February 11, 2006


Our leaders have forgotten the legacy of Lawrence of Arabia: The first draft of history suggests that Britain should have stayed out of Washington's faction-fighting over Iraq (Simon Jenkins, February 10, 2006, The Guardian)

Of all the conundrums, the most often cited is that Iraq was a "great invasion, pity about the occupation". Champions and critics of the war alike are baffled. For America's fairweather friends in Britain the messy occupation offers them a let-out, as if the Pentagon had somehow spoiled the glory of toppling Saddam. The implication is that, had the Brits been in charge, Iraq would now be a stable democracy purring with oil.

A holy text for this thesis is Lawrence of Arabia's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. His occupation of Damascus in 1918 offers eerie parallels with Baghdad in 2003. He had made a dash across the desert ahead of Allenby's army, like the US marines ahead of their infantry. Arriving in a Rolls-Royce, he found the city in chaos. The retreating Germans and Turks had left butchery. Order had collapsed. Local factions were fighting over who would gain power under a (mendacious) allied promise of self-government.

Lawrence, though dog-tired, immediately understood that he must appoint a Syrian military governor and a chief of police likely to command local support. Every official, whatever their loyalty, was told to report for work at once. Engineers were sent to mend the water supply and electricians to get the streets lit by nightfall as a sign that he was in control. He secured food supplies and even went personally to inspect the hospital, full of dead and dying soldiers. An account of the visit formed the dramatic climax to the Seven Pillars.

The British aide Colonel Stirling wrote of that weekend that "a thousand and one things had to be thought of, but never once was Lawrence at a loss". He met any breaches of order with a bullet. He also knew that this might be no passing glory. He wanted Emir Feisal to rule a new Arabia, but when an Arab asked him if Allenby's troops were coming, he answered: "Certainly, but the sorrow is that afterwards they may not go."

Yet, as Mr. Jenkins later notes himself, we learned the lesson of Lawrence -- indeed, the entire situation in the Middle East is a function of its disastrous colonial period -- and have never had any intention of staying. We're doing what the West should have ninety years ago.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 11, 2006 12:00 AM
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