Analysis: Lawrence rides again

ROLAND FLAMINI, UPI Chief International Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Lawrence of Arabia died 70 years ago in a freak motorcycle accident on an almost deserted road. A commemorative exhibition currently at the Imperial War Museum in London offers a mélange of his exploits in the Middle East, their stirring -- if not altogether accurate -- portrayal in the epic film bearing his name, and the strange search for anonymity of his later years as he sought to escape from the fame he had helped to create with the publication of his famous autobiographical work, "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom."

Lawrence's fame endures as one of the romantic figures in the history of the British Empire. But recent events in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East show that he was as perceptive as a political adviser as he was daring as a guerrilla leader. "Lawrence of Arabia: The Life, The Legend" feels less like a homage to the past, than an impassioned appeal to avoid the same mistakes today.


On display is a letter from Lawrence to Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, whose adviser he was in the early 1920s urging him not to combine the Kurds, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims into one state in what is now Iraq. The exhibition also includes a newly found map showing Lawrence's earlier proposals to the Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet at the end of World War I for separate governments for the Kurdish and Arab areas, as well as for the Armenians in Syria.


Had his proposals been followed they might have saved a lot of subsequent grief. But Britain had already secretly agreed to hand over Syria to France, including Lebanon, and his suggestion was ignored. The government adopted the infamous plan drawn up by Sir Mark Sykes for Britain and Francois Georges-Picot for France, which lumped Kurds and Arabs together and drew up the borders of modern Iraq, under British control. Later, Lawrence helped Churchill repair some of the damage by establishing the Hashemite kingdom in Iraq with his former guerrilla comrade King Feisal on the throne, and the latter's brother King Abdullah in neighboring Trans-Jordan.

This time round it is the United States that is making the mistakes in Iraq, with post-imperial Britain now in a supporting role as the leading member of the U.S.-led coalition. Still, Lawrence's comments about letting the Arabs take charge of their own destiny remain relevant. He admonished the British for setting up a government that was "English in fashion and is conducted in the English language," when what should have been happening was the creation of an Arab language administration, an Arab army, and the withdrawal of British troops.

The United States and its allies are involved in a desperate bid to train an Iraqi police force and an army capable of effectively confronting the growing insurgency - the Bush administration having unwisely disbanded both following the defeat of Saddam Hussein. But now, as then, the withdrawal of foreign troops remains a burning issue, with major political implications in the United States and other coalition countries. Were he alive, Lawrence would have been gratified to see his 80-year-old recommendation partially put into effect: the new Iraqi constitution calls for a federation in which the Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite enclaves have a large degree of autonomy -- too large, say its critics, and a danger to Iraqi unity.


As the role of U.S. forces becomes increasingly controversial, one of the quotes on the wall of the exhibition could not be more timely. "Do no try to do too much with your own hands," Lawrence advised British troops in the region. "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them."

The ironic twist is that one of the main themes of the London exhibition is Lawrence's leading role in the highly effective hit-and-run insurgency in the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt against the Turkish Empire. He and his Bedouin followers made a habit of dynamiting the Hejaz Railway, the 800-mile major Turkish supply line. The examples of second guessing and the gross miscalculations in western capitals - London and Paris -- of what the Iraqis will or will not do offer another sobering parallel with the present day debacle.

The exhibition, conscious of its timeliness, posts a news report at the entrance saying that the U.S. military has "turned to the wisdom of Lawrence of Arabia for guidance on how to win the war in Iraq and understand the mindset of the insurgents." But then, in a region where he is still remembered as a hero, the insurgents may be doing the same.


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