The Lessons of Lawrence

To Begin the World All Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to Baghdad
John Hulsman, Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $27.95
Those of us who try to keep up with developments during the Iraq War find that there are many basic facts about the region that don’t get answered in the daily coverage by the press. Why is Iraq the shape that it is? Who set its boundaries? And why is Saudi Arabia called that, anyway? Why doesn’t the country have another name?
The answers, as John Hulsman shows in his important but problematic book, can be found by studying the life and ideas of T. E. Lawrence. Most of us first learned about Lawrence through the film Lawrence of Arabia. Many have read Lawrence’s excellent war memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. While historians endlessly debate how much of Lawrence’s memoir was fictionalized, everyone agrees that he was a military genius and a masterful writer.

Hulsman argues that Lawrence’s heroic exploits during World War I are only part of Lawrence’s legacy. As important as his military achievements were, Hulsman argues, it’s his role as a military strategist and postwar diplomat that matter more. During the war, Lawrence became one of the first proponents of what we now call “counterinsurgency.” In 1920-1921, Lawrence, along with his close ally Winston Churchill, were crucial players in a postwar conference that set the boundaries not only of Iraq but of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine (now Israel). Hulsman argues that Lawrence’s decisions during that conference ensured that Iraq would become a troubled nation.
Hulsman’s book is very short, and it might well have been better argued as an article in a foreign policy journal. Much of To Begin the World Over Again summarizes more substantial Lawrence biographies, including works by Michael Asher, Lawrence James, and John E. Mack.
Nonetheless, Hulsman’s central point is sound — that Lawrence’s ideas are as important as his deeds. “For all his brilliance as a soldier and a man of action,” he writes, “it is Lawrence’s role as a thinker ahead of his time that is most valuable for the world we live in.”
As lovers of the movie know, Lawrence successfully rallied Arab forces in a revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1916-1918. In July 1917, Lawrence and his Bedouin allies captured the crucial port of Aqaba, ensuring that all of Arabia would be freed from Turkish rule.
One month later, Lawrence’s superiors asked him to write down his ideas for dealing with guerilla forces. Lawrence’s essay, “Twenty-Seven Articles,” shows his early mastery of the tactics of counterinsurgency.
“The beginning and ending of the secret of handling Arabs is unremitting study of them,” Lawrence wrote. Lawrence tried to blend in with the Bedouin, wearing Arab garb rather than British khaki. He also spent much of his time dealing with civil society rather than plotting military strategy. “I had to adjudicate in twelve cases of assault with weapons, four camel thefts, one marriage settlement, fourteen feuds, two evil eyes, and a bewitchment,” Lawrence told the New York Times in 1918.
“The Bedu are easy to lead, if you have the patience to deal with them,” Lawrence wrote in the 14th of his 27 articles. “The less apparent your influences, the more your influence.”
But Lawrence’s hard work and humility paid off. The Arabs trusted him, particularly when they started winning against the Turks. Hulsman believes that Lawrence’s strategies of working with local peoples and listening to what they needed are effective policies for practicing counterinsurgency against al-Qaeda and the Taliban today.
Lawrence’s chief Arab ally was Prince Feisal of Arabia, who desperately wanted to rule Syria after the war. Secret negotiations between the British and French, however, gave Syria to the French. In 1920-1921, Lawrence, working closely with Churchill, successfully ensured that Feisal would be king of Iraq, an amalgam of three Turkish provinces with capitals in Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. Feisal’s brother, Abdullah, became king of Jordan. (Jordan’s current king, Abdullah II, is the first Abdullah’s great-grandson.)
In maneuvering Feisal into the Iraqi monarchy, Hulsman says, Lawrence violated all of the principles he used as a war leader. Feisal knew “next to nothing” about Iraq and was a Sunni in a Shia-dominated country. Lacking legitimacy, he created a police state, and Iraq’s rulers continued to rule repressively until Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
Many will find Hulsman’s central point — that top-down nation-building is bad, and bottom-up, hands-off advising good — a contentious one. But the book remains an effective introduction to the life — and the ideas — of T. E. Lawrence.


  • Martin Morse Wooster

    Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center, a contributing editor to Philanthropy, and a education book reviewer of The Washington Times.

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