Opinion Columns & Blogs

Robert L. Sharp: Lawrence's Arabia

All I know about the Middle East I learned from Lawrence of Arabia.

Well, not in person.

He is long gone, but in an effort to gain some understanding of the Middle East, I read recently T.E. Lawrence's 1926 "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," which recorded his World War I experiences organizing Arabs to fight the Turks.

This is the book on which the 1962 epic film starring Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif was based.

Lawrence's book provides some insight for our expectations of seeing a cohesive Iraqi state.

He wrote "... the tribes were convinced that they had made a free and Arab government, and that each of them was It. (Their) idea of nationality was the independence of clans and villages and their idea of national union was episodic combined resistance to an intruder. They believed they were vindicating the general rights of all Arabs to national existence, and without envisaging one state, or even a confederation of states."

Lawrence secured the loyalty of the various tribes he led into battle with British gold, not unlike the way the Sunni tribes in Iraq subscribed to the "Sunni Awakening" movement from 2005 via salaries paid by the U.S. military. Useful in reducing violence, but perhaps only of a temporary benefit.

The British divided their fiefdoms, whether in Africa, the Middle East or Asia, into convenient administrative geographic units, not mindful of the various ethnic groups that were included or divided, which created conflicts to this day.

Mesopotamia, today's Iraq, met the same fate and was created out of contiguous but incoherent bits of the deceased Ottoman Empire, which had never known democracy or expressed a taste for it.

Besides Sunni, Shia, and Kurds, the Iraqi stew is flavored with several sects of Christians, Yazidis (whose complex religion predates Islam), Shabaks, Turkomen and a few others. The Kurds alone, if combined with the contiguous Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iran have a population close to that of Iraq itself.

When the Americans leave, another strong man will arise, likely after a succession of bloody efforts by names of which we have not yet heard.

Some feel we have done all we can to help theocratic Iran gain suzerainty over Iraq as we replaced Sunni management with Shia co-religionists, but I learned early on that Arabs hold no love for Persians.

My fraternity roommates at San Jose State were the Jewish Levy and the Iraqi Azzaoui.

Coming from a small town in the San Joaquin Valley, I had never met such interesting people. We were young and hadn't learned to be prejudiced. We all got along fine, feeding off each other's idiosyncrasies.

Maybe it had to do with Iraq being a made-up country, and Iran having a long history of empire and a sophisticated culture, that created enmity, but Iraqi Azzaoui shared his contempt of Persians. Jews, OK, Persians, no way.

If we want to pick a beef with Iran, it may be useful to check CIA Factbook statistics:

Iraq population: 28,221,180 (July 2008 est.)

Iran population: 65,875,224 (July 2008 est.)

Iraq country size: 437,072 sq. km., slightly more than twice the size of Idaho

Iran country size: 1,648 million sq. km., slightly larger than Alaska

Iraq military manpower availability: males age 16-49: 7,086,200; females age 16-49: 6,808,954 (2008 est.)

Iran military manpower availability: males age 16-49: 20,212,275; females age 16-49: 19,638,751 (2008 est.)

This works out to making Iran something between two and three times more interesting than Iraq.

We have spent so much blood, treasure (and ink), on the war in Iraq. What a pity that in the fullness of time it will return to where it started.

Robert L. Sharp grew up in Linden and spent most of the following 30 years as an international banker in Asia including four years as a Naval officer in that part of the world.