Since the end of the Cold War, America's
efforts at state building--be it in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia,
Afghanistan, or Iraq--have suffered from a tendency to reinvent the
wheel. That is, policymakers have acted as if these efforts have
never been tried before, and consequently, vital lessons that might
have been learned as to how the process might better work have
instead been neglected. For example, the United States is not the
first country to try to forge stable political entities in the
Middle East: The lessons of British efforts at state building in
the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I
have been almost entirely neglected, to our peril.
serious problems arising from the efforts to transform Iraq into a
stable democratic society, it pays to look at the lessons of
history--which leads us to Lawrence of Arabia and British efforts
in the Middle East in the early 20th century.
The Early Career of Lawrence of
his time, in the flower of his youth, T. E. Lawrence was one of the
most famous men in the world, the conqueror of Aqaba at 29,
Damascus at 30, and a major leader of the wildly romantic and
improbably successful Arab Revolt of Emir Faisal against his
Turkish overlords during World War I.
There is no doubting Lawrence's military
achievement. During the war, 50,000 Turks were pinned down east of
the Jordan by an Arab force of 3,000 operating under his immediate
direction. A further 150,000 Turks were spread over the rest of the
region in a vain effort to crush the Arab Revolt, so that little
more than 50,000 were left to meet Sir Edmund Allenby's assault.
(Allenby was the Senior British Officer in Theater and Lawrence's
commanding general.) As the British historian and friend of
Lawrence, Basil Liddell-Hart, sums up, if it is unlikely the Arab
forces could ever have overcome the Turks without the help of
British forces, the figures make it quite clear that Allenby could
not have defeated the Turks without Lawrence.
Lawrence did not come to his philosophical
insights through prolonged study in some academic cloister. Rather,
they came as the result of day-to-day experiences during the
Lawrence, it was axiomatic that a profound knowledge of the culture
of the people one was working with was a prerequisite for success.
For Lawrence took an essentially ethnological approach to his role
as primary facilitator of the revolt in the desert; for him, local
culture and the politics that flowed from it were of supreme
importance. He noted at the time that he met Faisal that no attempt
had been made to find out the local conditions and adapt existing
British resources to suit these specific needs.
time, bit by bit, as Lawrence's contact with the people of the
rebellion increased, he began to realize that he was operating in
Arabia in a very different manner. As he told Liddell-Hart in 1933,
when he took a decision during the war, it was after studying every
factor. Geography, tribal structure, religion, social custom,
languages, appetites, standards--all were at his fingertips.
Lawrence's fame grew among the Arabs, both for his military prowess
and for his astounding knowledge of their culture. This cultural
understanding was symbolically rewarded by his assumption of their
mode of dress.
Lawrence's Genius in Dealing
with the Arab World
acceptance of Lawrence underlined for others that, by his
understanding of Arab culture, he had come to be seen at least in
part as a component of that very culture. Of course, the
psychological and political advantages this gave him were profound.
This cultural approach was one of Lawrence's great insights and
stands in marked contrast to failed modern efforts to impose
Western values as a one-size-fits-all strategy for state building
in non-Western cultures.
key part of understanding local culture lay in discerning the local
unit of politics. Only by working with these essential building
blocks--the DNA that is political culture--could Lawrence hope to
be successful. He instinctively saw the importance of the tribal
political structure rooted deeply in Arab culture.
Lawrence noted, the Arab's idea of political loyalty and legitimacy
was located at the level of clans, tribes, and villages. The
liberty of these relatively small political building blocks was
what mattered most in Arab society, the very opposite of many
modern Western states, with their emphasis on collective national
discipline rather than local and personal loyalties. As Lawrence
famously put it, in the East, persons were more trusted than
importance of localism for the Arab people remained an organizing
principle of Lawrence's actions throughout the war. As the revolt
gathered pace and entered Syria, he noted that localism, as in
Arabia, remained the primary political unit of expression, with no
indigenous political entity being larger than the village and
social grouping more complex than the clan.
