T. E. Lawrence’s Vision for the Middle East: How Does It Look Now?

by John E. Mack, M.D.

When we consider the fame of T. E. Lawrence and what has drawn people, including myself, to the man and his legend, we look to his achievements as a military strategist during the Arab Revolt in World War I and his influence in shaping the boundaries of the Middle East in the post-war period. But it is his vision of possibilities for the region’s future which has, above all, accounted for Lawrence’s enduring interest for many people. In this talk I will look at this vision and relate it to the present circumstances in the Near East. I will also offer suggestions about what might be done to bring the reality closer to the possibilities that Lawrence foresaw.

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What was Lawrence’s vision for the Middle East? What did he prophesize? It is important first to distinguish the region as a whole from the specific questions related to the area that was known until 1948 as Palestine.

First, let us consider the region as a whole. Many of Lawrence’s thoughts about the future of the Middle East are contained in an article published anonymously in 1920 as “The Changing East” in The Round Table, a journal edited by his friend, Lionel Curtis. Lawrence pictured a network of states in the Middle East loosely tied to Great Britain. It would be a new sort of imperialism, not the colonial control and domination that had previously characterized British rule.

We have to demand [of the Arab States] provision for their own defense. . . This is the first stage towards self-respect in peoples. They must find their own troops to replace our armies of occupation which we are going to withdraw. For this they must be armed, and must learn by having arms not to misuse them. We can only teach them how by forcing them to try, while we stand by and give advice (Lawrence, T. E., 1920, pp. 95-96).

In 1928 Lawrence wrote, “I think there is a great future for the British Empire as a voluntary association” (Garnett, 1938, p. 578). He predicted the importance of the “Bolshevist success” as “a potent example to the East of the overthrow of an ancient government (Lawrence, T. E., 1920, p. 94), but he failed to anticipate the demise of the British Empire and the rise of American power in the region as a result of World War II which was still several years away after his death. Consequently Lawrence failed to foresee the degree to which geo-political conflicts and superpower rivalries under the shadow of nuclear weapons would dominate the region at the expense of the human beings who lived there. In terms of regional boundaries and leadership, Lawrence correctly foresaw the restoration of Turkey under Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk) within Anatolia, but he wrongly predicted that “Baghdad” (Iraq), “richer, bigger” than Syria would be the “ultimate regent” in the area. Egypt he rightly saw would come to dominate North African politics. Persia, he predicted, would be united and unfriendly or dismembered and fought over. He surely did not expect anything quite like the rise of Khomeini, but he did understand that the momentum toward importing western ideas and modern technology into the Middle East would continue. The “disease” of civilization, Lawrence wrote, “is physical, material, moral and mental” and “the inevitable effect of too close contact with the west.” Europe he observed evolved machinery over centuries of struggle “from pack horses to aeroplanes.” “But what of Asia,” he asked, “which has stepped in a lifetime of 30-years from saddle-donkeys to Rolls-Royce cars, from blood-mares to aeroplanes?” “Europe is not a thing easily digested,” he noted wryly (Lawrence, T. E., 1920, pp. 72-73). If we extrapolate to the contemporary Middle East with Its high speed jet airplanes, up-to-date communication systems and bristling with arms, including remote control car bombs and guided missiles, we can see how far technological change has gone. But Lawrence failed to foresee the fundamentalist religious reactions that would take place in the region in response to these modernizing trends.

Lawrence perceived that “we may be passing into an economic stage, in which wars and governments will be mainly businesses…The economic motive may yet rank with religion and nationality in destructiveness” (p. 76). But he could not see the extent of western domination of the region, particularly to satisfy appetites for oil, and the willingness of the world’s governments to permit private arms salesmen to supply the weaponry with which Islamic groups could murder one another, and he would have been appalled to see the “great power” governments themselves supplying arms in such quantities, as revealed most dramatically in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Lawrence was most prescient in seeing the rise of nationalisms and the drive for self-determination in the Middle East. “Merit is no qualification for freedom,” he wrote in the London Times in 1920 (Garnett, p. 307). His own efforts may have been a force in stimulating Arab nationalism. Nationalism was replacing religion as “the modern creed)” the “new ideal” for which the Moslem would accept death gladly in battle” (Lawrence, T. E., 1920, p. 84). With himself in mind perhaps, and his backing of the Sherif oil Mecca in the Arab Revolt, Lawrence declared the desert to be “the reservoir of all ideas.” “Arab movements,” he said, “begin in the desert and usually travel up the shortest way up to Syria… For this reason, this present Arab movement, the craving for national independence and self-government, was started in the desert” (p. 87). Modern Arab nationalists resent Lawrence’s romanticization of the nomadic desert Arab, the Bedouin, and his disdain for the settled Arabs of cities like Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem where Arab nationalism actually developed. Lawrence failed to predict the proliferation of conflicts among so many ethno-national and confessional groups in the Middle East – Sunni, rival Shiite, Maronite, Druse and many others, each armed by the cynical profiteers who feed off their conflicts.

