From the desk of Napoleon

Monsieur le président,

From the tops of those ancient steles in Baghdad, three millennia of history look down on your presence in Iraq. You came to Iraq in 2003, as I came to Egypt in 1798. Like me, you won the day militarily; indeed you won it more quickly than I did, for it took me many months and tens of thousands of lives to overthrow the evil Mameluke government. (I envy you your good fortune in having the British on your side. I did not.)

I write you now to help you to stay your course. The world is at a turning point, and you have a decision to make. If I speak bluntly, monsieur le président, it is because I sense in you something of a kindred spirit. You are, like me, not a man to doubt yourself, not a politician to ask useless questions or ponder the polls and the pols. But you have been too remote, shall I say, too implicit. The time has come for you to step forward.

I speak not as a Frenchman to an American but as one born ruler to another. In the current state of world affairs, it is your country that rivets my attention, not the ungrateful nation that I adopted and conducted to its summit of historic glory. France’s current international policy is moralistic posturing, a nostalgie de grandeur. She is obsessed with American power, yet she hasn’t the means or the will, only the burning desire, to imitate America.

I came to the Middle East with a better knowledge of Islam than you have, yet I did not have your priceless advantage of being a religious man, unencumbered by any trace of irony. On the contrary, my offer to convert to Islam along with my army was greeted with derision by locals, who continued to see in us French only the Jacobin destroyers of religion.

So pay your respects to Allah, but do not let that charade lead you to deal feebly with the efforts of the factional forces-Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds-who seek political profit in portraying Americans as “infidels.” We French were so portrayed as well, but we worked with local authorities to build an infrastructure, while behind the scenes, I brilliantly played off their parties one against the other. Do the same, mon ami. A few billion dollars in baksheesh, and the religious conflict will take care of itself.

I congratulate you. Your strength is so feared that it does not matter that your name is reviled. Strong leaders like you and me are always criticized and reviled. I envy you for your international supremacy, which I never achieved, even at the height of my empire. The British were always there to oppose me, but the Soviet Union is no longer there to oppose you.

Profit from this historic situation to act globally. Do not allow mere domestic considerations to deflect you, as I did when I left Egypt precipitously in 1799. Stay fixed on your goal of imposing the new world order that your father spoke of. That order may not be as democratic as you intend, but it will constitute a decisive improvement for America’s national interest.

Embrace your destiny, monsieur le président. Accept the empire that is yours, and bring your people to do so. They will grumble at first, but in the end they will appreciate the leader who made them shed their silly anticolonial prejudices. In their hearts, Americans have always implicitly understood what the French of my era knew, when I reigned as “Emperor in the French Republic”: that a republic may well contain within itself the seeds of world empire.

Open the throttle on the popular imagination. Be clear that what is at stake is the steady and abiding imposition of American democracy on a world that does not yet know-but will-that this is what it needs most.

Accept that changes will occur at home, that America will become more authoritarian and less liberal, though she will still be, as France was under my Empire, a society of law. Depoliticize the issue of American global power. Do as I did: make it a matter of national interest, so that its opponents are seen as unpatriotic. Remember: Once you have succeeded, people will follow you. Make war well when you have to, and you will be seen as a peacemaker.

No leader-no nation-worthy of respect, would step back from what history is offering to America and to you. Only own what you are doing. This is a matter of power, not morality or religion. What you require is not humility, monsieur le président. It is audacity.

Published in the 2004-04-23 issue: 

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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