had obvious operational significance for Lawrence. It meant that
the method by which he and Faisal had strung together the disparate
tribes of Arabia to attack Aqaba could be used again in a new
context. Lawrence went about constructing another alliance, this
time of Syrian tribes, including the Howeitat, Beni Sakhr, Sherrat,
Rualla, and Serahin.
reason for Lawrence's very different approach was that he had seen
first-hand the limited efficacy of a top-down approach in dealing
with the Arabs. At the time of his first meeting with Faisal, the
rebellion was at a low ebb, as the Arabs had failed to capture
Medina, in present-day Saudi Arabia. With morale low, other British
officers were openly questioning whether supporting Faisal and his
aging father, the Sharif of Mecca, was worth the expenditure.
Clearly, the policy by which the Arabs functioned merely as
undersupplied adjuncts of the British army was not working.
pursuing a bottom-up approach to state building, Lawrence never
forgot that Faisal and his Sharifs, and not Lawrence, were
ultimately running the show. It is to his credit that, whatever the
frustrations such a strategy presented him with, Lawrence never
deviated from this position. As he said, Faisal's one idea was
making his ancient race win freedom with its own hands; his part
was only synthetic. Lawrence was the enabler, never the
protagonist, in the Arab drama. His talent was in energizing and
enthusing people; he was best of all at influencing others.
Lawrence was able to do this successfully
because he was well aware of the motivations and the psychology of
his Arab companions. The revolt was ultimately successful because a
local leader with undisputed ultimate authority, Faisal, and not a
British serving officer, Lawrence, ran it. Operationally, this
enabling subordinate status was illustrated by the common British
practice of issuing orders to the Arabs only through their own
chiefs, and only when agreed upon.
time, Lawrence rightly judged that the ultimate advantage of a
bottom-up approach was to make stakeholders of the indigenous
people. As he said, for him the best value of the revolt lay in the
things the Arabs attempted without British aid. Ultimately,
Lawrence's gift lay in seeing that the essence of the Arab
rebellion against the Turks was not about the number and quality of
British arms they procured, the number of British officers that
would teach them to fight in a "modern" style, or its importance to
London as a successful sideshow within a sideshow of the Great War.
It lay in local Arabs securing political goals for themselves, with
gifted outsiders like Lawrence playing the role of facilitator
rather than doer.
military manifestation of this political philosophy is illustrated
by the style in which Lawrence urged Faisal to wage war against
Istanbul. Rather than aping modern British tactics as the standard
top-down approach called for, Lawrence urged the emir to fight as
his people always had, waging a guerrilla war against the Turks.
This proposal had several advantages. First, it played to local
strengths, as the Bedu of Arabia could move far more quickly and
unpredictably in the desert by camel than the fortress-bound,
largely immobile Turkish garrisons in Arabia. Second, Lawrence
proposed using this advantage in mobility to cripple the Turks'
lifeline, the Hejaz railway, which was the only connection between
the isolated Turkish garrisons in Arabia and the rest of the
brilliant strategy relied critically on the political goodwill of
the local populace, reinforcing Lawrence's emphasis on convincing
the indigenous population that they were the pivotal actors in the
revolt. Using localism to make stakeholders of the Arabs in the
revolt was Lawrence's ultimate aim, more political than military,
more about psychology than objective military realities.
Independence is something that usually has
to be won, not granted. Lawrence's genius lay in recognizing that
if the Arabs came to believe they were not the vassals of either
Istanbul or London, that they themselves liberated the desert all
the way to Damascus, such stakeholding would be the glue that would
bind Faisal's new nation together.
Working with the Grain of History:
Lawrence's Political Philosophy
Lawrence's philosophical and policy
alternatives are an essential resource for 21st century
policymakers. Encapsulated in an August 1917 memo he wrote for
British serving officers with Faisal's legions and in a September
1920 article he wrote anonymously for the British magazine Round
Table, these primary sources spell out that Lawrence was advocating
a dramatic break with state building as it was then practiced and
has continued to be implemented to this day. This vital forgotten
strategy must be rediscovered by today's policymakers, for it
provides relevant answers as to why state building has proved so
problematic in the post-Cold War era and offers an approach that
far better suits future efforts to deal with this most difficult of
August 1917, at the height of the Arab war for independence from
the Turks, Lawrence prepared his "Twenty-seven Articles" for
British military intelligence as a practical manual for political
officers, explaining how best to work with their Arab allies. In so
doing, Lawrence did nothing less than create a template for working
with developing peoples in times of both war and peace.
