When Conservatives Turn Revolutionary

On the 1st of July, 1797, an intriguing ritual took place in the central piazza of the main port town on the Greek island of Corfu. It was a celebration of the island’s “liberation” from nearly four hundred years of Venetian control. “Trees of liberty” were planted throughout the island in synchronized events. The so-called Golden Book (Libro d’Oro), a sort of aristocratic miscellany compiled by the island’s Italian overseers, was ceremonially burned. Images of the Venetian’s main image, the wingéd lion of Saint Mark were chiseled from the casements. The revolutionary tricolor of the new republic flew from the lovely old Venetian fortress which dominates the view of this exceptionally pretty Greek harbor to this day. In short, these Greek islanders were being forced to celebrate their freedom. By the French.

How had things come to such a strange pass? The rituals were organized by an up-and-coming French general, Napoleon Buonaparte, commander (at the time) of all French revolutionary forces in Italy.

The papal territories were next, and by the spring of 1797, Rome too was forced to accept terms established by the Revolutionary (and extremely anti-clerical) Republic. Dividing the spoils of the Pope’s brand-new museum in the Vatican palace was one of the main results of these French conquests, formalized in the Treaty of Tolentino (on April 4, 1797), which, among other things, listed one hundred priceless works of art to be expropriated by the French and taken to Paris.

The symbol of the Revolutionary French Republic at this time was a seated Classical goddess, framed by the words Egalité and Liberté. Interestingly, official documents did not mention fraternité, the common third term in the mantra of revolutionary French politics, except when a military administrator wished to soften the blow of some new pronouncement. “Liberty and equality” were the real revolutionary buzzwords, even when the letters heralding such fine-sounding phrases concerned the arrangements for stealing more Greek and Roman statues.

As time wore on, Napoleon became disenchanted with the way this revolution was being run. He became more revolutionary, and more autocratic at the same time. So great was this ideological change that the Greeks on islands like Corfu stopped referring to the French demokratia, and began referring to the empire, instead (their word for this is autokratoria). In the intervening years, Napoleon actually had established himself as an emperor, and in so doing, lost much of the credibility and popular support he had enjoyed before then. Wars in the name of exporting democratic revolution were one thing; wars in the name of the French empire were quite another.

Meanwhile, the British Navy slugged it out with the French, both sides aided by a loose assortment of paramilitary groups and non-uniformed forces armed by the empires. We call them pirates and corsairs now and we are very badly mistaken when we assume that such comparative anonymity, or the refusal to wear uniforms, is what makes modern terrorism so new and different. It is not. What is new and different is the technology of violence, pure and simple.

The “Democratic Republic of the Seven Islands” (Corfu, Paxos, Lefkada, Zakynthos, Cephallonia, Ithaka, and Cythera) formed an independent political unit eventually under the control of the expanding French empire. After Waterloo in 1815, the islands fell under loose British control; they were handed back to the fledgling Greek Republic in 1864.

The French were long gone by then, of course, and had been since Waterloo. But throughout their brief tenure in the Ionian Sea and thereafter, the flags of this Seven-Island Republic, as well as the British Protectorate, both sported the central figure of a wingéd lion’s body—now depicted with a regally bearded, human face. The point of this image was to acknowledge that the Venetian period was still the one that was privileged in the islanders’ memory here, not the period of their French or British “liberators.”

What is the point of this obscure history lesson? There is a cautionary tale here for anyone in the current or future US administration with the ears to listen and the eyes to look. Several aspects of this curious French experiment in the Ionian Sea merit our attention. Doubly so when the strategies and rituals in the current Iraq campaign can seem so eerily similar: the forced rhetoric of liberation and democracy disguising the realities of crude power politics; the ceremonial destruction of images and statues from the old regime; the choreographed rituals which force the liberated to celebrate their liberation at others’ hands. Out of these similarities, several historical lessons emerge a bit more clearly.

First and foremost, people clearly do not buy the rhetoric of “liberation” when their lands continue to be occupied by foreign troops. It’s silly to think they would do otherwise. Second, and equally important, the rhetoric of “liberty and equality” (not to mention “democracy” or “fraternity”) rings hollow in such times to all but the tinniest of occupiers’ ears. In the face of such hypocritical-sounding political justifications, people often long nostalgically for the way things used to be. That too seems natural enough, and fairly easy to understand. Finally, and most importantly, the most destabilizing revolutions of all have been conducted in the name of freedom and enforced liberty. That’s precisely how the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s later stewardship of it, went awry.

The reason that Napoleon is still such a vexed and vexing historical figure may be found here. He changed the map and he changed the political ideology of European politics. There was much in what he achieved to warrant our admiration: legal and political reform (the Napoleonic Code), emphasis on good governance, egalitarian virtue, human rights, and the like. If Napoleon was an emperor, then he was an emperor unlike any other before him. In short, he was a revolutionary, intent on exporting his version of revolution and disrupting the old order of elite European privilege. Those most opposed to him were the most entrenched political powers of the day, royal families and wealthy church officials who wished to maintain the status quo.

