Monday, December 22, 2008

Speaking too soon

On 16 December, The Times, a newspaper that ardently supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, published a leader which argued that the lenient treatment given to the now famous shoe-thrower, Muntazer al-Zaidi, was a colourful illustration of Iraq's transformation. "Had a protester hurled shoes and shouted insults at Saddam Hussein during the visit of a world leader" the paper reflected, "the perpetrator and all his family would probably have been put to death." The editorial glibly ended: "Iraq is far from perfect, but at least its people have learnt to enjoy freedom of expression."

Freedom of expression can only be enjoyed if it is respected - and in al-Zaidi's instance this does not seem to have been the case. According to the New York Times, who interviewed al-Zaidi's brother, after his arrest the journalist was burned with a cigarette and beaten up in an effort to extract a confession from him. The BBC corroborated this report on Friday by talking to the judge investigating the case. With a furore now raging about the treatment of the journalist the judge has today backtracked somewhat, saying that al-Zaidi was bruised during his arrest, not from his treatment afterwards.

Al-Zaidi is due to be tried for "aggression against a foreign head of state" on 31 December. Presumably by then the prosecutors hope that his bruises will have healed.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New for 2009

The paperback edition of Setting the Desert on Fire will be published in the US in April 2009.

Friday, December 12, 2008

How Rome linked Britain and the Arab world

The grave stone of Cautronius, a troop standard bearer, at Tyre, southern Lebanon

We spent a few hours deciphering Roman inscriptions when I studied Latin at school, but unfortunately not long enough for any of what I learnt to stick. Which is a pity for they yield a lot of information. When I spotted the elegantly-lettered tombstone of Cautronius, a standard-bearer of the Italian troop [I think], when I visited Lebanon last year, I thought it worthy of a photograph.*

An inscription I saw in a museum in St Albans a while ago points to some interesting linkages across the Roman world, and hints at a tragic love story. It is dedicated to Regina, and reads:

D[is] M[anibus] Regina Liberta
et Coniuge Barates Palmyrenus
Natione Catuallauna An[nomum] XXX

To the spirits of the departed and to Regina his freedwoman
and wife, a Catavellaunian by tribe, aged 30
Barates of Palmyra set this up.

Barates, a Syrian from the eastern edge of Rome's empire found himself posted to its North-West Frontier. For the gravestone of his wife was found at Arbeia Roman Fort near South Shields, on Hadrian's Wall, where Barates served. Regina's tribe, the Catavellauni came from the area around St Albans.

As the almost tangible warmth of a photograph I took several years ago in Palmyra shows, South Shields is a long way off.

*The inscription mentions something about a "falca" - which appears to mean a scythe or sickle. Any help with translation gratefully received...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Great Arab Revolt Project

The Great Arab Revolt Project have spent two seasons digging in southern Jordan. They are about to return for a third, excavating at several Hijaz Railway stations for evidence that will give historians a much better idea of what life was like for the Ottoman soldiers guarding the track, and the guerrilla raids that targeted them.

The archaeologists will be blogging about what they find here and maintain a useful website here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A shatter'd visage

The fallen head of a statue on Nemrut Dagi, 2150m, south-east Turkey


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
This shatter'd visage is fully visible, and stands 2,150m above sea-level, but it reminded me of one of my favourite poems, Shelley's evocation of hubris, Ozymandias. At the orders of King Antiochus, statues of himself and various gods were erected on the summit of Nemrut Dagi, a few decades before the birth of Christ. At some stage in the intervening 2,000 years, the heads of the statues have fallen off. Since righted, their torsoes lie broken on the ground behind them. But one wonders: would Antiochus be disappointed, or delighted, that his visage yet survives?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Where does the title come from?

Anonymous, in a generous comment yesterday, asks where the title Setting the Desert on Fire comes from. It is taken from page 67 of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1935 edition). Here is the full quote in context below:

"The Sherif's rebellion had been unsatisfactory for the last few months (standing still, which, with an irregular war, was the prelude to disaster), and my suspicion was that its lack was leadership: notintellect, nor judgement, nor political wisdom, but the flame ofenthusiasm that would set the desert on fire."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Limited powers

This article, in this morning's Financial Times, caught my eye. It details the efforts of the latest governor of Helmand province, Gulab Mangal, to root out endemic corruption. Mangal, reports the writer, dresses up in disguise and goes out on his weekends looking for policemen seeking bribes. "If they are junior, I sack them on the spot," he is quoted as saying, proudly. Which begs a question - what if they are senior?