"Twenty-seven Articles" were personal conclusions arrived at
gradually while at work in the Hejaz and put on paper for British
beginners in dealing with Arab armies. I think it is clear that
they have a far broader application for use today. For what makes
the "Twenty-seven Articles" so arresting is that Lawrence
accomplished something too often neglected by today's policymakers:
He grounded high political theory in the Burkean soil of very
practical day-to-day operational examples. In other words, theory
flowed from practice, and not the other way around.
Lawrence, this meant that all British temptations to "modernize"
Arab culture by imposing British military regulations ought to be
quashed. This was to be done for the simple reason that Lawrence
had grasped perhaps the seminal operational fact in dealing with
developing peoples: Legitimacy flowed through working with their
cultural norms, not setting up Western efforts as a threat to their
continued viability. Lawrence wanted to work with local culture,
history, political culture, sociology, ethnology, economic status,
and psychology--not against them, either through design or
example, as he wrote in his eleventh article, "Wave a Sharif in
front of you like a banner, and hide your own mind and person."
Lawrence favored this approach for the commonsense reason that the
Sharif, and not he, had local legitimacy. For his efforts at
partnership to prove successful, it was vital that local leaders
gave the orders, agreed upon the tactics, became stakeholders in
the common endeavor. Lawrence did not advocate this approach out of
some romantic belief in the unspoiled ways of the Arabs versus the
decadent West. Rather, he saw it as the only practical way to
approach was based upon a few simple but vital first principles.
First, Western outsiders must understand local culture as best they
could in dealing with developing peoples, because only by working
with the indigenous people as they are, and not trying to socially
engineer them into something they are not, could success be
possible. As Lawrence put it in Article 2, "learn all you can about
your Ashraf and Bedu [the names of Arab tribes]. Get to know their
families, clans and titles, friends and enemies, wells, hills, and
Second, in deference to local primacy, the
Western outsider's place was to advise, to facilitate, but never to
dominate. As Article 14 argues, "while very difficult to drive, the
Bedu are easy to lead; if you have the patience to bear with them.
The less apparent your interferences, the more your influence."
Third, above all, this meant never picking
political winners and losers. As Article 8 makes plain, for
Westerners, "your ideal position is when you are present and not
noticed.... Avoid being identified too long and too often with any
tribal sheikh.... [T]o do your work you must be above jealousies,
and you lose prestige if you are associated with a tribe or clan,
and its inevitable feuds." I doubt the erstwhile backers of Mr.
Ahmad Chalabi in present-day Iraq read Article 8.
Finally, by really understanding that
local culture must be worked with and not against, as legitimacy
flowed from its particular structure, and that the place of the
Westerner was to advise and not to dictate, as indirect influence
over developing peoples was the most lasting, Lawrence's philosophy
reached its conclusion. In Article 15, he urges, "Do not try to do
too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably well
than that you do it perfectly. It is their war and you are to help
them, not to win it for them."
Success was finally dependent on making
the Arabs stakeholders in the process--in this case winning their
own war of independence against the Turks. For to achieve permanent
political results with developing peoples, the specific organic
nature of their society has to be recognized. The plant "takes"
only if it becomes embedded in the soil of local culture; anything
else is rejected, and the plant withers and dies. In the end, all
efforts at state building must be judged by this standard: whether
they are continued by an indigenous society long after Western
outsiders have left for home.
Lawrence published the second seminal
expression of his philosophy anonymously, in the British journal
Round Table, in September 1920. As he wrote in a letter to that
arch, top-down imperialist, Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon,
Lawrence's ambition was that "the Arabs should be the first brown
dominion, rather than the last brown colony."
