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Lawrence of Arabia II: Iraqalypse Now

The most apt movie for this moment just may be David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton ambassador to the United Nations whose foreign service career began in Vietnam, said to me last week, "That's the image everyone I've talked to who saw the movie has in his head right now."

"Once liberators turn into pacifiers, they've lost," Holbrooke said last week when we talked about Lawrence of Arabia. Or as Juan R. Cole, a professor of history and Iraq specialist at the University of Michigan, has said, "A hated occupier is powerless even with all the firepower in the world."
Posted on Sun, Apr. 18, 2004

Lawrence of Arabia II: Iraqalypse Now

By Frank Rich

The New York Times

As the Iraq war enters its second year, it has already barreled through at least four movie plots.

What began as a High Noon showdown with Saddam Hussein soon gave way to George W. Bush's Top Gun victory jig. Next was the unexpected synergy with The Fog of War, Errol Morris' Oscar-winning documentary underlining how the Johnson administration's manipulation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident was the ur-text for the current administration's hyping of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. And then Fallujah: Black Hawk Down.

If the news from the war were better, there might be an audience now for Disney's new version of The Alamo, with which Michael Eisner had once hoped to "capture the post-Sept. 11 surge in patriotism." But its opening weekend may have drawn fewer moviegoers in total than there were Jews at The Passion of the Christ.

Triumphalism is out. If we are to believe most commentators, the next title on our wartime bill will instead be Apocalypse Now (if we stay and sink into the quagmire) or Three Kings (if we cut and run). Though perhaps not quite yet.

The most apt movie for this moment just may be David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton ambassador to the United Nations whose foreign service career began in Vietnam, said to me last week, "That's the image everyone I've talked to who saw the movie has in his head right now."

What Holbrooke is referring to is the story's mordant conclusion. The Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, abetted by the heroic British liaison officer T.E. Lawrence and guerrilla tactics, has succeeded. The shotgun mandating of the modern state of Iraq, by the League of Nations in 1920, is just a few years away.

But as the local leaders gather in an Arab council, a tentative exercise in self-government, there is nothing but squabbling, even as power outages and public health outrages roil the populace.

"I didn't come here to watch a tribal bloodbath," says Peter O'Toole, as Lawrence, earlier in the movie when first encountering the internecine warfare of the Arab leaders he admired.

But the bloodbath continued -- and now that we've ended Saddam's savage grip on Iraq, it has predictably picked up where it left off. Only Americans have usurped the British as the primary targets in the crossfire of an undying civil war.

It was last weekend, after I watched Lawrence again for the first time in years, that L. Paul Bremer was asked by Tim Russert to whom we would turn over the keys in Iraq on June 30, and gave his now immortal answer: "Well, that's a good question." We don't have a clue, and in part that's because we have no memory.

As the historian Niall Ferguson points out in his new book, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire, President Bush's promise to Iraqis of "a peaceful and representative government" in place of Saddam's brutal regime was an uncanny, if unconscious, replay of what the British commander who occupied Baghdad in 1917 told the people of what was then still Mesopotamia.

"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators," Gen. F.S. Maude said back then, expressing the desire that his forces would help the populace build their own governmental institutions.

Iraq did not, however, give birth to an indigenous form of self-government.

The country was run instead by a Bremer-like civil commissioner, Sir Arnold Wilson, for three often violent years. He and his deputy, Ferguson writes, "drew up a scheme for a unitary Iraqi state with almost no local consultation, simply ignoring those who advised against yoking together Assyria and Babylonia, Sunni and Shia."

Eventually a British-style constitutional monarchy was installed, leading to decades of tumult and coups. By the time the revolution of 1958 overthrew the monarchy, the Baath Party and Saddam were lurking in the wings.

To revisit Lawrence and the history it dramatizes in embryo is to feel not only deja vu but also a roaring anger at the American arrogance and ignorance that have led to the current nightmare.

Condoleezza Rice's use of the word historical to describe the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential briefing on Osama bin Laden was not the only tipoff to her limited understanding of history.

In the opening filibuster of her testimony, she invoked the Lusitania, Adolf Hitler's rise and Pearl Harbor as analogues of 9-11 -- an asymmetrical comparison that blurs the distinctions between nations' acts of war and the stateless conspiracies of modern terrorists.

Apparently the administration's understanding of British colonial history in the Middle East is no sharper.

Though it might have been impossible to prevent the 9-11 attacks, it would have been possible to avoid what's happening in Iraq now had anyone heeded the past. However much the current crisis may be a function of a military bungle like Donald Rumsfeld's inadequate deployment of troops or the diplomatic failure to attract a proper coalition, it is above all else the product of cultural hubris.