To be fair to Mangal, however, the article goes on to suggest that he is trying to break up the local opium trade which, UN figures published earlier this week showed, grew to new record levels in this year's springtime harvest. The UN focused on the fact that overall production in Afghanistan was down, but a drought appears significantly responsible for the fall.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Golda Meir: the Iron Lady of the Middle East

Tomorrow's Sunday Times runs my review of Elinor Burkett's new biography of the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir. Here it is.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

What's going on in Syria?

It's been six years since I went to Syria, so I am not well qualified to talk with insight on the goings-on inside that state. But a report in this morning's Times that a senior Syrian general with links to Hizbollah was shot dead in the port of Tartous last Friday caught my eye. The Times has followed up the story today, quoting an analyst who says that the dead man, Mohammed Suleiman, was the liaison officer between the Syrian regime and the Lebanese political party/terror group/state within a state.* Interestingly, according to Haaretz, Syria's state-controlled media did not report the killing which, presumably, they might have done if they suspected a foreign hand at work.

Syria is being pulled in two different directions. The French, and quietly the British, have been making overtures to the British-educated President Assad (whose wife was brought up in Acton, west London), hoping to separate him from the Iranians. Syria has started talking to Israel, using Turkey as a mediator. On the other hand the President is surrounded by an older generation he inherited from his father, Hafiz, who built close ties with Iran in order to weaken neighbouring Iraq. Whether or not to maintain those ties is now the question. Assad appears to be trying to bridge the gap, saying in the Syrian newspaper Tishreen yesterday that on his trip to Teheran this past weekend he had not been acting as a go-between the West and President Ahmadinejad. On his visit he also met the Ayatollah, drawing attention to his own connection, as an Alawite, to the Shia branch of Islam. He is clearly anxious not to be seen as a puppet of the west.

The Times suggests that the assassination of Suleiman (who, judging by his home-town, is likely also to be an Alawite) is linked to internal tensions over tactics. The absence of comment on the murder in the Syrian press and my own, slightly unsettling, experience of meeting one or two the old guard six years ago make that sound eminently plausible.

* Delete as preferred

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Speaking engagements

Hear me speak about TE Lawrence and his impact:

28 September 2008 to the TE Lawrence Society Symposium, at St John's College Oxford.
27 January 2009 to history students taking the TE Lawrence/Gertrude Bell Special Subject at the University of Cambridge.
11 February 2009, to the Barnes Literary Society.
7 September 2009, at the Making of the Modern Middle East conference, at Christ Church, Oxford.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

DFID in Afghanistan

I've touched before on the UK Department for International Development's role in Afghanistan. Yesterday's Times ran an interesting article by Anthony Loyd on Britain's aid effort to date in Helmand, southern Afghanistan. Much of the aid Britain has squirted at the Afghans has gone, in Loyd's words, in "bungs, bribes and embezzlement". Given these inescapable facts of Afghan life, Britain's strategy of providing the security to enable the Afghans to resume business on their own terms, seems a better use of money.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

American support for Israeli policy

Last year John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt caused controversy with the publication of their book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. They argued that groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have hijacked the foreign policy of the United States to the detriment of Americans' best interests, and included a lengthy study of US support for Israel's attempt to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 to advance their case.

Certainly, if you visit southern Lebanon today - driving past the billboards of bearded Iranian ayatollahs and soft-focus portraits of youthful 'martyrs' attached to street lamps - you will probably agree that Israel's invasion of the area two years ago has had the opposite effect to that intended. The roads have been patched up, farms repaired, and life has returned to normal. Far from being weaker, Hezbollah, which fixed the damage, is stronger than ever.

