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George W. Bush: The Second Napoleon?

How is the U.S. President more like Bonaparte than Churchill?

October 8, 2004

How is the U.S. President more like Bonaparte than Churchill?

The American president is on a crusade to reform the international institutions of the Cold War, bringing democracy to the greater Middle East — even at the risk of destabilizing U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

And he wants to steer the United States towards an “ownership society” much different from the social institutions of the New Deal that still makes up America's social fabric.

For all these reasons, forgive my French, President Bush smacks of Napoleon much more than Churchill.
Such a comparison would certainly not play well with a Republican administration distinctively given to loathing everything French. Napoleon has left in the memory of the world the imprint of a dictator, in love with war, finally defeated by a coalition of politically sensible countries led by England.

Most French people would of course disagree. They were taught at school about the “soldat de la révolution”, who created the modern French state, the judiciary system, the Code of Laws and a modern army.
But, hold on a minute, is it not exactly what George W. Bush is doing? Loathed abroad — but quite popular at home, opposed by “old Europe” leaders eager to preserve “l’ancien régime”?

Of course, one has to recognize that Napoleon came to power after a decade of revolution, bloody riots, executions and a regicide.

In contrast, George W. Bush is the democratically elected leader of a democratic country at peace with itself for 130 years.
But the world seems more inclined to bloodless revolutions nowadays — and what the United States has been through since 1980 furiously resembles one, with former President Ronald Reagan as Danton and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich as Robespierre.
Danton convinced the "bourgeois" to support the ideas of the revolution and the Republic. But was soon outflanked on his left by Robespierre, he whose political extremism divided the "revolutionnaires" and eventually got them out of power.

As Bonaparte did before he became Napoleon in 1802, George W. Bush rose to power navigating between the political extremes.
He united the Republican Party under an agenda of “compassionate conversatism,” whose main virtue was to end intra-party feuds while appealing to the broader public.

Concerning the 18 Brumaire — the date referring to the month in the Revolutionary calendar, when Bonaparte became First Consul and the official ruler of the country — some could consider it reminiscent of the “Floridian episode” in 2000.

It was carefully planned. With a few bold moves, Bonaparte took over the National Assembly (called the Five Hundred) with the complicity of his brother Lucien, elected President of the Five Hundred a few months before. He then got himself elected "First Consul" — and three years later became Emperor.
Keep in mind that Bonaparte became famous — and rose to power — as France was under the constant attacks of foreign powers, notably Austria and England. These had been defeated at Valmy in 1792, but were regularly threatening to throw down the young French Republic.
England, still fuming over its defeat at the hand of the French and the Americans, was blockading sea trade with France.

In 1799, Bonaparte looked like the only leader capable of fighting back and defending France after his victories over the English at Toulon and the Austrians at Arcole.
Using both his military glory and his political astuteness, he presented himself to the French as the defender of the homeland and the guardian of its security. Do I hear anybody say “George W. Bush, four more years”?

For all the war and destruction he brought to Europe over a period of 15 years, Napoleon liked to be portrayed as le “Combattant de la Liberté” (freedom fighter), setting countries and people free after years of tyranny under the yoke of kings.

He opened the road to the creation of modern nation states in Germany and Italy — and brought down forever absolute monarchy as a means of government.
If the Middle East is substituted for Europe, the Napoleonic conquests are not that much different from the war in Iraq as conducted by George W. Bush. Both have been launched on the premise of protecting the homeland from outside aggression — and then were expanded into a much bigger scheme to promote democracy and set people free.

Both George W. Bush and Napoleon show the same contempt for diplomacy, using it as a tool to reach one’s ends — but replacing it in case of failure with the famous “ultima ratio regum” (the last argument of kings), which was engraved on French cannons by order of Louis XIV.
“La diplomatie est la police en grand costume” — or "diplomacy is nothing but police in fancy clothing," Napoleon liked to say. That is an assessment that George W. Bush could easily endorse in his dealings with the United Nations and other international bodies.

Both relied nonetheless on old experienced men to conduct their diplomacy. Napoleon’s “Secretary of State” was Talleyrand, a clever aristocrat who served the monarchy, the Emperor and then the monarchy again after Napoleon was exiled in Sainte Hélène.

Colin Powell, without ever switching political sides, found himself more than once torn between his loyalty to the international institutions and to his president, torn between the desire to preserve old alliances and the will of his commander-in-chief to wage war.
The comparison could go on — but one also has to take account of the fact that the respective destinies of George W. Bush and Napoleon appear to be somewhat different.
Mr. Bush is running for reelection, while Napoleon was forced into exile. History is far from being over — and November 2, 2004 could still become Bush’s Waterloo, even though it seems unlikely. Some U.S. presidents had to endure the ignominy of exile at home for their failures — as Richard Nixon did after Watergate.

A trait that would make George W. Bush much closer to Napoleon than Winston Churchill is mangled words and a difficult relationship with grammar. Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature — a feat that seems a long stretch for the American president.

Napoleon was Corsican and had to learn French as a teenager. His grammar remained therefore adventurous (with a lot of words written phonetically) and his accent was very thick with Italian influences.To compare it with Bush’s texan twang would be an exaggeration, but not too absurd — especially when measured against Churchill’s perfect English.

That leaves the matter of God. Mr. Bush makes no secret of his faith, while Napoleon's personal belief system was bordering on atheism.

But the American President is also very much aware that the public expression of his religious beliefs brings him considerable support from conservative Christians, knowing that politics and religion can be a very powerful mix.

Napoleon knew it as well, hence his insistence in having the Pope come to Paris for his coronation. “A society without God is a ship without a compass”, he said — a sentence that Bush could easily endorse.

So is George W. Bush really a latter-day Napoleon clad in cowboy attire? Yes — and no. Perhaps the bigger difference is that the admiration Napoleon had for the young United States is not matched on Bush’s side by a love of things French.
The defeated French Emperor thought about taking refuge in the United States after Waterloo (his oldest brother Joseph did). It was the English who made sure that this would not happen by blockading his ship near Bordeaux.
Last time I checked, George W. Bush had not yet asked Jacques Chirac for some nice villa on the Riviera, should be defeated in November.