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Lawrence James: Napoleon 1812. Bush 2003

The neo-con vision of an irresistible America is fading

The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq has turned out to be a military blunder equal in scale to the invasions of Russia by Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941. Each of those was marked by apparently total victories (accompanied by propaganda fanfares), and field commanders repeatedly announced that they were in full control. Hubris and deceit have also been constant features of the Iraq war with Bush and Blair convincing themselves that present difficulties are marginal and final victory is imminent.

It clearly is not. In 1920, when the Iraqis rose against the British occupation, the local commander General Haldane observed that crushing the rebels was like trying to hold down a piece of parchment. Whenever pressure was slackened, up it rose. This is a problem that has tormented every general faced with persistent guerrilla insurgency. The British solution then was to harry the countryside mercilessly then pull out, leaving a client state with an internal security system that depended on RAF bomber squadrons regularly chastising dissidents.

Blunderers ignore history. Hitler was always testy whenever his strategists mentioned Napoleon's Russian campaign. Hitler was detached from the past and never allowed its lessons to impede the fulfilment of his masterwork, the creation of a new and, he imagined, perfect world. Exactly the same preoccupation dominated Napoleon's thinking; he was a superman bent on reordering the world according to his wishes and the interests of France. All that he and Hitler had to do was to win battles and they would get their way.

The spirit of Bonapartist arrogance has infected President Bush and his advisers. They see the world through Napoleonic eyes, imagining that its future peace and security depend solely upon the paramountcy of a single superpower. Their aim is a Pax Americana which, they imagine, will produce universal stability, the spread of liberal democracy and economic arrangements favourable to the United States. To secure all this, America must be invincible; by winning battles it constantly renews its hegemony and intimidates potential adversaries.

This was the formula which served Napoleon well until 1812, when its success combined with his driving vision made him override practical objections to the invasion of Russia. Something like this occurred during the planning of the Iraq war, when neo-con visionaries such as Rumsfeld and Cheney ignored military, CIA and State Department pragmatists, or questioned their faith in America's global destiny.

Iraq was a weak target. The first Gulf war and subsequent United Nations sanctions had debilitated Saddam Hussein's regime and the outcome of the invasion was never in doubt. Illusory weapons of mass destruction gave a pretext, and many Americans addicted to conspiracy theories imagined that Iraq was involved in the attacks on 9/11. Overturning Saddam's statue was a symbolic end to Clintonesque shilly-shallying abroad and the beginning of a new era in which America's sphere of influence across the Middle East was unassailable, because its war machine was irresistible.

The visionaries had trumped the pragmatists. Short-term problems soon played havoc with long-term dreams. There were not enough soldiers to stop Iraq from sliding into anarchy, although Colin Powell and other strategists had pleaded for reinforcements. A thinly spread army of occupation invites insurrection and nervous, outnumbered detachments became trigger happy.

Within weeks the Pax Americana fell apart. Its disintegration was facilitated by the blunders of dogmatic officials in Washington and unsympathetic proconsuls in Iraq. They sacked Iraqi bureaucrats, soldiers and policemen, many of whom took their guns and joined the insurgents. Deprived of a native gendarmerie, the US authorities turned to mercenaries employed by sinister security companies. This was folly and flew in the face of the first principle of military occupation of a foreign country: win allies and friends. This was how the British had ruled India. Conquest was always followed by the assimilation of local elites, power structures and security forces. After the annexation of the Punjab in 1848, British generals absorbed the well-trained Sikh army into the Indian. Old enemies proved good friends; the Sikhs helped save the Raj during the 1857 Indian Mutiny.

Nothing of the kind has occurred in Iraq, where America and Britain are now widely regarded as enemies. In Iraq, one blunder has been father to another. The fall of Baghdad did not deliver America the paramountcy dreamed of by the neo-cons and the failure to create an effective interim administration has widened historical fault lines within Iraqi society. The upshot is a civil war so bitter that US and British diplomats are considering the hitherto unthinkable: partition. Having finally unravelled the post-First World War settlement in Europe with the division of Yugoslavia, the great powers may have to address themselves to its Middle Eastern counterpart. In the meantime, Iran is making a bid for regional supremacy.

There is also the Flashman option of "cut and run" which Napoleon took when he got into his sledge and scurried out of Russia ahead of the remnants of his army. Its retreat signalled to the world that the Emperor was no longer unbeatable. Within a year, his old victims Prussia, Austria and the German states recovered their nerve and, led by Britain and Russia, were converging on Paris. America faces a similar humiliation in Iraq. There is a distinct possibility that the world may shortly watch TV images of GIs emulating the helter-skelter scramble from Saigon. Bush's adventure has failed; the neo-con vision of an irresistible America is fading.

The historical truth of unlooked-for results has been lost on Tony Blair, who combines an image of himself as a man of destiny with an indifference to the past and its lessons. Flattered by Bush's camaraderie, he swallowed the president's Napoleonic vision of a new world order resting on superior military might, and hoped for some of the reflected prestige. Hailed as the "liberator" of Kosovo, he may, like Marlowe's Tamburlaine, have believed that it was a wonderful thing "to ride in triumph through Persepolis". Vanity and hubris are inseparable from military blunders.

Lawrence James is author of 'The Rise and Fall of the British Empire' (Abacus)