I have no doubt that Israel runs an impressive lobbying operation - I once benefited from a trip funded by the Israeli foreign office where I was able to meet many key Israeli politicians - but the question on why such lobbying strikes a chord, especially in the US is an interesting one. This month's Foreign Affairs contains a thoughtful article by Walter Russell Mead on the ideological origins and evolution of American support for an independent Jewish state, which is well worth reading in full. It starts with a striking quote from founding father John Adams, who hoped that "Once restored to an independent government and no longer persecuted they [the Jews] would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character and possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians".

The article is a gentle rebuttal of Mearsheimer and Walt's thesis, arguing that though liberal and conservative Americans have been sympathetic to Israel for completely different social and religious reasons, the combined weight of their votea has underpinned the benevolent US policy towards the state of Israel. He concludes that "In the future, as in the past, US policy toward the Middle East will, for better or worse, continue to be shaped primarily by the will of the American majority, not the machinations of any minority, however wealthy or engaged in the political process some of its members may be."

Maybe. George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War gives a vivid practical illustration of how baser economic considerations trump ideology in such democratic calculations. Crile describes how the Texan Congressman Wilson's enthusiasm for various foreign regimes was shaped by their decisions over arms procurement that could impact jobs on the General Dynamics plant in Texas that manufactured F-16 fighter jets. Israel was a notable purchaser of these. Mearsheimer and Walt explain the complex financial arrangements by which the United States supports Israel financially and in kind, so that US aid to Israel ultimately ends up keeping US workers in the defence industry in jobs. Mead's article does not touch on this, and how it might affect the US democratic process.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

National Army Museum, Chelsea

I'm speaking at the National Army Museum in Chelsea at 12.30pm on Thursday.

More details can be found here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Another review


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Key dates in the formation of the modern Middle East

A correspondent gets in touch to ask if I can supply "a chronological listing of events that resulted in the present disposition of territory" in the Middle East.

This is a framework which I needed to do in connection for my next book (on which more in due course). So I sketched out what I think are the key dates.

  • 1915 August – British begin secret correspondence with Sharif Husein of Mecca, offering him large, vague empire encompassing Arabia.
  • 1915 November – British begin secret negotiations with French for division of Middle East between them.
  • 1916 May – Sykes-Picot agreement divides Middle East between France (northern part) and Britain (southern part).
  • 1916 June – Arab revolt breaks out in Mecca: by the war’s end the Arabs, under Husein’s son Feisal, would take control of Damascus, a thousand miles to the north.
  • 1917 April – Britain invades Palestine
  • 1917 November – Britain issues Balfour Declaration offering sympathy with Zionist aspirations for a national home in Palestine
  • 1918 October – War in Middle East ends: British troops occupy Palestine, Syria, and, after a post-armistice dash north, all of Iraq.
  • 1918 December – Lloyd George and Clemenceau secretly agree Britain should have Palestine and Iraq.
  • 1919 summer – Paris peace conference fails to resolve Middle Eastern matters, amid acrimony.
  • 1919 November – Britain pulls troops out of Syria, leaving French in charge of coastal area and Arabs under Feisal in charge of inland towns.
  • 1920 April – Allies finally agree on allocation of mandates at conference in San Remo, Italy. France to have Syria, Britain to have Iraq and Palestine. The borders are as yet undefined, and their definition would be a source of some friction in the years ahead.
  • 1920 July – Britain transfers Palestine from military to civil control. It would rule Palestine until May 1948, trying and failing to keep both Arabs and Jews satisfied.
  • 1920 July – Armed with the mandate for Syria, France issues an ultimatum to Feisal and shortly afterwards, throws him out of inland Syria. France ruled Syria until 1946.
  • 1920 August – Allies force Treaty of Sèvres on Turkey. This confirms San Remo, and also recognises the Hijaz (western Arabia) and Armenia (eastern Anatolia). Other parts of the former Ottoman Empire are parcelled out between Italy and Greece. The treaty is wrecked by the Turkish nationalists, who fight to take control of Anatolia, and by the refusal of the United States to take on the mandate for Armenia.
  • 1920 September – France creates State of Greater Lebanon. Lebanese Republic created on 1 September 1926. Lebanon became independent in November 1943 following a political crisis created by the Free French decision to kidnap the President and Prime Minister, whom they were forced by the British to release. French troops leave in 1946.
  • 1921 March – Churchill offers Transjordan to Feisal’s older brother, Abdullah as a temporary arrangement. In September 1922 the League of Nations approves Britain’s request to administer Palestine and Transjordan separately. Britain recognises Transjordan as a state in 1923, and as a kingdom in March 1946. Abdullah was recognised as King soon after.
  • 1921 August – British crown Feisal king of Iraq to try to appease Arab opinion in the country following the rebellion the previous year. In October 1922, Iraq agrees treaty with Britain formalising their relationship. Iraq became independent in 1932.
  • 1924 July – The Treaty of Lausanne finally settled the borders of Turkey, in Anatolia and in Europe.
Are there others I have missed?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Latest review

