TE Lawrence, George Santayana and their Advice

TE Lawrence, George Santayana and their Advice


Richard J. Garfunkel

March 10, 2006




On the day Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1973, the British writer James Fenton founded a framed quotation on a wall of the abandoned and looted American Embassy: “Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way, and your time is short.” The words were from T.E. Lawrence.

That quote is from The Assassin’s Gate, America in Iraq by George Packer.


It definitely tells a story. Of course the tale is an old one and it can probably be traced back to our earliest histories of conquest and occupation. One only has to go back to the Bible’s account of the Roman occupation of the Holy Land or Judea and in the words of Samuel Butler (1612-1680), “As the ancients say wisely, have care of the main chance, and look before you ere you leap; for as you sow, ye are like to reap.”


George Santayana said it and it has been repeated more often than not, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The sands of time are littered with the dust and bones of conquerors that forgot humility and “bit off more than they could chew.”  History has taught a cruel and harsh lesson about Empires and nation state’s that forget its lessons.


We therefore are paying the price in treasure, blood and national stability for an adventure that was not well planned or well prepared for. It is easy to romanticize back to the fictional age of chivalry and think that pushing aside the “bad guy” and rescuing the “damsel in distress” will put the stamp of “they lived happier ever after end” to it all. No, it is the complete reverse. It is more like Cape Fear with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. These struggles can reach ugly and devastating proportions to both sides and ultimately only draconian means can be used to bring them to a close. But even then, the so-called “close” may only be temporary. That temporary could last a generation or two, maybe. But often, especially with the clash of cultures the “loss of face” becomes the paramount issue that even transcends life itself. The suicide bombers in the Middle East are not unlike the young “Dive Wind” pilots of the kamikaze. They are front line combatants in a war for national honor, G-d, the triumph of their culture and their way of life. They represent a view that national or religious dishonor can never be tolerated or accepted. That death is preferable over dishonor.


So as Lawrence, a wise and experienced observer of that part of the world noted, “…for it is their country, their way, and your time is short.”


So what is the answer? What does one do when “the die is cast?” What does a nation state do once they have committed arms and treasure? That is the decision that ultimately must be made. What is the continued “risk, reward?” Can we sustain a never-ending, low-grade infection by treating the body with old cures from the last century or do we use a new concoction of advanced antibiotics? Of course, it again gets back to the commitment. Are the consequences of withdrawal ultimately worse than the constant drain accompanying further engagement?


Many thought the same about the quagmire that the Vietnam War had become. Many felt that we would be encouraging the Communists to strike somewhere else, and that they would eventually bring their social and political revolutions to the New World. The “Domino Theory” was constantly echoed by strategists of that era. Of course in the early part of the 20th century we quite often heard that that British wanted to be prepared to fight on the banks of the Rhine, not in their backyard. But of course even in the First World War concentrated dirigible attacks on London, foreshadowed the reality that one could not easily keep the fight in someone else’s back yard. The days of fighting in some far off place like the Crimea, or the Sudan, or Dienbienphu, or Peking or at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, without having fear of being struck at home maybe long past. Of course even those actions, mostly forgotten by all except history buffs, had catastrophic political and social implications back home. People do not like to see their sons and daughters killed and maimed. People do not like to see their taxes go up and their debt balloon. People do not like to see their domestic tranquility broken and ruptured by the constant drumbeat of war. Most sane people understand that it can be, and often is, an ugly world with neighborhoods that are worse than others. But does one intentionally go into that bad neighborhood looking for trouble? Or does one step carefully over sleeping dogs as they lie?


As far back as the early years of the 1800’s the United States was faced with problems regarding “freedom of the seas.” This exercise of freedom was being challenged in the Mediterranean by the caliphs of the Algerine, and in 1803 Captain Stephen Decatur, on board the vessel Enterprise, set fire to the captured American frigate, the USS Philadelphia in the Tripolitan Harbor and that action precipitated the bombardment of Tripoli and subsequent land adventures of Lt. Presley O’Bannon and the Battle of Derna.


Eventually that issue was settled by treaty and resolved. So we know that our national long and short-term interests must be constantly weighed against our willingness to sacrifice. Today the stakes are a lot greater than they were at the time of the Barbary Coast and its brigands, but in the same way, as in the past, national interest must be carefully measured and weighed.


We all know that our interest in Iraq is not over sectarian violence, religious squabbles or territorial aggrandizement. It is over oil and more oil. The never-ending issue, regarding the sovereignty of the remaining area of the British Mandate, complicates the issue, but at the heart of it all, if there were no oil, no one would care a fig about the fate of the so-called Palestinians.


The issue at hand is simple; can we succeed there in spite of our miscalculations, mismanagement, under commitment of troops, porous borders, and the lack of cooperation of most of our friends? Have we let our opportunity to succeed slip from our grasp? Or was our effort and grandiose plan always doomed to failure? Right now if we unilaterally pull out today, will be there a civil war and will we have no control over the results? It seems obvious to most that civil war will ultimately break out no matter when we leave. If that is so, are we ever to leave? Just remember our long history in Iran and our doomed relationship with the Shah and his supporters.


There is no doubt that we are being told that eventually a national government of unity will be established, it will strengthen, and it will be supported by an Iraqi army that will bring a close to the chaos and bring order to the country. Will this be done within the context of Democracy? I doubt that anyone really believes that. But for sure our love affair with oil and its long-term implications will continue to drive our policies. We have little or no control over oil production in Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Indonesia and other non Middle Eastern lands. We also have little or no control over the increase in worldwide demand that is exacerbated by the emerging economies of China and India the population colossuses.   Therefore this need to keep the Middle East oil production flowing will force us to be a “big player” in that critical part of the world for the foreseeable future. We must not forget that the United States with less then 6% of the world’s population is consuming upwards of 25% of the world’s oil.


Does therefore this mean a never-ending commitment to this effort?



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