Round Table article took what Lawrence had advocated personally and
locally for the Arab Revolt in the "Twenty-seven Articles" and
extrapolated it onto the global strategic level. Espousing what he
called the "New Imperialism," Lawrence called for an Arab dominion
within the British Empire, meaning the new state's political status
would be similar to that of Canada, Australia, and South Africa. It
would ally with and be subordinate to Britain in military matters,
but domestically remain largely politically autonomous within the
empire. To accomplish this political goal, Britain would have to
encourage the Arab assumption of local political responsibility and
accordingly pull back from a governing to largely advisory
Lawrence made clear, this was not a strategy of withdrawal and
neglect of the British Empire. Rather, as he put it, "it involves
an active side of imposing responsibility on the local peoples. It
is what they clamor for, but an unpopular gift when given.... We
can only teach them by forcing them to try, while we stand by and
give advice." Lawrence strongly believed that this strategy of more
indirect influence could prove the salvation of the British Empire
by encouraging, rather than standing in the way of, the universal
yearning for local control based on local legitimacy.
Faisal's men were brushed aside by French troops on the outskirts
of Damascus in 1920, it signaled more than the ruination of the
Hashemite dream for the foundation of a unified Arab state. Among
the ruins lay Lawrence's hope for a very different sort of Western
strategy for dealing with developing peoples around the world. This
tragedy was to have repercussions that echo to this day.
The Ghost of Lawrence: Explaining the
Difficulties of America's Efforts at State Building in Post-Saddam
assessing America's present-day experience in democracy building in
Iraq, it is important to keep Lawrence's general lessons regarding
state building in mind.
Lesson #1: It is
critical to accurately assess the unit of politics in a failed
the case of modern Iraq, the unit of politics is religious and
ethnic, with the three primary building blocks being the Shiia (60
percent of the population), the formerly ruling Sunnis (20
percent), and the Kurds (around 20 percent). Early utopian efforts
to ignore this reality and talk of supporting "Iraqis" rather than
working with Iraq's genuine building blocks has died down, blunted
by the gloomy day-to-day political realities.
Lesson #2: To
work against the grain of history is to fail at state
immediately and artificially impose Western economic, social,
sociological, historical, and anthro-pological standards on a
failed non-Western state while disregarding their own unique
culture and history is to court disaster. American efforts to limit
the role of Islam in the new Iraq did little more than alienate
Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the key representative of the Shiia, who
Washington slowly came to see as broadly sharing American goals in
Sistani, unlike Ayatollah Khomeini in
Iran, has shunned direct power. His representatives have placed
Islam at the center of the Iraqi interim constitution, saying that
although it is the primary source of law, it is not the only one.
In retrospect, this, coupled with a generous bill of rights, is the
best political outcome America could have hoped for. Antagonizing
Sistani by initial dreamy hopes of some sort of Western separation
of church and state almost succeeded in alienating the man who has
become, interest-wise, America's greatest ally in the country.
Lesson #3: Local
elites must be made stakeholders in any successful state-building
disbanding the Iraqi army, Paul Bremer, the head of the allied
coalition, unwittingly laid the groundwork for a period in which it
was the American-led coalition, rather than a fusion of American
and Iraqi security forces, that became responsible for the security
of the country. This was perhaps America's greatest mistake in
state building in Iraq, for it meant that the West, rather than
Iraqis themselves, took the lead in rebuilding the country.
such, the Bush Administration walked directly into the trap of
political legitimacy. Every Iraqi who helped the dominant Americans
could be branded a collaborator rather than a patriotic citizen
helping to rebuild their country. It was not until January 2005,
with the Iraqi elections and increased efforts to quickly build up
Iraqi security forces, that the political game of catch-up that
this blunder ushered in began to wane.
Lesson #4: Avoid
a cookie-cutter approach to state building.