We do say all the politically correct things in Iraq. We respect Islam, we believe the Iraqis deserve freedom and democracy, we only want to help, to build and to protect. But there is a cognitive dissonance between our sentimental bromides and the reality of our actions.

An early clue was the weeks of looting we allowed to happen in Baghdad a year ago -- and not just at the Iraqi National Museum (where 13,000 objects, some of them major, remain missing) but at every public institution except the oil ministry.

Our cavalier response to the chaos was even worse, exuding a patronizing contempt for our new Iraqi charges.

"Stuff happens," Rumsfeld said at the time, ducking the question of why the Americans failed to provide security to combat a predictable scenario. He dismissed the looting as an exercise in "freedom."

Since then we've appointed a governing council whose members are more likely to criticize their American sponsors than stand up to a fanatic like Muqtada al-Sadr.

The council's most prominent member is Ahmad Chalabi, whose exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, was linked by the Los Angeles Times last month to "lies or distortions" that caused U.S. and British intelligence to vastly overstate the size of Saddam's weapons programs. A February poll conducted by ABC News and the BBC showed that Iraqis now trust Chalabi even less than they do the incarcerated Saddam.

"Arabs believe in persons, not institutions," Lawrence wrote in the early 1920s. His observations don't always hold up, but this one is echoed by many as we watch the implosion of the neoconservative experiment in shepherding Iraq to a representative government built around the unpopular likes of a Chalabi.

"The structure of a federal liberal democracy is simply not an inspiring prospect for Iraqis," reporter Charles Crain, a keen Baghdad observer, wrote in The Washington Post last weekend.

As for those people whom Iraqis respect more than vague governmental schemes, we were too enthralled by American pets like Chalabi to recognize the importance (and political usefulness) of the most respected Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

For all our sensitivity to religion, we appointed a (corrupt) Sunni as mayor of Najaf, the Shiite center lately occupied by al-Sadr, and promoted photographs of the corpses of Odai and Qusai in defiance of Islamic dictates.

Yet much as we misread Iraqi culture, we also misrepresent our own to the Iraqis.

It's al-Sistani, not the Americans, who champions direct elections. We turned al-Sadr from a simmering menace into a martyr by shutting down his incendiary newspaper, Al Hazwa. (And we did so at the same time that the Coalition Provisional Authority's official Web site was running a headline: "Gallup Poll: Baghdad Residents Overwhelmingly Desire Freedom of Speech, Press and Assembly.")

The First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who supported the war in Iraq, wrote in Newsday: "Of all the messages the United States could send to the people of Iraq, the sorriest is this: If you say things we disapprove of, we'll shut you up."

And it wasn't the first such instance. The coalition has previously shut down another newspaper, Al Mustaqilla, and for a while closed the Baghdad office of Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera's principal satellite competitor.

As an antidote we offer our own version of a "free press" -- a TV station called Al Iraqiya that is so in thrall to the powers that be that for months it held back on reporting insurgent attacks on U.S. forces. It's Fox News without the whoosh.

Last week, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt -- the eternally optimistic William Westmoreland of the current U.S. effort -- told Iraqis to "change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station" rather than watch propagandistic Arab satellite networks that trade in images "of Americans and coalition soldiers killing innocent civilians."

What advice would Kimmitt give us at home? No sooner do we tune out the mutilated bodies of the four Fallujah contractors than we see a blood-free but equally horrifying image: a Marine, in Ramadi, with a buddy's body bag slung over his shoulder. Or the scared faces of hostages. Or the angry ravings of a mob.

What we don't see, oddly enough, are those 25 million Iraqis who, we keep being told, are so grateful to the Americans for liberating them from Saddam.

"Once liberators turn into pacifiers, they've lost," Holbrooke said last week when we talked about Lawrence of Arabia. Or as Juan R. Cole, a professor of history and Iraq specialist at the University of Michigan, has said, "A hated occupier is powerless even with all the firepower in the world."

Since we cannot cut and run and since we don't have any idea who should get the keys, it's clear that we, like the British before us, are in occupancy in Iraq for the long haul, no matter who officially has "sovereignty" on July 1.

This is Lawrence of Arabia, the sequel, and you can be certain it will play on every channel.


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Frank Rich writes for The New York Times.

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Yeah, Except 19.Apr.2004 21:00

Anti-Fa

that T.E. Lawrence actually knew something about Arab culture, and respected them. None of the current morons in power have any idea about the culture of the Arab, have no respect for Arab culture.

NO secret lives of Lawrence of Arabia 14.Sep.2004 14:25

H.J. Lawrence-Haack lawrence-haack@gmx.de

Thomas Edward Lawrence has won for a moment - and he was knowing it - the history is repeat and she`s doing in the future - that?s the price of human-being - look to the past and you have a better concept to the present time. That?s also a recipe from TEL.