“I cannot fiddle but I can make a great state from a little city.” -Themistocles (524 BC – 459 BC).
The various nations and geo-cultural territories that make up the Middle East have been denigrated, sometimes rightfully so, as “tribes with flags.” It is a region that has undoubtedly devolved into an archaic patchwork of peoples divided against each other in centuries old blood feuds and modern resource claims. Someone who endeavors to even begin to understand the cultural, religious, and historical features of the many tribes who make up that region would be embarking on a lifelong journey that could scarcely be completed in 100 years.
Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as T.E., understood that better than most, and did his best to make his superior officers in the British military understand it too. Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the film that recounts his service in the desert of modern day Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Jordan, serves as a sobering thesis on the limits of Western wisdom in ancient Arab lands.
I’m far from the first and won’t be the last to say how great a film Lawrence of Arabia is, but I submit that it’s also the most enlightening 3.5 hours of foreign policy education a person could hope to receive. The setting of the movie is the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of 1916-1918 during which the British military employed Bedouin tribesmen in their fight against Turkish forces of the Ottoman Empire. The primary goal of the campaign was to protect a strategic interest of the British empire and the West—the Suez Canal.
Enter T.E. Lawrence, an eccentric and vastly under appreciated archaeologist-turned-intelligence officer serving within Great Britain’s Arab Bureau in Cairo, Egypt during World War I. Lawrence, played by Peter O’Toole in the film, embodied the ideal temperament and character of any government representative hoping to forge a positive relationship in a very foreign land. His example is sorely needed around the world today and the following abridgment of some of the things that made him remarkable is why.
The timeless qualities of T.E. Lawrence
He was well-read both in historical and current events. During one of the opening scenes, Lawrence reads a newspaper headline aloud, “Bedouin tribes attack Turkish stronghold”, then laments, “And I’ll bet that no one in this whole headquarters even knows it happened.” The same could probably be said of today’s versions of the “Arab Bureau”—an unwillingness to carefully examine the facts on the ground before making important decisions.
He was a man of conviction with unshakeable and easily identifiable principles that earned him the trust of the British government as well as the Arab tribes—both of whose interests did not always run parallel. When questioned by one Arab leader about his seemingly conflicted allegiances, Lawrence responded plainly that he was loyal to England “and other things.”
He understood the culture he was surrounded by in Arabia and could quote passages from the Islamic Quran. “The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped,” said Lawrence, attempting to convince the Bedouin tribes of Arabia to take advantage of their knowledge and command of the desert to fight the Turkish Ottomans. T.E. Lawrence was said to be “the mainspring of the Arab movement and knew their language, their manners and their mentality.”
He was deferential as an outsider in a foreign land, often seen wearing the Arab styled keffiyeh headdress and bisht cloak still worn by men in modern day Saudia Arabia. He shed stuffy military titles and gladly adopted the mispronounced version of his name, “Aurens”, among his Arab friends.
He knew and understood the complex motives of the warring Bedouin tribes and was able to build bridges between vast cultural chasms that had long fragmented them in their struggles against the Turks. Asked his opinion about the advice of British commanders for the Arabs to retreat to a British base in Yanbu, Lawrence said, “I think it’s a long way from Damascus.”
He was mindful of the vices of men at war, recognizing in himself and others a subtle yet dangerous pleasure derived from the act of fighting and killing.
He was fearless in expressing his honest opinions about the moral failings of Arabs and Brits alike. “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people. Greedy, barbarous and cruel,” Lawrence admonished two warring tribes.
He was courageous and unafraid to repeatedly put his own life on the line when he asked Arab allies to venture into harm’s way.
He believed in the inherent goodness of human beings everywhere, and had a remarkable ability draw it out of them even in the most extreme of conditions.
He possessed a childlike sense of wonder and willingness to learn the Bedouin culture that inspired criticism and dismay from his superior officers who regarded the tribes as little more than barbaric nomads.
Lawrence of Arabia for the 21st century
All of these qualities made T.E. Lawrence one of the most universally respected and successful soldier-diplomats in modern history. These qualities also would likely preclude him from ever achieving higher office in today’s politically correct world. T.E. Lawrence was guided by facts, not political or financial machinations, and would be equally castigated today by foreign interventionists and isolationists alike. Yet he was neither. His wisdom today would go a long way in curing what ails the Middle East a century removed from his Midas touch.
“Though a price of £15,000 has been put on his head by the Turks, no Arab has, as yet, attempted to betray him. The Sharif of Mecca has given him the status of one of his sons, and he is just the finely tempered steel that supports the whole structure of our influence in Arabia. He is a very inspiring gentleman adventurer.”