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Almost a century after he failed, TE Lawrence is still a giant

TE Lawrence, born 125 years ago this month, in no longer well known in the Arab world. He deserves better.

As the British desperately attempted to face down open revolt against their occupation of Iraq, a celebrated British Army officer wrote a damning indictment of his country's actions, in the Sunday Times.

The essay differed sharply from the tone normally used by military chiefs and civilian administrators. "The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour," wrote the one-time lieutenant-colonel.

"They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows … We are to-day not far from a disaster."

The man was TE Lawrence and the date was August 22, 1920. Lawrence's analysis, as astute as it was devastating, could also have been written about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, led by the US and UK.

August 16 of this year marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of "Lawrence of Arabia". I became captivated by him when, as a teenager, I watched David Lean's 1962 film epic of the same name. Lawrence was an individual very few could rival, then or now.

But why pay heed to a man who died, lonely and forlorn, in a motorcycle accident in 1935, at just 46?

My answer is that as we regard a Middle East in crisis, all of us - both in the UK where he is still celebrated as almost a secular saint and across the Arab world where he stirs little passion - should look to this extraordinary individual who fought to get the Arabs what he and they believed had been promised in exchange for their uprising against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. His failure to make his country keep that promise, not least at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, haunted him for the rest of his days.

Thomas Edward Lawrence's life is a story of brilliance, grim determination and human frailty. One of five illegitimate children born to an Anglo-Irish father and Scottish mother in Wales, he secured a first-class degree at Oxford and became an archaeologist. With the onset of the First World War he served as an intelligence officer in Cairo. His next post - as British liaison officer to the Arab revolt against the Turks - made him a bona fide celebrity - a state from which he spent the rest of his life trying to escape.

His doomed struggle to enforce a British promise to give the Arabs their freedom ultimately tore him apart. He agonised over the secret French-British Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, to carve the Middle East into colonial entities once the Ottomans were gone. He hoped his Arab forces could take Damascus and declare an independent Arab state and undermine Sykes-Picot. And in January 1919 he brought Prince Feisal, leader of the 1916-18 Arab revolt, to the negotiating table with Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist chief, to thrash out and sign an extraordinary declaration of cooperation. It was an expert piece of diplomacy, such as we are all still searching for today.

Neither his plan for Damascus nor the promise of cooperation was ultimately realised, but that cannot count against a man whose sincere support for the Arab cause was made plain in 1917, when he wrote despairingly to his superior: "I've decided to go off alone to Damascus, hoping to get killed on the way ... We are calling them to fight for us on a lie, and I can't stand it."

In recent years, Lawrence's groundbreaking ideas about guerrilla warfare and his 1917 text Twenty-Seven Articles, a cultural guide for British officers working with Arabs, resonated with US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. His masterpiece, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, documenting his role in the Arab revolt, is a literary triumph and required reading for all budding Arabists.

It is certainly true that Lawrence was a pivotal player in the British colonial decision that led to the establishment of Iraq's ill-fated monarchy, but for me his conduct and writings will forever stand as the political conscience for western foreign policy in the Middle East.

That he refused all honours in his post-war years because of his guilt over the Allies' broken promises says much about this very human man and about why the world would have been a poorer place without him.

 

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics

On Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

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