Western approach to state building in the 1990s operated under a
depressingly familiar rhythm. Whether the case is Haiti, Somalia,
Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, or Iraq, the West attempted to
reconfigure centralized control over a failed state without looking
at the reasons such a state came apart in the first place. It is
unsurprising that such flawed analysis has led to disaster time and
any general rule does hold true, it must be that a more bottom-up
and decentralized political outcome (federation or confederation)
ought to prove more effective in restoring a state that fell apart
because of centrifugal forces in the first place. Neoconservatives,
who have looked to either Chalabi or Ayad Allawi to be a new strong
man in Iraq, miss the vital point that the state's falling apart in
the first place is emblematic of the need for a more decentralized
outcome--if the new regime is to outlast the American
Lesson #5: A
degree of humility ought to be professed while state
Western leaders should lower the stakes
following a successful intervention and tone down the rhetoric when
embarking on post-war state-building efforts. In the modern era,
policies are judged by the rhetoric in which they are packaged. By
promising too much, Western leaders can be held to a standard that
they cannot possibly meet. Worse, it is a standard of the West's
own making. The goal should always be to leave a people better than
they were before the state-building enterprise. Such modest and
achievable goals would do more to resurrect the badly damaged
notion of state building than any other single act.
Beware of the Imperial Trap.
corollary to the importance of local legitimacy dictates that a
Western great power must know when to let the local elites take the
reins in the state-building process. This is the ultimate litmus
test as to whether a state-building effort has been
successful--when the Western powers depart, the new political
entity is capable of self-government.
Lawrence urged in his Round Table article, Faisal's new government
in Damascus should be accounted a success only if it became a
full-fledged member of the British Commonwealth, drawing on British
advice and know-how but practicing domestic self-government. To
leave too early is to see the effort at state building collapse. To
stay too long is to practice top-down imperialism, meaning that
Western troops are doomed to stay in an inhospitable climate; in
such a case, any local government will be seen as a Western
Timing is absolutely critical to the
successful state-building process. In the case of Iraq, this is
probably the biggest task still confronting the United States. To
leave before enough Iraqi troops are trained to bolster the new
regime or before the final constitutional settlement is worked out
is to court disaster. However, to linger over-long is to become a
recruiting poster for al-Qaeda, with its shrill charge of America
as "Crusader Imperialist."
Lesson #7: A
Western country should engage in the arduous process of state
building only when primary national security interests are at
the Great War, Lawrence became convinced that the defeat of Turkey
was possible through energizing the Arab Revolt and that this
defeat was greatly beneficial to a hard-pressed Britain. American
efforts at state building ought to be discussed in similar
hardheaded terms. The 1990s American efforts at state building
display an undifferentiated quality in terms of American national
interests. The Clinton Administration never met a failed state it
did not want to intervene in, however peripheral to American
interests (Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia).
differentiation of when and where to engage in state building,
guided by national interest calculations, will stop an overextended
(and violently disliked) America from frittering away for little
gain the competitive advantages that have made it the dominant
power in the world. Sometimes the answer is no. As John Quincy
Adams put it, "America is the well-wisher to the freedom of all.
She is the guarantor of only her own." State building is simply too
complicated to be attempted more than necessary--it should be
engaged in only when primary American interests are at stake.
Lesson #8: At
root, almost all state-building problems are political and not
military in nature. With political legitimacy, military problems
can be solved.
During the Great War, Lawrence intuitively
realized that success was certain if the people of the Hejaz united
behind the Arabs' guerrilla campaign, not divulging the whereabouts
of Faisal's legions to the Turks. Likewise in Iraq, the insurgency
will wane if the people of the country come to believe that the
insurgents are doing great harm to their country, to their
government, rather than to the American occupiers.
problem, then, is primarily political and psychological. If they
can be persuaded (by their local elites) to believe the insurgency
is crippling the new Iraqi state, there is little doubt that
intelligence regarding the whereabouts of the insurgents will
improve dramatically. On the other hand, without local political
legitimacy, no amount of military effort will overcome the basic
These are the precepts that Lawrence
established. They are the yardstick that must be used to judge
whether future state-building efforts in Iraq lead to success or
John C. Hulsman, Ph.D., is
Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom,
a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. This paper was
presented at a German Council on Foreign Relations Conference,
"Unprepared? Germany in a Globalizing World," in Berlin on March