Another review - this time in the Washington Times.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Aerial reconnaissance in the Arab revolt

Another interesting review, this time on Barnes and Noble's website. It usefully draws attention to a book I had not heard about before: Polly Mohs's Military Intelligence and the Arab Revolt, published by Routledge in October last year.

According to the blurb (from Amazon) Mohs argues that "Modern intelligence techniques such as Sigint, Imint [aerial reconnaissance to you and me] and Humint were incorporated into strategic planning with greater expertise and consistency in Arabia than in any other theatre during the war, and their deployment as tactical support for the Arab forces was decisive."

Although the British overplayed the remoteness of the Hijaz, the jagged desert landscape where the revolt played out, there is no doubt that they had little to go by. A few brave explorers - most famously Richard Burton - had criss-crossed the area on foot before the war. The most recent was a young army officer named AJB Wavell who, like Burton, disguised himself as a Muslim to enter Mecca in 1909. Wavell was killed in East Africa during the First World War, before he might have been called in by the Arab Bureau to offer any assistance. The British were thus bereft of signficant first hand experience of the area. When I was doing my research, I was amused to find, in the corner of one British military map, this caveat: "This map is a collection of sketches by Egyptian pilgrimage officers and members of the Sherif's forces. An attempt has been made to control it by native information, but without success."

Until the advent of Google mapping and Google Earth a couple of years ago, maps of Saudi Arabia remained in short supply, and the one I did purchase before I visited in 2005 had few of the obscure places marked, like Wadi Safra and Hamra (where TE Lawrence first met Feisal), that I was keen to go and see. I found myself relying on copies of the same maps that the British officers had used 90 years before to guide their way.

Shortage breeds ingenuity, and the government in London's reluctance to commit forces, and the vastness of the Hijaz both encouraged the British locally to use aerial reconnaissance to make up by accurate information what they felt the Arabs lacked in numbers, weapons, organisation and tactics. After some delaying a flight was sent to Rabigh on the Arabian coast. Lawrence initially in fact dismissed the value of aerial photography - he probably saw it as a threat to his own ventures into the interior, but those reservations did not last long.

I see that an article I read some time ago, about the work of the Royal Flying Corps in the Arab Revolt, has now been joined by the text and maps from Thomas Henderson's first hand account of operations, which is kept in the Imperial War Museum in London. Both are well worth reading.

The British also successfully intercepted Turkish wireless communications. It was not until someway through my research that I discovered that a phrase dotting British telegrams concerning enemy plans - "from an absolutely reliable source" - was shorthand code for information gained from this traffic.

Anyway, since I did not give much specific thought to the role of intelligence in Setting the Desert on Fire, I am looking forward to reading Polly Mohs's book.

Monday, April 21, 2008

More reviews

Two more reviews of Setting the Desert on Fire can be found here and here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"The Sinews of War...

Still the cheapest element in modern warfare

... are infinite money," said Cicero. And time hasn't proved him wrong.

A few weeks ago I came up with a figure of over $2,800 a second for the cost of modern warfare. It was a rough calculation based on data published by the US government on its war expenditure in Iraq to date, divided by the number of days since the US invasion in March 2003. I said it was rough.

A far more sophisticated estimate, including many other costs, can be found in Joseph Stiglitz's and Linda Bilmes's new book The Three Trillion Dollar War. I haven't, and won't have time to read it, so this book review by Sam Leith for the Daily Telegraph is useful.

