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
When Tony Blair is criticised over Iraq he appeals to either the past or the future. The invasion seemed a good idea at the time, or at least “Let history be my judge”. Leave the present out of it.
Taking him at his word, I thought to give history a call. She is in good health, sleeves rolled up, rolling pin in hand. But she complains of overwork. Not a month passes without some new leaked Iraq memorandum, narrative or memoir slamming down on her kitchen table.

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.”

None of Lawrence’s “thousand and one things” have been achieved in Baghdad in almost three years, let alone three days. The initial errors, the tolerance of looting and the mass sackings of soldiers and Ba’ath party officials have been analysed by authors as varied as Bob Woodward, Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, George Packer and Larry Diamond, and now David Phillips in Losing Iraq.

All show that there was no shortage of occupation plans. The state department’s ran to 2,000 pages and cost $5m. It involved 75 of the west’s top Arabists and 240 Iraqis. Donald Rumsfeld tore it up: it was too cumbersome and demanded too many troops. He preferred the assurance of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz that Ahmed Chalabi could be installed in Baghdad and left to get on with it. Rumsfeld smelled a Washington awash not in nation-building but in empire-building. He wanted to spray Iraq with Pentagon democracy-lite and leave.

The message of these books is that even as the US went to war Washington’s ideological armies were feuding over their intentions. The state department’s plan might just have won enough local support to steer a path to stability. I doubt it. Paul “Jerry” Bremer tried, in effect, to revive it, but in retrospect the alternative neoconservative vision of leaving Chalabi to sink or swim was probably a faster route to self-government. As it was, the whole bite was bigger than Washington could chew. It demanded a “white man’s burden” that American democracy could not tolerate. Americans would not “bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need.” They would get bored and go home.

From the moment George Bush declared victory in Iraq, American public opinion wanted out. As Bremer watched his domain descend into anarchy, he watched Washington lose interest. When he tried to arrest Moqtada al-Sadr (whom Lawrence would have had swinging from a lamppost), the marines refused. They wanted no more casualties. Bremer was denied troops to impose law and order. He went about doggedly restoring hospitals, printing banknotes, buying up food crops, rebuilding infrastructure. It was all too late – late not in Iraq but in Washington. The White House cry was always the same: “What’s taking you so long, Jerry?”

Soon Rumsfeld was scheming to escape Afghanistan, finally dumping it on the ever-gullible Blair. The last thing he wanted was a long-term commitment in Iraq. Saddam had gone and he sought fresh fields for his lightweight, hi-tech army. To him an enemy is someone you find, fight and forget. Only the neocons and Blair feel the need make him your friend. Rumsfeld is no imperialist and this is Rumsfeld’s war. Bremer, a Lawrence-come-lately, was stranded.

In all these books the nation of Iraq seems a distant abstraction. Proof lay in Washington’s casual neglect of its national heritage. I still cannot believe anyone sensibly believed that Saddam posed a threat to the security of the west. As history relates, the intelligence community had to be ordered into “cognitive dissonance” in both Washington and London to supply lies that might validate the war. The real objective was glory, for centuries the premium on American military prowess.

What none of the authors explains is the affair of the dog that did not bark in the night. The British had always “done” Iraq. Foreign Office Arabists breathed Lawrence from birth. So where was Britain in all these arguments, when the outcome was so crucial to its foreign policy?

Here history eagerly awaits Jeremy Greenstock’s uncensored memoir. The interim judgment must be that Britain in 2003 suffered a post-imperial seizure, almost entirely confined to Downing Street. It drove London into unthinking support for whichever faction was dominant in Bush’s Washington. It defied the west’s strategic interest in a Sunni/Shia balance in the Middle East. It defied the rule that nothing should enhance the status of Iran or galvanise Kurdish revanchism. As for Saddam, at least he should have been replaced with a leader who was secular and strong enough to hold Iraq together.

None of this happened. All such diplomatic subtlety was lost in a fierce Washington civil war, well described by both Woodward and Phillips. The truth is that America lacked the self-discipline and confidence for nation-building, let alone empire-building. Rumsfeld may bomb whoever enters his sights. But anyone who thinks America is willing or able to be an imperial power can take comfort from these first rough drafts of history. Empires are not for fidgets.

Lawrence might reflect that when imperial armies arrive “the sorrow is that they may not go”. That is one mistake America seems unlikely to make.

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