A Lesson from Napoleon for Mr Bush

Roundup: Historians' Take

Dmitry Shlapentokh, historian and contributing fellow for Central European and Eurasian studies at the Hudson Institute, writing in the Straits Times (Singapore) (Feb. 16, 2004)

AS RECENTLY revealed by American inspectors in Iraq, Saddam Hussein did not have any stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, the major pretext for the war. This discovery, or lack thereof, provided a fresh line of attack on the present administration from an array of political opponents who pushed President George W. Bush to launch a special investigation into what was seen as a gross intelligence failure.

There was strong pressure to make Central Intelligence Agency chief George Tenet personally responsible for the debacle. Those journalists who were against the war from the start became especially vitriolic in their attacks on Mr Bush and his advisers.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has pointed out that Mr Bush read Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime And Punishment and failed to draw an appropriate conclusion from the work - that unbridled hubris should be restrained and no one should break the law, under threat of punishment.

YET Mr Bush could hardly draw this conclusion, for his hubris is of quite a different sort from that which drove the protagonist of the Dostoevsky novel.

Raskolnikov, the protagonist of the novel, was a poor student who robbed and killed an old woman pawnbroker. He justified this action by the assumption that extraordinary people should be beyond the norm. While Dostoevsky was influenced by a variety of people, Raskolnikov clearly stated who inspired him - Napoleon Bonaparte, who became emperor exactly 200 years ago in 1804.

Raskolnikov was inspired by Napoleon, but he was quite different from the latter, at least in the nature of his hubris. His ambition was purely personal and could be easily changed and controlled. In the case of Napoleon, the hubris was institutional.

The huge armies of the empire, the resources of the entire nation used totally for the war, and an almost endless chain of victories, from Valmy, the first great victory of the French republican troops, long before Napoleon's rule, to Austerlitz and beyond, created a powerful impetus for imperial expansion.

The army, the bureaucracy, and the majority of the French - all of them were carried along by the chain of victories and demanded the continuation of imperial conquest.

Napoleon's ambitions were not so much personal as they were the ambitions of the entire nation riding on the crest of what seemed to be endless success. It is quite likely that any other French general would have followed the same road until a debacle similar to the Russian campaign showed the limits of expansion.

If Napoleon had read a book similar to Crime And Punishment, he would not have been able to stop his ambitions, even if he had been an attentive reader.

The forces which pushed him to the Russian snow were beyond him. And in fact, the assumption that Napoleon was driven by extra-personal forces was shared by the great contemporary of Dostoevsky - Leo Tolstoy.

THE same could be said about Mr Bush. His Iraq war was brought about not just by his desire to eliminate an enemy of his father, eliminate potential danger for the United States, please the oil companies, or manifest his macho personality. His war and hubris were institutionalised.

He inherited from Mr Bill Clinton, who supposedly was absolutely different from Mr Bush, the greatest military force in human history, and the continuous Austerlitzes of the geopolitical success caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union - the creator of a huge geopolitical void.

All these created a great impersonal force which carried Mr Bush to the sands of Iraq with almost the same inevitability as the forces that pushed Napoleon to the Russian snow. Thus the problem is not just that Mr Bush did not read well and did not draw the appropriate conclusions from the book provided to him by his advisers, or that bad intelligence and the President and his advisers plainly misled the public. The problem was much deeper.

THE American elite, in fact the nation, should seriously reconsider American foreign policy and ponder the limits of American geopolitical might, not trivialise the problem by reducing it to bad personal features of the President or his advisers or sub-standard intelligence.

And if this is not done, there is a chance that the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, or any river the US army might cross while following the 'doctrine of pre-emption', could well be transformed into Berezina, the river Napoleon crossed on his way back from his disastrous Russian campaign.

It was here that, observing his decimated Grand Army, he made his famous statement, that from the great to the ridiculous is just one step.

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