The sentence that caught my eye was this one:

The operating costs of the war in Iraq are now $12.5 billion a month; which rises to $16 billion if you include Afghanistan.

By my arithmetic that works out at $4,760 per second. No wonder then that a committee of British MPs has just announced that it expects the costs of Britain's engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan to double.

The question is how long the British taxpayer will indulge this level of expenditure (and lack of evidence of results) - particularly as the UK's economic prospects worsen.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Iraq today - Lawrence of Arabia's advice from yesterday

On February 18, 1921 T.E. Lawrence started work as an adviser to Winston Churchill, who had just been appointed Britain’s Colonial Secretary. With that job came responsibility for Iraq, the “ungrateful volcano” as Churchill dubbed the country, where the British had finally finished crushing a revolt against their rule.

Churchill knew that Iraq’s people were not the only people who opposed Britain’s three-year-old occupation. British taxpayers were outraged at the cost of Britain’s fractious colony; echoing their temper, the newspapers were demanding the withdrawal of British troops.

A keen student of the public mood, Churchill regarded the situation apprehensively. “I feel some misgivings”, he wrote, “about the political consequence to myself of taking on my shoulders the burden and the odium of the Mesopotamia entanglement.” Those words must reverberate with any of the presidential candidates today for, come January next year, they will find themselves in an uncannily similar position – stuck, as Churchill put it, with a baby, though he was “not the father”.

Churchill hoped that Lawrence could help extricate him from the mess in which he found himself. Lawrence understood insurgencies intimately because he had whipped up one himself, in Arabia against the Turks during the Great War. He knew more than anyone else alive about the Arabs, and guerrilla warfare. And eighty seven years on, his advice remains as resonant as ever.

As Lawrence vividly put it, “To make war on rebellion was messy and slow ... like eating soup with a knife.” So he would recognise the strategy behind the surge. He said that the Turks’ only answer to the uprising he had masterminded would have been to suffocate the area with troops – twenty for every four square miles was the figure he suggested.

Lawrence’s point was that it was beyond the Turks to provide so many men. The same fundamental problem confronts the far mightier United States today. A shortage of troops is why, in the north of Iraq, the US army has come to rely on the support of Sunni “awakening councils”, whose 80,000 vigilantes have dealt the insurgency a bitter blow.

But the Arabic word for awakening, al-nadha, carries important, political, connotations. It is used to refer to the rise of Arab nationalism a century ago and these “concerned citizens” are not simply interested in ending the violence that has blighted their lives. Suspicious of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, they want to restore the dominance they have historically enjoyed. Like the Shia, almost all of them say they want Iraq to remain a unitary state – but only so long as it is run by them.

This distrust has ever been the case. As Lawrence put it bluntly, in Iraq the “tribes and towns are irreconcilable.” He therefore advocated splitting the country into two states: a tribal, sparsely populated Sunni north and more urbanised Shia south – areas, he said that “should be kept quite separate”. When it became clear that, because of oil, the British government was set on creating one state that joined the oilfields in the north to the Persian Gulf, Lawrence argued that Iraq would need to be “buttressed by the men and material resources of a great foreign Power.” Then, that power was Britain; today it is America.

“What is going to happen when our influence is removed?” wondered Lawrence’s colleague, Kinahan Cornwallis ,as the British tried to disentangle themselves from Iraq. He predicted: “They will all fly at each other’s throats until someone strong enough to dominate the country emerges or, alternatively, until we have to step in and intervene.”

According to Lawrence the Arabs believed “in persons, not in institutions”. His and Churchill’s solution was to put Feisal, his wartime comrade-in-arms, on the throne in Baghdad in August 1921 – giving what was still fundamentally a British government colony an Arab front-man. Feisal, a Sunni whose claim to be descended from Muhammad was widely recognised, appeared able to bridge the thirteen hundred year old rift between Sunni and Shia. And for a while he did. But even Feisal never really understood the country he had been parachuted in to rule. Shortly before his death in 1933 he described his subjects as “devoid of any patriotic idea …prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever.”

