. They held elections and gave a fair amount of press freedom and people could organize themselves. But there was also a French military contingent there and there were lines that the Dutch couldn’t cross. Bonaparte had aspirations to do the same kinds of things in Egypt.

So this republican empire looks a little bit different, but it is ultimately empire and it is ultimately hierarchical and it’s extractive and it’s oppressive in various ways.

You used the word “mess” to describe Iraq. Some in the United States say, “If only they had got it right, if only they had competent and able administrators who knew something about Iraqi culture and history and Islam and spoke Arabic, then the invasion of Iraq would have been okay.” Do you subscribe to that kind of thinking?

It’s counterfactual and historians are uncomfortable with counterfactuals: could things have been done differently, could things have been done better, and so forth. If the question is, was it ever likely that the United States could invade Iraq, overthrow the government, and then leave behind a united Iraq that was an ally of the United States and a beacon of democracy in the region? No, of course not. That was a very unlikely outcome.

What lessons can you draw based on the research you did for Napoleon’s Egypt and what the U.S. is doing in the Middle East today?

My argument is that Bonaparte’s Egypt and Bush’s Iraq are bookends on either side of a long period where it was possible for industrial countries of Western Europe and North America to have successful colonialism. As I said, the French were in Algeria for a long time, the British ruled Egypt for 40 years, the Americans were in the Philippines for a long time. I would argue that in the late 18th century they weren’t quite to the point where they could do that so easily, partially because they were divided among themselves, but also because the superior Western technology and organizational techniques just weren’t to the extent that they could easily dominate other cultures.

Over time, in the 19th century, the gap grew so the Europeans tended to have much better guns. Range and accuracy in a gun really means quite a lot. If I can pick somebody off at 100 yards and they can’t pick me off unless I get closer, then I win every time. So there was this long period in the 19th century and the early 20th century when European powers really could rule over Third World people. That ended when people became more urbanized, more literate, more connected; for example the rise of the Congress Party in India and the Wafd Party in Egypt. It’s easier to rule over small village dwellers who are isolated and not politicized. But that has passed.

One of the problems with the American enterprise in Iraq is that it is essentially a colonial enterprise. The U.S. is trying to do colonialism in an age when colonialism has passed, when the possibilities of it are gone, for objective sociological reasons. The Iraqis are highly literate. They have widespread and sophisticated industries like pharmaceuticals and so forth. They’re highly urbanized. They’re politically mobilized, as we can see. They have nationwide political parties and paramilitaries attached to those parties. It’s not a place that can be colonially dominated successfully or for very long. That’s why there is an ongoing instability there and more than one large insurgency.

What I’m saying is that it was predictable. For the same reason that the British couldn’t remain in India and the French couldn’t remain in Algeria, the Americans are not going to be able to remain in Iraq in the way that they had imagined.


David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio (, an independent, weekly radio program produced in Boulder, Colorado. His interviews and articles appear in the Progressive, the Nation, and Z. His latest books are Propaganda & the Public Mind: Conversations with Noam Chomsky and The Decline & Fall of Public Broadcasting.