Monday, May 22, 2006

Brown Sand Sailor Reaches Iraq

The Golden Arches over Kuwait

Our Iraq Correspondent has made it Basra. He completes some thoughts as follows:

Remember my note from weeks ago, when I wrote “Lawrence also raises some difficult questions about intent and idealism that might have relevance today, but I need some time to mull over that, so that will have to wait.”?

Well, I didn’t get much of a chance to read any Lawrence while in the desert or here in Baghdad or even much in Basra to date, but am still mulling over his book, and particular his warning early on “that men reading the story will not, for the love of the glamour of strangeness, go out to prostitute themselves and their talents in serving another race.”

While I’m not sure what Edward Said would have had said about the above formulation, it is pretty clear that Lawrence was bitter about his experiences during and after the Arab Revolt, mostly because the British government betrayed the very Arab cause he had helped form and lead to victory over the Turks, a betrayal he felt keenly since he suspected that outcome from the very beginning. This made the rallying cry of the revolt a false promise, both for the Arabs (as well as the Kurds).

And that rallying cry was freedom from Turkish oppression. And in its’ richness, and idealism and raw power, it cries off the pages of Lawrence’s book. As he put it, and in language that belies his earlier cynicism, “We were a self-centered army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man’s creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare. As time went by our need to fight for the ideal increased to an unquestioning possession, riding with spur and rein over our doubts. Willy-nilly it became a faith. We had sold ourselves into its slavery, manacled together in its chain gang, bowed ourselves to serve its holiness with all our good and ill content.”

It is the old question. Is it worth the candle? What is that light on the horizon, is it freedom that approaches or are we lurching towards disaster?

Interestingly, I picked up the newspaper of the 4th Infantry Division (titled “The Ivy Leaf”) while in Baghdad, and it had an article (actually the last of five articles) on Lawrence’s “Arab Bulletin” notes, originally published in Cairo on 20 August 1917. The theme there, however, was not the search for a purpose – for as we have seen, Lawrence had thrown himself fully into the Arab adventure – but rather how best an Englishmen might work with and understand and be wise when working with Arabs.

The idea of freedom is deep in the Western idea of itself. Our constitutions, governments and indeed our very culture is a child of that Enlightenment project, with its’ emphasis on the rule of law, representative governments and the natural rights of the individual. Everything that goes along with those principles, from “We, the people…” to human rights and to “the pursuit of happiness,” all reside within that magical conception we call “freedom.”

And at root, once you clear away all the language about extremism or failed states or even oil, that is the ultimate project in the Middle East. And I did not say it was the only purpose, nor even the most important, but rather it is the bedrock goal, without it all else is fleeting. For with freedom, and I mean even an Arab version of freedom, most of our current problems vanish. Ok, they might not vanish, but they become different problems, manageable problems, problems of local governance, of disputes mostly solved in Parliament rather than by an Ak-47, problems that become status quo questions once an equilibrium (of whatever stripe) is reached. Iraq certainly doesn’t have to develop into Switzerland, or Poland, or even Italy for that matter to cease being a “problem,” it merely has to subside into that great mass of States around the world that do not cause problems for their neighbors (think Guatemala, Bolivia, Senegal, Kenya, Bangladesh, Indonesia, etc.; all States that have more or less functioning (if corrupt) governments, adequate economic structures and a tolerable level of social violence (though none of us would want to live there).

You can see that in Iraq, where the constant, overriding goal of Coalition forces is to have the Iraqi government succeed, to grow, to develop its own capacity and strength and unique character, to become competent, to represent the people’s wishes and be responsible to them in so far as that is possible in a culture without a lot of experience with the rule of law, and one dominated by tribe and clan. And a society not necessarily open to change in that way, one not necessarily wanting to become more representative in a political manner, and therefore lose the tribal and clan structure of society.

As Feisal, son of Hussein ibn Ali the Sherif of Mecca, and leader of the Arab Revolt put it to Lawrence, the English “… hunger for desolate lands, to build them up; and so, perhaps, one day Arabia will seem to them precious. Your good and my good, perhaps they are different, and either forced good or forced evil will make a people cry with pain. Does the ore admire the flame which transforms it? There is no reason for offence, but a people too weak are clamant over their little own. Our race will have a cripple’s temper till it has found its feet.”

And so the question remains, can American and British and other Coalition forces power, and influence, and culture, and money, and sacrifice, and machinery, and skills, and desire, and yes, blood and death, meet and defeat the spinning, swirling, centrifugal forces of tribalism, blood feud, oil wealth, religious fanaticism and corruption by bringing self-government to places that have very little experience with such a thing beyond kin and clan?

Lawrence thought it possible, but at great cost. As he noted, the Arab revolt ran down a “… stormy road from birth through weakness, pain and doubt to red victory. It was the just end to an adventure which had dared so much, but after the victory there came a slow time of disillusionment, and then a night in which the fighting men found that all their hopes had failed them. Now, at last, may there have come to them the white peace of the end, in the knowledge that they achieved a deathless thing, a lucent inspiration to the children of their race.”

Would that we will say the same in the years to come.


Fair Winds and Following Sands!

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