How Would Lawrence of Arabia Defeat the Islamic State?

Lessons from the early 20th century for the chaotic, modern Middle East.

A Turkish fighter of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of Al-Qaeda on his jacket (C-back), holds position with fellow comrades on April 4, 2013 in the Syrian village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo.   AFP PHOTO / GUILLAUME BRIQUET        (Photo credit should read Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images)
A Turkish fighter of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of Al-Qaeda on his jacket (C-back), holds position with fellow comrades on April 4, 2013 in the Syrian village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo. AFP PHOTO / GUILLAUME BRIQUET (Photo credit should read Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images)

A colleague of mine recently watched the Oscar-winning classic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. His brief comment on its merits in regard to understanding the Middle East of today: a cynical shrug of his shoulders and the words “nothing has changed.”

Obviously, in the aggregate, a great deal has changed since the early 20th century, something of which he is actually quite aware. But there is a central grain of truth in his comment, which is that we could profitably spend some time looking at the life and times of Thomas Edward Lawrence, otherwise known to posterity as “Lawrence of Arabia.” From his story emerges some potentially helpful insights that could inform our badly constructed policy, such as it is, toward the region generally and Syria in particular.

Lawrence was born in Victorian England, and his parents moved to Oxford when he was a child. He intensely studied the Arab world there from 1907 to 1910, taking first-class honors in archaeology. He spent time excavating and traveling through the Near East in the run-up to World War I. In the months before the war’s outbreak, he surveyed the Negev Desert (strategically important, as an Ottoman army would have to cross it to attack British Egypt).

As the war began, he was recognized as what we would think of today as a highly qualified foreign area officer, with deep expertise in the Levant and both the Ottoman and Arab worlds. As was depicted in the rather sensationalized film, he played an important role in helping lead the Arabs’ revolt against their Ottoman overlords.

What can we learn from his experiences in what has today become an even worse theater of war than that which he faced? What would T.E. Lawrence tell us about how to approach the challenges we face today in the Levant and the Arab world?

First and perhaps most importantly, he would tell us to understand the strategic terrain in vastly more depth than we do. Know the language, history, and culture of the region. Lawrence had spent a decade preparing for his role, beginning in the classrooms of Oxford. He knew that any successful engagement in the region had to be built upon a base of knowledge and understanding before deciding on courses of action.

In today’s world, this means doing a better job of comprehending the long history of the region, relying more on the opinions of regional experts, and studying what has worked and what has failed far better than we are doing. The U.S. Defense Department’s Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program, which builds a cadre of Central Asian experts, could be well applied here, increasing the numbers and knowledge of Middle Eastern experts within the military planning staffs.

Second, Lawrence would counsel us to build alliances with local leaders, especially the Sunnis. This was the general course he undertook, and though there were tortuous twists and turns, he recognized that the only way to ultimately succeed in a regional conflict would be through recruiting, training, organizing, and deploying local fighters. But he also knew his presence as a mentor and leader would be crucial.

As we look over the Middle East today, our best bet will be working with our Sunni friends and partners — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, and Egypt. Ironically, we will also need to work closely with the inheritors of the Ottoman Empire, the modern day Turks. Without good cooperation among these countries, little can be accomplished. The United States needs to play a role in helping to bring them together in a tactical and strategic sense.

It also means looking beyond the discouraging experiences we have undergone with the recently canceled training program in Syria, the collapse of the Iraqi security forces, and the setbacks we see with the Afghan security forces. There have been more successful programs and places where U.S. training and engagement have made a powerful difference, including Jordan, Egypt, and the Persian Gulf states. We should build on those and not lose heart with the idea of standing up capable indigenous forces.

Third, there is a central role for special operations at the campaign level in much of what we need to accomplish. Just as Lawrence needed to conduct strong, decisive special operations, we need to think in terms of a coherent strategic plan that melds U.S. and partner capabilities. Not only do several of the Sunni partners have capable forces, but America’s Israeli friends do as well. Melding them together is probably a bridge too far at this point, but thinking in a campaign sense about a special-forces role is crucial. U.S. Central Command’s Special Operations Command is well situated to do this, perhaps working with NATO’s Special Operations Headquarters.

Fourth, Lawrence would say to do the unexpected militarily. He once said, “Nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books; but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals.” We need top military planners to think about new operational concepts in this most complicated theater.

For starters, this could include more aggressively combining cyber-operations with kinetic activity, conducting joint special forces raids with Kurdish and Sunni partners, considering Israeli capabilities and intelligence, creating and enforcing no-fly and no-entry zones along the Turkey-Syria border, and shaping the battlefield with long-dwell sensors across logistics and smuggling routes.

Fifth and perhaps most importantly, like Lawrence we must have the humility to recognize the limitations of Western influence in this most volatile of regions. Assessing the overall effect of Britain’s activities in the region, Lawrence once wrote, “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour.” The region does not have to be a trap in the end, but we should certainly appreciate the complexities of the challenges we face and realize that some ideal outcomes may be beyond our reach.

There are no silver bullets in dealing with the volatile Middle East. And success requires considering every element in the tool bags — both hard and soft power. But in selecting what to do next, we can do a better job of looking to those who know the region well for ideas — including to the previous century and the life of T.E. Lawrence.

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is The Leader's Bookshelf. Twitter: @stavridisj