Ian Buruma, Napoleon and U.S. imperialism


Posted to www.marxmail.org on March 19, 2004


When I was an undergraduate at Bard College in the early 1960s, there was about as much likelihood of a professor writing an op-ed piece in the NY Times as there was of the school fielding a semifinalist entry in the NCAA basketball tournament.


Along with all the other transformations that ringmaster Leon Botstein has wrought, it seems like a month cannot go by without some Bard professor or another holding forth in the op-ed pages. Ian Buruma, a Henry Luce journalism professor at Bard (a little bit like being named the Henry Kissinger peace studies professor), is the school's designated expert on the Moslem problem. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education I commented on a while back, he took the Thomas Friedman position that "responsible" Moslems be encouraged.


And a little help from the US military certainly wouldn't hurt. In today's op-ed piece, he says, "Iraq is so violent and chaotic now that it would be highly irresponsible to pull the troops out." I realize that boneheadedness is an occupational hazard of college teaching, but this statement is beyond laughable. Anybody who is even the least bit familiar with the situation understands that U.S. troops are the cause of the chaos in Iraq today. Even when a particularly senseless suicide bombing takes place, the victims call for the removal of U.S. troops which they rightly interpret as the irritant behind such attacks.


Of some interest to students of history is Buruma's comparison of the U.S.'s "revolutionary" intervention from above with Napoleon's. He observes that "Napoleon was a despot and his Grande Armée could be brutal, to be sure, but his reforms were mostly beneficial. Religious freedom was established, government efficiency improved, and the Napoleonic legal code has served continental Europeans well for two centuries."


To call this analogy strained would be overly generous. Contrary to this interpretation, the overwhelming evidence is that the U.S. backs authoritarian and anti-democratic forces throughout the Moslem world. Rather than imposing separation of church and state and parliamentary democracy at the point of a bayonet, it repeatedly backs the most feudalist elements--so long as they are friendly to U.S. corporate interests.


Just one example should suffice. In 1945, FDR met with King Abel-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Arabian kingdom that now bears his family's name in order to cement the alliance that remains to this day. As long as Saudi oil kept flowing, it didn't matter that women were treated as subhuman. In March of 2002, when religious cops prevented schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building in Mecca because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, 15 died.