Whoever wins in November’s poll faces an awkward choice. For the surge to work more troops are needed, at a time when the American taxpayer may be ill-inclined to finance them; to leave now must make civil war more likely in a country that is fundamentally divided. One thing is certain: he or she will find it difficult to shrug off the “burden and odium” of Iraq.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Battlefields Trust

Courtesy of the Battlefields Trust, I'm next speaking in Norwich on 26 April at the Assembly House about my book, and the research and travel that led to it. You can find further details here.

I'm also speaking at:

The National Army Museum, Chelsea - 3 July
The TE Lawrence Society Symposium, Oxford - 28 September

Friday, February 29, 2008

"an early version of Charlie Wilson's War"

The Seattle Times has reviewed Setting the Desert on Fire. You can read it here.

Friday, February 22, 2008

No way to win the battle for hearts and minds

This report from southern Afghanistan has been out for three days, and it provides powerful evidence that things are going badly there. The British, who are sending 16 Air Assault Brigade to Helmand in April just as the poppy harvest gets under way, are clearly gearing up for renewed hostilities in the spring. Although the Afghan winter is a harsh one, the lull that it imposes on the fighting in the region surely offers an opportunity for reconstruction work.

Instead as the report shows, there is still no improvement in electricity generation, and the locals are blaming the foreigners, and not the Taliban, for the lack of progress. The British do not seem to be winning the battle for hearts and minds vital to their success in this guerrilla war.

UPDATE: To add to Britain's problems in the south of Afghanistan, the Canadians have just announced that they will withdraw from Kandahar province, next-door, by 2011.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Is Lawrence my hero?

Not worshipping but following Lawrence:
the author near Mudawwarah in southern Jordan

Two more contrasting reviews, in the New York Sun and Wall Street Journal, which are both well worth a read, both agree on one point: T.E. Lawrence is my hero. Rubbish.

When I started out writing the book I was determined to be controversial, picking holes in Lawrence's story and finding flaws in the man himself. As his many biographers have already pointed out, there are plenty of them. In particular I wanted to highlight that he was one of several British advisers to the Arab guerrilla forces in the First World War, men like Stewart Newcombe, Herbert Garland and Henry Hornby, all now largely forgotten. Knowing that the man had a reputation for lying, I went about my research in a very particular way. I did all my other research before I finally turned to Lawrence's own, later, account of what had happened. I wanted to know the story from contemporary accounts before I read Lawrence's version of events.

The evidence I found surprised me. First was how the perception of Lawrence changed among his colleagues during the war. In 1916 he was described as a too-clever-by-half "bumptious young ass" who needed "kicking, and kicking hard at that". Subsequent events forced Lawrence's colleagues to change their view. By midway through 1917 they admitted his indispensability as an adviser to Feisal - a position he had singlehandedly carved out. Lawrence was of "inestimable value," commented one colleague, prompting another to wish that he could find other officers to act in similar roles with Feisal's older brothers. As he admitted: "Such men, however, are extremely difficult to get". Finally, as news of Lawrence's exploits spread, there was outright praise for him. According to the Conservative politician and arch-imperialist George Lloyd, Lawrence had "done wonderfully good work and will some day be able to write a unique book. Generally the kind of men capable of these adventures lack the pen and the wit to record them adequately. Luckily Lawrence is specially gifted in both."

Lawrence's ability to write a compelling book (like Churchill's after him) has inevitably guaranteed him a central role in the story that I tell in Setting the Desert on Fire. But these comments from his contemporaries at the time (and long before it was clear how famous he would become), which I unearthed in the archives in London and Durham, suggest that this prominence is not undeserved. Even Colonel Cyril Wilson, the man who had labelled Lawrence a "bumptious young ass" would, less than a year later, write what Lawrence described as a "very kind note" to praise him for his achievements. It was hard to avoid the conclusion, based on the evidence that Lawrence - the awkward, devious, mendacious intelligence officer - had won the respect of his peers. That was what inclined me to portray him in a positive light, while still, I hope, showing that he would have been hell at times to work with.

