Think Again

Think Again: Lawrence of Arabia

Afghanistan is a mess. Suicide bombs are still going off in Iraq. Is nation-building doomed to failure? It's time to consult the original insurgent, T.E. Lawrence.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

"Asymmetrical Warfare Has Come a Long Way Since Lawrence."

It has come full circle. It’s easy to assume that the Counterinsurgency Field Manual — the U.S. military’s new, post-Iraq-surge bible on unconventional warfare — is something of a revolution in military thought. Afghanistan itself is rewriting the rules of war every day, it seems. But history has a funny way of repeating itself. The U.S. generals dictating strategy to their troops would have done better to pass around a 1917 publication by Lawrence of Arabia, "27 Articles."

Like the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which was written at a time when the U.S. military was losing Iraq, "27 Articles" was composed during difficult days. It was the height of the Great War in August 1917, following the astonishing capture of Aqaba in the desert campaign against the Ottoman Empire. The British were using Arab insurgents to harass the Turks, and the high command in London, fearing that Aqaba’s conqueror, Lawrence of Arabia, could be killed at any moment, tasked him with codifying what he had learned in dealing with his Arab allies. It was meant to be a manual for British officers serving in the field with Faisal, the Hashemite prince and insurgent leader, and his troops. So, in the midst of leading his guerrilla campaign, Lawrence wearily began typing "27 Articles" in the heat of the desert sun.

The work he produced is nothing less than a new way for Western nation-builders to look at the world. A century ahead of his time, Lawrence realized that without the political backing of the Arab population, he could not win — but with their support, he could not lose. Lawrence describes not only how to run a successful insurgency but how to create a nation. Sounds awfully similar to U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s mantra that protecting the Afghan people — and thus winning their hearts and minds — is the key to success for the NATO mission in Afghanistan. McChrystal acknowledges another dictum of Lawrence: that he is still trying to do way too much with Western troops when Afghans themselves should be doing the brunt of the work. No wonder he wants to double the Afghan Army to 400,000 in the coming years.

"Lawrence’s Major Contribution Was on the Battlefield."

Wrong. It was his philosophy that stands the test of time. As coalition troops are belatedly learning in Afghanistan today, the most important component of asymmetrical warfare is far from the battlefield, among the everyday people. It was here that Lawrence truly excelled. To win militarily, Lawrence knew that one first had to become an astute observer of local governance. Western elites must work with a country’s politics in its current form, rather than looking for an Ahmed Chalabi who promises to magically instill a more Western style of rule, one that is wholly alien to the local culture. In the case of Faisal’s legions, the unit of politics was the decentralized tribe. In modern Iraq, politics breaks down along religious and ethnic lines, with the three primary building blocks being the Shiites, the formerly ruling Sunnis, and the Kurds. Ignoring such indigenous structures makes political failure near inevitable — as seen in today’s Iraq.

Once analyzed, the organic political structures must then become a central part of any nation-building strategy. Local elites must be made stakeholders. "Do not try to do too much with your own hands," Lawrence famously warns in "27 Articles." "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them."

All of this, Lawrence cautioned, should be done only when the potential gains warrant the immense difficulties and costs incurred. A Western country should only engage in arduous nation-building when its primary national security interests are at stake. In the Great War, Lawrence was acutely aware of just how badly Britain needed to defeat Turkey and isolate Germany, and he was convinced that it was possible to energize the Arab revolt to that end. No doubt Lawrence would have also approved of U.S. efforts to reconstruct Germany and Japan in 1945. But he would have been far more skeptical of U.S. interventions in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo that had seemingly little to do with immediate U.S. needs. As with these examples, most nation-building efforts peter out long before they realize their overly ambitious goals.

"Lawrence Got Too Close to the Arabs."

No way. On the contrary, Lawrence’s success can be largely attributed to his proximity to Arab society. His were not the placid ruminations of some creaky scholar locked away in a cloister, but rather the day-to-day lessons drawn from a career of holding the Arab army together. He was immersed in the politics, culture, and language of his Arab counterparts. Being a student of the classics, Lawrence would have known the Greek word for what he was aiming at: "praxis," the unity of thought and action. Combining the two has been an ideal almost entirely forgotten by modern nation-builders.

