Napoleonic Overreach in Iraq

In 1804, the Pope was summoned to Paris to crown Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of France. At the climax of the coronation, however, Napoleon snatched the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowned himself. The episode reeks of Napoleon’s hubris, but it wouldn’t be his greatest demonstration of imperial overreach.

That occurred on June 22, 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia. The campaign proved to be so ill-conceived that it soon toppled his empire. The tale merits scrutiny, as the Bush Administration is duplicating Napoleon’s hubristic errors in its imperial misadventure in Iraq.

As with Bush and the invasion of Iraq almost two centuries later, all seemed well at the beginning for Napoleon and his Russian campaign. His Grand Army of 675,000 outnumbered Tsar Alexander’s army, almost three to one. However, Napoleon failed to adequately plan the logistics of the campaign. Within weeks, his army melted away from starvation, exposure, and sickness. Napoleon reached Moscow with barely a hundred thousand survivors. His logistical bungling had destroyed four-fifths of his army even before engaging the enemy.

Likewise, in its occupation of Iraq, the Bush Administration has dismissed logistical details and so our military resources are hemorrhaging. The occupation costs a hundred billion dollars a year, more than half a million dollars per soldier deployed, but our troops lack armor and spare parts and receive pay so low that their families qualify for food stamps. As did Napoleon, Bush believes that personal vision transcends grubby bookkeeping.

Another of Napoleon’s errors was manifested when he entered Moscow, confidently expecting the Russian opposition to collapse with the seizure of its greatest city. But at the time, the capital of Russia was in Saint Petersburg; Napoleon in his smugness had attacked the wrong target, leaving the Tsarist regime unscathed and the war far from over.

Bush has made a similar blunder in the War on Terror. Our enemies are al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but Bush — claiming God’s wisdom — attacked Iraq and Saddam Hussein instead. And so our real enemies in the War on Terror remain free and unharmed, while the US entangles itself in an exhausting sideshow.

Napoleon compounded his errors by refusing to admit mistakes. He "stayed the course" in occupying Moscow, lingering for weeks as winter approached. When he finally allowed retreat, it was too late. Freezing cold added to hunger and killed more of his soldiers. Of the 675,000 who entered Russia in June 1812, only ten thousand escaped in December.

Similarly, Bush’s pride refuses to acknowledge that the War on Terror was derailed by the invasion of Iraq. So the occupation continues, adding a hundred-billion-dollar-a-year burden to an already threatening US federal deficit.

Given these parallels between Napoleon and Bush, what can we expect from America’s misbegotten intervention in the Middle East? A final parallel offers a disturbing warning.

When the Russians captured one of the coaches from Napoleon’s retreating army, they found maps of India and China. This presciently echoes the Bush Administration’s rumored plans to invade Iran and Syria. Imperialist hubris knows no limits — other than overreach and collapse.

Napoleon’s imperial overreach into Russia soon cost him his empire. In June 1815, almost exactly three years after entering the Russian quagmire, the Emperor met his ultimate defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. He commanded only 74,000 soldiers on the field that day; if Napoleon could have brought 675,000 more, Wellington would have undoubtedly retreated in undignified haste. Instead, having squandered so much of his manpower upon Russia, Napoleon could no longer defend his own national borders.

If Bush continues on Napoleon’s imperial path, America will follow the fate of Napoleon’s empire. Regardless of the Bush Administration’s vainglory, the United States cannot afford hundred-billion-dollar-a-year-each, manpower-stretching occupations of Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and protect itself as well. Eventually, financial reality will set in, and the United States must withdraw from the Middle East or risk its own survival.

Our real enemy (Osama — remember?), who so far has remained untouched, will then step into the power vacuum which the Bush Administration has created in the Middle East.

Is this any way to conduct a War on Terror? No, but as the parallels with Napoleon in Russia illustrate, it is exactly how hubris-afflicted leaders overreach their empires.

April 12, 2005

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