I reached another conclusion after examining the contemporary evidence. The book that Lawrence wrote, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was largely accurate in its depiction of events, not least because it quoted extensively from his campaign notes. The emphasis was different, however, for by then Lawrence had realised that he faced a political battle to lobby "opinion formers" internationally that the Arabs deserved to be offered self-government. One of those he met, in Paris in 1919, was the US President, Woodrow Wilson. It was to make this case that he largely suppressed his wartime frustrations with the Arabs and instead put emphasis on their role in the First World War in the Middle East. Realising that the battle was for a favourable public perception of the Arabs, he had started doing this before the war was even over.

Few historians ever appreciate the reason why Lawrence's version of events does change over time, because they rely exclusively on Seven Pillars of Wisdom to tell the story of events that happened at least ten years before. And that inevitably leaves them open to allegations of favourable bias. I hope that the way that I went about researching Setting the Desert on Fire has made a book that provides a more nuanced analysis of why, eventually, he proved so popular a figure.

Monday, February 18, 2008

"Required reading" - New York Post

From yesterday's New York Post:

"Barr has uncovered previously closed archives in Europe on the revolt stirred up by Lawrence of Arabia and traveled the paths of that Middle East turmoil, which resonates in the region's politics today. This fast-paced history book, filled with saber-rattling sheiks, soldiers from Britain and France, spies and courtly diplomats, is a thriller."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

New reviews

Extracts from two new reviews of the Norton edition:

"a compact, scrupulously accurate chronicle ... utilizing previously unavailable archival material and seamlessly interweaving the military narrative with the political maneuvers of the British and French governments". "An excellent general history of a widely misunderstood struggle that largely defined the shape of the modern Middle East."

"A gripping tale ... Barr turns history into a drama, with bright writing and a fascinating cast of characters. ...His four years of searching archives in Europe and crossing the deserts of the Middle East allowed Barr to turn out a colourful slice of history."

Associated Press (see the full review reproduced here)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Extinguishing an insurgency

Firefighters traditionally use a triangular diagram to illustrate how they attack a blaze. At the three corners are the three vital ingredients of a fire: heat, fuel and air. Remove any one of these three and the fire dies out. It struck me recently that the same diagram can be applied to counter-insurgency. An insurgency depends on three key ingredients: insurgents - to do the fighting; weapons - for them to fight with; and sympathy from the local population in which they operate. Take away any of them and the insurgency begins to dwindle.

We can see how this is happening in northern Iraq. The number of insurgents is apparently ebbing. The Times yesterday reported the contents of two letters that had been seized in recent raids, and have now been made public by the US military. If true, they point to a crisis within the insurgents' ranks caused by infighting, defections, and a lack of volunteers. This last factor, claims General Petraeus, is due to countries barring young men from flying to the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo on one-way tickets.

Petraeus rather grudgingly acknowledged that the fifty per cent fall in foreign militants entering Iraq was partly due to Syrian intervention, presumably along the notoriously porous Syria/Iraq border, and this may have had an effect on the constant supply of weapons that the insurgents need to fight their guerrilla war, particularly if you count suicide bombers as a weapon, since half of these were estimated recently to come via Syria. The weapons used by the insurgents have come from two sources: the disbanded Iraqi army (the glut of AK47s was so large after the 2003 invasion that the price dropped to as little as $10 a rifle) and from Iraq's neighbours, Syria and Iran, both of whom have had a strong interest in seeing the United States bogged down since they were identified as likely future targets of American action. If Syria is now making some effort to stop the insurgency, that is likely to help deny the insurgents the weapons they need. It is interesting that there has been noticeably less criticism of Syria of late.

Finally there is some evidence that sympathy for the insurgents is diminishing. Sympathy, as TE Lawrence noted, is critical to the success of any insurgency. Across Anbar province, previously the most dangerous area outside Baghdad, "Awakening Councils" of local Sunni tribesmen have been springing up, fuelled by US money, and determined to root out the guerrillas whose indiscriminate tactics have caused widespread revulsion. As the despairing tone of the letters displayed by the US military suggest, this is perhaps the most important development. Note though, from the BBC's two polls in March and September last year, that Sunni opposition to the US presence simultaneously increased during this period.