The contrast between Lawrence’s intimacy with Arab culture and the U.S. military’s absolute inexperience with Vietnamese, Iraqi, and now Afghan society is stark. In the case of Iraq, a scant few of the large staff recruited by then-Viceroy Paul Bremer had any background at all in the Middle East. Many of President John F. Kennedy’s senior advisors could not have passed an introductory course in Vietnamese history, culture, economics, or anthropology. In both cases, nation-building efforts were doomed from the start; it is impossible to transform a society about which one knows precious little.

"Lawrence’s Dreams for the Arabs Were Unrealistic."

No. And they were certainly better than what actually occurred. Lawrence’s vision for the Arab world, explained in his masterpiece Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was one in which boundaries would correspond to local politics rather than the whims of the great powers sketching lines on a map. The revolt was "an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia," he wrote. Greater Syria (today’s Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine) was the testing ground. Lawrence and Prince Faisal established a government based on local ethnic lines ruled by Feisal, a man with enormous street credibility. He spoke the local dialect of Arabic, was the son of the keeper of the holy places at Mecca, and had led Syria’s war of liberation from the Ottomans. Lawrence thought that if the Arab world as a whole could be divided along similar ethnic and religious lines and run by leaders such as Faisal, stable regimes would be the result.

Although such a regional order might sound fatally utopian today, it was in fact the failure to implement it that wreaked so much future turmoil. Upon taking Damascus in October 1918, Lawrence tragically learned that his vision would never come true. He had been a geopolitical tool in the hands of his British masters, who offered Greater Syria to both the Arabs and the French. Two years later in 1920, with the tacit support of London, the French militarily destroyed Faisal’s kingdom at the Battle of Maysalun. Britain and France had succeeded in replacing Ottoman rule with their own colonial oversight. But they ignored the lessons Lawrence had unearthed, disdaining local political opinion in Syria and the Arab world. Lacking local legitimacy, the colonizers had to rely on either imperial diktat or local repression to hold the pieces together. The imperial powers doomed themselves to running perpetually unstable and unsustainable colonies. And they doomed the Middle East to decades of the same.

More had been lost in Syria than just Faisal’s throne and Lawrence’s vision. The Middle East missed its best opportunity for building a stable Arab government in the region. That’s a prospect the same great powers would no doubt cheer today. Lawrence might have been able to deliver — if only London had listened.

"Iraq and Afghanistan Have Killed Nation-Building."

Not yet. But they’ve forced a much-needed rethink. The United States’ present-day difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate a depressing ideological similarity to failed nation-building projects in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The problem in all these cases has been one of philosophy. U.S. military strategists have relied on tactics dating back to the British and French imperial systems — tactics such as privileging military outcomes over political ones, ignoring local culture, imposing Western norms, and failing to work with local populations. No wonder the United States has seen the same dire results.

Where has this left nation-building? In the 20th century, the United States intervened in Haiti a handfull of times; it still remains one of the poorest countries on Earth. The Bill Clinton administration left the chaos of Somalia in 1994; today, the country is an alarming black hole in the Horn of Africa, host to an expanding al Qaeda presence. If free and fair elections were held in Bosnia now, two of the three ethnic groups (the Serbs and the Croats) would vote to secede from the country. Kosovo, despite its contentious declaration of independence, remains intact thanks only to the international community. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, having triumphed in an obviously rigged election, may be more than just the "Mayor of Kabul," but his sway surely does not extend throughout the country. Meanwhile, the Taliban are regrouping and gaining support.

With each failure, Lawrence rolls over in his grave, again and again and again. Top-down nation-building efforts from outside — efforts that pay little more than lip service to the idea of making locals the main stakeholders — are doomed. And unless we start learning from the wisdom of Lawrence’s writings of old, he’ll keep rolling in his disgust.

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