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What Would Lawrence of Arabia Do?

Wadi Rum, where David Lean filmed much of 'Lawrence of Arabia'

John C. Hulsman is the Alfred von Oppenheim Scholar in Residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Hulsman, a regular commentator and writer on Middle East and transatlantic affairs, and author of To Begin the World Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to Baghdad, chatted with Zócalo about what we’re still getting wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq, why we should give (some) warlords a chance, and what Lawrence of Arabia would say to U.S. policy makers today.

John C. HulsmanQ. Tell me about the title. Why use the Thomas Paine quote?

A. It’s an ironic title. The reason I wrote this book, and I discuss this a bit in the beginning, is because I worked in think tanks in Washington for about 10 years, including during and in the aftermath of Iraq war. I was serving on a few task forces at the Council on Foreign Relations about nation building. It was apparent we were going to war, and it was apparent we were going to win and have to run the place. I was the token Republican on the task force. I’m not a neo-conservative, but a Colin Powell Republican. They knew I wouldn’t bite, in other words, so they invited me. I listened to the most ridiculous nonsense until I couldn’t stand it. Everyone was just repeating Woodrow Wilson, claiming that we would teach people to elect good men and to enact 21st-century Western standards, that we would design the Constitution and pick their leaders and liberate them from themselves. This got me angrier and angrier and I scribbled down in my notebook, “To Begin the World Over Again.”

It is the old Thomas Paine quote. And it’s important to remember that Thomas Paine ended up languishing in prison during the French Revolution. His wild utopian views didn’t correspond to reality. George Washington had to beg the French not to execute him. I wanted to use the quote as an ironic way into looking at T.E. Lawrence, to tell a story that’s riveting and fascinating but begin with this irony.

Q. When did you first encounter Lawrence of Arabia?

A. That’s the wonderful thing. At the end of one of those meetings, I got up and said, “Better they build it badly than we build it well.” It sounded really good, but I knew I hadn’t said it. When I got back to my office at the Heritage Foundation, I said to my chief of staff, who said this? And he came back and said it was Lawrence of Arabia. I had to re-watch the great David Lean film, which is just wonderful. I told my staff, get me everything on Lawrence, everything the guy wrote and thought about. Other than the movie, I’m not sure I was that aware of what he’d done.

I felt a bit like Indiana Jones when I came across this old wartime document that he wrote in August 1917. The British, in typical fashion, like the Americans, had a meeting. They were asking, “What happens if Lawrence is killed in war? All his knowledge will be lost.” So they said to him, “Write us a memo about how you deal with these people. What’s the secret?” You can imagine Lawrence’s feelings about having to type a memo. But he writes this memo and calls it The 27 Articles. Although scholars know about this of course, I felt like I was blowing dust of the document, most of us don’t think about it, and I’d never seen it. It occurred to me that he got everything right about state building. The reason we kept failing – in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq – was that we kept trying to do the same thing over and over again: tell people from afar what to do, and dictate outcomes. Lawrence’s whole point was that you must know everything you can about the local culture. You have to help them help themselves. These are not just differences in semantics. It occurred to me that this philosophy had been entirely forgotten. I had to find out what happened to him, and why things went the way they did. And so I’ve spent the last three years with Lawrence in the desert.

Q. Given that we’ve had so many failures with nation-building – and maybe this is impossible to answer – but why does this keep happening? Do we just have short memories?

A. That’s a great question. Part of it is human nature. American nation-builders, and I know them very well, can only say one thing. The reasoning is circular, you can’t refute it: they say, if only we would contribute more resources – more time, more troops, more wherewithal. It isn’t that the philosophy is flawed, they say, it’s that it’s not being pursued with enough vigor. Everyone has said this since the beginning of time, since the Greeks. You can’t refute it. My argument about all this is Lawrence’s: we find ourselves in the position of picking the winners and losers in other societies. Beyond the moral failings of that, it just won’t work. Look at Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai is doing a passable impersonation of Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. He’s corrupt, arrogant, unrepentant, and he stole this election. [U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan] Richard Holbrooke started yelling for a recount. Think about this: An American who has no knowledge of Afghanistan, who is a professional diplomat, is telling Afghanistan what to do for this election. We’re up to our hip boots in this sort of thing. The outcome will be seen as an American dictate. It won’t be accepted by the vast majority of people. We do this over and over again. We did it in Haiti, which is still among the poorest countries in the world. We did this in Somalia, when the Clinton administration picked one warlord over the other and then Black Hawk Down happened and now the country has Al Qaeda elements. This is like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. We think if we keep running, we’ll hit it, when of course the dilemma is that Lucy will move the ball. You can’t make other people do what you want. If you dictate outcomes, pretty quickly things are going to go wrong.