Because of this, the normal language of politics had become nearly superfluous. As Edmund Burke made clear in his highly influential Reflections on the Revolution in France, the customary language of “liberal” and “conservative” simply did not apply to these new realities. We needed a new language and new analytical tools to comprehend the new political situation spawned by the bizarre linkage of democratic revolution and empire. It is this same linkage that justifiably worries many people about the geopolitical vision, and now the legacy, of the Bush team.

This war was to be unlike all others, President Bush famously remarked in early 2002. In this, he was correct, although there is clearly much more that needs to be said about that. But this President is decidedly not the man to say it. It bears emphasizing that what is not new is the phenomenon of guerrilla warfare, of armed militias not in uniform, inflicting violence against imperial armies and citizens who collaborate with them. That is a very old story. We were already sending US Marines off to fight Barbary pirates (“to the shores of Tripoli,” says the song) in the Napoleonic period. What is new, as noted above, is the technology of modern warfare and modern terrorism, and the as-yet uncertain form that globalization will take. Commercial aircraft smashing into commercial towers devoted to “world trade” perfectly capture these terrifying new realities.

The normal language of warfare doesn’t really apply to this situation, either. Wars are declared by political bodies authorized to do so; in the modern period, they normally involve one or more nation-states. In the US Constitution (Article 1, Section 8), the Legislative branch is authorized to make declarations of war, not the Executive branch, precisely because the Founders were so suspicious of centralized power, symbolized by kings and emperors. It did not matter to them whether the king’s rhetoric spoke of freedom, equality and democracy; he was still acting autocratically, like a king. That is precisely why a Congressional authorization of the use of force to retaliate against a terrorist attack is not a declaration of war. The very notion of declaring war against “terrorism” creates the possibility, and indeed the virtual certainty, of a war that can never end. With whom would we negotiate, after all? With whom would we sign a peace treaty? Whose definition of “terrorist” are we intending to use? One may declare war on an Afghan or Iraqi regime by which one feels attacked, or affronted. A war on terror is a very different matter.

The crucial facts missed by Bush and his team came right here, at the very beginning of this fiasco. This was a unique and radically different geopolitical situation. Global terrorism in an age of mobile rocket launchers and jet airplanes is a global problem, and requires a coordinated global response. It is incredible, at the remove of only a few short years, to recall how we enjoyed the world’s sympathy after the 9/11 attacks, and how quickly that sympathy evaporated. Napoleon experienced a similar, and equally rapid, fall from popular favor.

The Bush team squandered the enormous political capital we then had, and in so doing lost the opportunity to take the lead in beginning to talk seriously about the creation of the kinds of international controls needed in an age of globalization and blurred national borders, to confront these new technological and political threats. Instead, the team chose to act unilaterally, without sufficient consultation with the US Legislature, and hardly involving the international community at all.

Perhaps most distressing is the team’s refusal to learn from its missteps, its astonishing dearth of new ideas, its failure of political imagination. It is increasingly clear that President Bush was not sufficiently serious in acknowledging the novelty of this new situation. As in other revolutionary moments, the normal language of “liberal and conservative” simply does not apply. Yet, as they gear up for new November elections, it is abundantly clear that the Republican Party has decided to dust off this same tired political rhetoric (which has worked very well for them since President Reagan initiated it in 1979), in order to pretend, one more time, that this crude and childish political name-calling names something real and something of importance. As if simply repeating enough times that “the surge is working” will make it so.

All the hard questions are obscured and avoided this way. As conservatives, what are they conserving (the environment? fiscal discipline? constitutional principles? international law?). And what is it about the liberals’ conception of “liberty” that they find objectionable? Whose side are we on: Napoleon’s or Corfu’s? Or are there no longer “sides,” in this new world order?

Many of Napoleon’s most tragicomic actions have been repeated in Iraq. There are the same carefully choreographed public celebrations (“Mission Accomplished”), the same highly public destruction of images from the old regime (toppling Saddam’s statues, gutting his palaces), the same tired rhetoric of “liberty and equality” flying in the face of years of grinding military occupation and the most egregious flouting of international law in prisons ranging from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib, to other places whose names we do not know.

One more thing is glaringly absent this time around. There are no treaties. Even Napoleon consolidated his achievements by treaty; treaties negotiated in relative good faith and mediated by other signatories. There was at least the veneer of a commitment to international law. This is precisely what the Bush team has acted most dramatically against. And it began well before 9/11 with Kyoto.

Napoleon’s treaties ironically made it far easier to repatriate all the Vatican statues after Waterloo; there was a clear record of precisely what had been taken, what had been done, and thus at least a modicum of republican accountability. We have no such receipts from Iraq, and enjoy precious few structures for holding US power accountable. It is, all of it, appallingly anti-democratic.

When the Venetians arrived in Corfu in the 1380s, they planted olive trees all over the island. This Greek-speaking, Seven Island Republic was to be the main source of olives and oil for the ever-expanding Venetian empire and its pan-Mediterranean marketplace. These trees are still there. By contrast, the French planted “trees of liberty” which never took root. Not a single one of them remains in the central piazza in the port town of Corfu.

Beware the conservative who turns revolutionary. Beware the empire that wishes to export democratic revolution. And beware the witless Napoleon who takes his country to war in perpetuity.