Monday, February 04, 2008

New and improved

Setting the Desert on Fire is published in the United States this month, over eighteen months after the British edition came out. "What took so long?", I keep being asked.

The short answer is that I rewrote great chunks of the book. The result is a tighter, punchier, more exciting read. T.E. Lawrence now arrives at the outset, and I have now explained more fully why he became involved in the Arab revolt. The diplomatic wrangling that surrounded his arrival in Arabia is now more clear. And, following the very positive feedback from readers of the UK edition, there's more for armchair travellers about my own journey through the region in Lawrence's footsteps, and more of the photographs that I took in the Middle East during my research.

Norton have done a fantastic job and the end result looks stunning. But then I'm biased. There have been a few early reviews so far. Publishers Weekly on November 26 last year described it as "exhaustively researched and vividly narrated." The review concluded: "Barr expertly navigates an intriguing landscape of shifting alliances and labyrinthine politics peopled with eccentric characters to demystify a fascinating legend." You can look here and here for more.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The cost of modern war: $2,800 a second

The cheapest ingredient of modern warfare

Reuters is reporting that the US administration will put in a bid for $70 billion to finance the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for part of 2009. Its report says in passing that the Congressional Budget Office reckons that $440bn has been spent on operations in Iraq so far. After some quick maths I think that works out at $2,848 per second since the invasion.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The latest on Iraq

Something to smile about: a United States soldier plays paper, scissors and stone with an Iraqi boy
[Photo: courtesy of US Department of Defense]

It was interesting to hear the distinctly confident tone of Ambassador David Satterfield when he spoke on Iraq at a meeting organised by the Global Strategy Forum on Monday night. Satterfield advises Condoleezza Rice, and is the State Department's Coordinator for Iraq. He made a compelling case four nights ago that things are getting better - "by any metric", as he put it in his opening remarks. With the surge seemingly responsible for a demonstrable reduction in the violence in Iraq, he said that he was more confident about the future than he had been "ninety - or even twenty - days ago." To be fair to him, he described himself as "cautiously optimistic."

With Satterfield's impressive pitch a memory, re-reading my scribbled notes, it is the problems that stand out however. Although the violence was now dropping, the "laggard", as Satterfield admitted, was the national political process that the surge was designed to give space to breathe.
Although a law designed to rehabilitate some former Baath party officials has now gone through, other legislation setting out how Iraq's oil will be exploited and its proceeds shared out and, secondly, the balance between federal and provincial government has made little progress: and laws on both are vital if Iraq is to become a stable state.

Satterfield was scathing about the Iraqi government at times: it had to govern "more effectively and ... in a national manner", he warned, and he said that it had been "very slow" to respond to the challenges posed by the return of refugees from Syria and Jordan who found that their homes were now occupied by others.

Satterfield described the scale of Iran's diplomatic presence in Iraq as "not appropriate, not helpful", and said Syria was "the primary source of Al Qaeda's suicide bombers". In this respect, this recent report in The Times makes interesting reading.

Questioned about the "Anbar Awakening" - the effort by the Sunnis in Anbar province to root out foreign terrorism, he was categoric that the US government had provided "not a single weapon." "They were very well armed to begin with", he added, drily. He put the number of "concerned citizens" as the vigilantes have been dubbed, at 80,000. However, as this excellent short report from the New York Times shows, the denial, while technically true, is rather academic. Watch the brick of banknotes being passed to one local leader 1 min 37 seconds into the film. Who knows where that cash is going. The film makes it clear that the Sunni awakening poses its own particular problems. As Satterfield observed, "the challenge posed by all the armed elements ... is a considerable one."

Monday, January 21, 2008

Containing Iran

This piece in Foreign Affairs is a superb article.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A warm welcome

The BBC is reporting that a UN convoy has been hit by a roadside bomb in southern Lebanon. Earlier today it said that rockets fired from inside Lebanon had hit the Israeli coastal town of Shlomi. Luckily neither incident has caused serious injuries.

It may be that these two attacks are not connected with each other, but it looks as if the timing of both may be connected to the arrival of the US President, George W Bush in Israel tomorrow.