For Lawrence, the key moment was before he went to the desert. Prince Faisal was being forced to fight like the English, not like the Arabs. It was a guerilla society that used hit-and-run tactics, but they were being made to go into trenches. They had never seen airplanes or machine guns. Obviously it wasn’t going very well. Lawrence said, the Arab uses the desert like a ship uses the sea. Let’s go back to the realities of this culture. Our philosophy today is flawed, but who wants to admit they’ve been wrong, that their professional lives have been wasted? It’s easier to say why didn’t we put it in more resources? That’s just human.

Q. What would Lawrence do today?

To Begin the World Over Again, by John HulsmanA. As a foreign policy guy, it’s great to criticize a policy, but you must offer something in its place. He’d say a couple of things. First, we have to work with history, not against it. I’ll use an example. In Iraq, telling Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is a generally representative leader of the Shia in Iraq, to uphold Western-style women’s rights is unlikely to work. It’s not that women’s rights don’t matter, it’s about the order of doing things, about dealing with Sistani, who is a real representative – it’s not Jeffersonian representation, it’s local, general representation. We don’t get to pick and choose who we deal with, and that’s a huge insight of Lawrence’s. He didn’t pick Faisal.

Second, we have to do nation building far less. It’s way too complicated to do well. Often it does take time and money and a strategy that works with history. In Japan and Germany this was essential – these were very important countries that couldn’t be left in chaos. In Germany, we said they should be capitalist. Teaching Germans to be capitalists wasn’t new – they were capitalists in the 15th century. It had been a decent part of their history and culture. They could understand it. in the case of Japan, Gen. MacArthur new very little about American politics, but he knew about Japanese politics. He was just the most recent reforming warlord – Japan had a long tradition of victorious warlords coming in as premiers and initiating reform. In the case of Afghanistan, it has never been a nation. It has never been united in its thousand-year history. Expecting it to be a modern nation-state is a doomed project. A decent solution, with local control and a lot of people called warlords running the show, who do have legitimacy, is the best we can do.

Q. Is there anyone working in the field who has a Lawrence-like attitude?

A. One of the guys who blurbed my book, actually. Former Sen. Gary Hart gets it. We’ve talked at length and he knows a lot about Lawrence. Otherwise, people in the military understand. There’s nothing like getting shot at to see theories go out the window. If you talk to them, as I do, they’ll say that they’re all against drugs, but if you do immediate eradication in Afghanistan, you’d have vast armed conflict in places where the drug economy is the local economy. You can’t turn the tap off. You have to offer alternatives. Gen. Petraeus and Gen. McChrystal kind of get it. I think the strategy is about five years too late. In terms of counterinsurgency, local stakeholders are key. With the locals on your side, you can’t lose, and without them, you can’t win. If villagers tell you where enemy camps are, you’re going to win. If they don’t, you’re going to lose. That’s where hearts and minds matter in a practical way. Some military counterinsurgency people get it, but they don’t get that these are political problems, not military ones. Clausewitz got this right centuries ago, and Lawrence really understood it too. Arab politics is the tribe. In Afghanistan, it’s the tribe. In Iraq, it’s ethno-religious – the Sunni, the Shia, and the Kurds. The unit is not individuals in a modern American Jeffersonian nation-state. If you get the politics right, the military part is, frankly, easy.

Q. We seem to worry about dealing with warlords and such – are the ones we face today in Iraq and Afghanistan uniquely dangerous somehow? Are we worried about their religious extremism, for instance, more than we were worried about local leaders elsewhere?

A. By our standards most people are extremists. That’s because our standards are different. What we need to do is divide the extremists. One of my favorite characters in the book is Auda abu Tayi. He’s the great Anthony Quinn character from the movie. He’s a throwback to an earlier time. He kills 80 men and fights for plunder and eats the hearts of his victims. He’s a warlord. He’s also a river to his people – he gives away his wealth – and they revere him and will do anything for him. By the standards of everything the United Nations or the League of Nations would have held true, he’s horribly offensive. But Lawrence realizes he’s the only game in town. He has to think in terms of the region and not in terms of the League of Nations. You can only do that if you study these tribes.

Think of John F. Kennedy – not George W. Bush, he’s too easy to pick on. No one in his administration could pass a basic test on Vietnamese history, culture, or anything at the time they invaded the country. It’s impossible to transform a society of which we know nothing. In all these cases we know little yet we’re convinced one form will fit everywhere. Given the complexities, that a tribal nation is so different from the West’s experience of nationalism, this is particularly hard. I try to talk to non-elites, that’s the only way to find the people who really confer legitimacy to local leaders. It’s no use talking only to elites who went to Oxford or St. Andrews or Harvard or Yale.

*Photo of Wadi Rum, Jordan, courtesy de wan.