T E Lawrence naivete lives on

Now as in then, it’s not that the West wants to save the Middle East – it’s that the West wants the Middle East.

T.E. Lawrence, Portrait as a Bedouin [Getty]
T E Lawrence, Portrait as a Bedouin [Getty]

Today marks 80 years since the death of T E Lawrence, the wartime hero, renegade diplomat and reputable scholar. Lawrence had spent much of his life in motion, coursing across the Arab world, and it was in motion that he died – indulging his passion for motorbikes on an English country lane.

Lawrence’s heroics during the World War I, during which he galvanised an impromptu bedouin army against the dying Ottoman Empire, were met with public adulation back home. Hoping that full independence was to be the prize for Arab loyalty in the war, he lobbied hard for France and the UK to relinquish their grip on the region, and in particular to overturn the Sykes-Picot agreement.

His enthusiastic overtures were rejected blankly. His former friends-in-arms had been betrayed, Lawrence felt, and he took the disappointment personally and bitterly to heart.

The ‘Sykes-Picot’ borders ISIL wants gone

Lawrence was naive. While he saw the Arabs as friends, his bosses in London viewed them as tools – they had throughout the war, they did so afterwards – and arguably they still do today.


The naivete of T E  Lawrence lives on. Dozens of intelligent newspaper columnists, scholars and think-tankers – writing across all sides of the political spectrum, and many of whom I know and respect – still buy-in to the humanitarian intervention doctrine. There is no doubt that the Oxford-educated and highly intellectual Lawrence would also have been.

This widespread naivete among the Western intelligentsia stretches back decades. The Truman Doctrine, first enunciated in 1947, historically reversed US aversion to foreign regime change – stating that the US sought “to assist free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”. 

A noble aim which was widely supported in the media; the doctrine was nothing more than a marketing illusion, cynically encasing self-interest in humanitarian rhetoric. An exemplar early expression was the CIA installing and actively supporting the totalitarian Shah of oil-rich Iran in 1953 – who was hardly a human rights hero.

The underpinning of US strategy in the Middle East then slowly evolved into the 1980 Carter Doctrine, which shed any illusions of humanitarian instinct and just focused on what the US was really interested in.

When you unpick the ‘humanitarian need’ arguments presented by the US last summer, and enthusiastically echoed by the establishment media, the cleverly constructed illusion becomes clear.


“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,” said President Jimmy Carter, “and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

While US support for the oil-rich Gulf still provides the general backdrop to today’s Middle East – the neo-conservative ideological climax in the early 2000s cynically reprised the Truman Doctrine’s illusory language of humanitarian intervention.

The best example of this was the 2003 invasion of Iraq; it is now well documented that the most likely reason for intervention was not humanitarian instinct, but to prevent Saddam Hussein from savagely attacking global oil prices. Still, newspaper columnists, think-tankers and politicians lauded the plan, some honestly deceived. Like Lawrence, they were naive.

Humanitarian rationale

ISIL is a similar story. There is, of course, a humanitarian rationale, to save ethnic minority groups from hell-bound murderers. And there’s no doubt that someone (but not necessarily the imperious West) should save them. Yet when you unpick the “humanitarian need” arguments presented by the US last summer, and enthusiastically echoed by the establishment media, the cleverly constructed illusion becomes clear.

Much of the government’s messaging to justify the new military action was focused around the 40,000 Yazidis surrounded on Mount Sinjar by ISIL, and facing “imminent genocide”. What the US public weren’t widely told is that even as the threat of imminent Yazidi genocide was being bandied about by Washington, a broadly successful rescue mission had already been mounted by Kurdish fighters. The public were told that if Americans didn’t intervene, Yazidis would die. This was a lie.

What the US public also weren’t told was that 400km southwest of Sinjar, 15,000 Shia Turkmen were also completely surrounded by ISIL, in the city of Amerli – and had been since June. Like the Yazidis, the Shia were considered sub-human apostates by ISIL.

A newly discovered peace map in a new exhibition 'Lawrence of Arabia: the life, the legend' at the Imperial War Museum in London [Getty]
A newly discovered peace map in a new exhibition ‘Lawrence of Arabia: the life, the legend’ at the Imperial War Museum in London [Getty]

Fighters had completely cut off water and electricity to the city. There was just one doctor for the entire population (who was eventually killed). Men, women, and children were dying of malnutrition, diarrhoea and horrifyingly painful stomach ulcers. This was a clear-cut case of imminent, if not active, genocide. Yet the US government remained completely silent on the issue.

Why? The disconnect is easily explained. Mount Sinjar was promoted above the many other imminent genocides in Iraq, and the region, because it is far closer to the crucial oil refineries of northern Iraq and Syria, and in particular the crucial Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline – which is now running at a quarter of its capacity thanks to constant ISIL sabotage.

Oil interests are once again the more pressing concern of the US administration, with the humanitarian angle simply a marketing decoy for the public. Sadly – countless latter day T E Lawrence newspaper columnists and earnest politicians have bought into and actively promoted the deception.

Lawrence was a great man – he came to the Middle East, was taken by its wonderful people, and with honest intentions attempted to save them. But he underestimated the cold, calculating cynicism of the colonial establishment. Today, it is as it was then. It is not that the West wants to save the Middle East. It is that the West wants the Middle East.

Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK, and international affairs including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.