When we return to Palestine we note that the questions are even more complex. It was in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and southern Syria where the Arab irregulars fought in the desert during World War I. Lawrence pursued British wartime policies effectively, but at the same time he worked for the cause of self-government for the Arabs he influenced. But he was also committed to the Zionist movement. In 1919 he drafted a letter for Emir Feisal for a meeting with Felix Frankfurter, a leader of American Zionists. In his letter Feisal wished “the Jews a hearty welcome home” and asserted “our two movements complete one another.” “There is room in Syria for both of us” he concluded. The letter was published in the New York Times on March 5, 1919. In “The Changing East,” Lawrence wrote of “the Jewish experiment” as

a conscious effort, on the part of the least European people in Europe, to make head against the drift of the aces, and return once more to the Orient from which they came. The colonists will take back with them to the land which they occupied for some centuries before the Christian era samples of all the knowledge and technique of Europe. They propose to settle down amongst the existing Arab-speaking population of the country, a people of kindred origin, but far different social condition. They hope to adjust their mode of life to the climate of Palestine, and by the exercise of their skill and capital to make it as highly organised as a European state. The success of their scheme will involve inevitably the raising of the present Arab population to their own material level, only a little after themselves in point of time, and the consequences might be of the highest importance for the future of the Arab world. It might well prove a source of technical supply rendering them independent of industrial Europe, and in that case the new confederation might become a formidable element of world power. However, such a contingency will not be for the first or even f or the second generation, but it must be borne in mind in any laying out of foundations of empire in Western Asia (Lawrence, T. E., 1920, pp. 92-93).

Chaim Weizmann, first President of Israel, wrote in 1936 of Lawrence’s belief in the Zionist effort:

His faith in the Jewish National Home grew correspondingly with the growth and development of Palestine as a result of Jewish efforts. In the winter of 1, 921 1 had a long talk with him, our conversation turning mainly on Jewish-Arab co-operation. He regarded such cc-operation as of the utmost importance, from the Jewish point of view, but equally in the interests of the Arabs. He thought that the Jews acted as a ferment and were likely to be instrumental in bringing out the latent energies of the Arab people. He thought that Arab redemption was likely to come about through Jewish redemption. Lawrence certainly understood both sides, if anyone can be said to have done so (my italics), and he did his utmost to interpret the spirit of one people, and to explain the aspirations of the other, believing that close co operation between the two peoples was to their mutual advantage (Lawrence, A. W., 1937, p. 244).

Professor Stephen Tabachnick wrote in 1984:

Lawrence (unlike the pro-Arab Gertrude Bell or the pro-Zionist Richard Meinertzhagen) was one of the few and one of the last people in his own time and ours to achieve true sympathy for both national movements. His references to both movements in Seven Pillars are positive. He actually believed that they could be reconciled, and, although subsequent events have seemed to prove him wrong at least to date, this belief only rebounds to his credit (Tabachnick, 1984, p. 37).

Let us turn now to those “subsequent events.” Neither Lawrence, nor Weizmann when he wrote of Lawrence, foresaw World War II or the European Holocaust and the overwhelming pressure of immigration and for creation of a Jewish state. Nor did either predict the subsequent seemingly irreconcilable clash of nationalities between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine.

Beginning a National Public Radio Program in May, 1988, commemorating 40 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, the announcer said, “[this] fulfilled one people’s dream for a homeland and shattered another’s.” Again, Lawrence did not anticipate the degree to which the region would be caught in the geo-political maelstrom of superpower rivalries, or the coming together of U. S. strategic interests, American Jewish support for Israel and the political power of the American Jewish community to tilt U. S. policy in the direction of Israel in the Arab Israeli conflict.

The present situation is very grim indeed. In response to uprisings of Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza, themselves the result of the suppression of the Arab identity and aspirations, the Israeli government instructed its security forces to use “force, might and beatings.” A medical fact-finding mission conducted by Physicians for Human Rights (an organization to which I belong as a member of the Advisory Board) documented thousands of deliberately inflicted limb, body and head injuries. The report concluded:

Serious and potentially long-lasting psychological damage may ensue for many segments of the Palestinian population, especially to children and adolescents, and for the Israeli population, especially the soldiers. The consequences of the present violence may well affect a whole generation and thereby further constrict the possibilities of peaceful resolution in the future. As injury and death become routine, there is a steady erosion of the basic principles that all human life should be protected and that Palestinian and Israeli lives are equally precious. We observed an accumulating burden of rage and mutual dehumanization in response to the unremitting toll of bloodshed. Impulses for revenge lead to further escalation. Violations of medical and human rights are increasing as both sides become habituated to violence and complex political conflicts are reduced to a daily body count (Physicians for Human Rights, 1988, p. 5).

Both groups, Israeli and Palestinian, find themselves locked in a struggle in which each feels its survival is at stake. It is a conflict of two victimized peoples. Among Israelis there is a perception of being vastly outnumbered, confronted by hostile neighbors committed to their destruction. For some the Palestinian uprising is but the beginning of a sequence that will lead to massive Arab violence against them and destruction of their state and people, as the West stands by once again and does nothing. Palestinians experience themselves as victims of a brutal, unjust and prolonged occupation. They feel dehumanized (as do many other Arab groups by the policies of the Western democracies) by Israel with the backing of the United States and its Western allies. Their land and homes have been taken and they believe that Israel would destroy their sense of community if not the entire Palestinian population. The Arab world as a whole is divided, and support for the Palestinian cause is uneven. But Arabs are united in the view that no peace in the region can come until the longing for self-determination of Palestinian Arabs is realized and their national aspirations fulfilled.

It is a discouraging picture, but we can see directions from which solutions must come. It is here that Lawrence’s vision, his belief in the possibility of reconciling conflicting national aspirations, this odd ability to see differing perspectives on all sides of troubled issues, becomes relevant. I would go further and stress the useful example of Lawrence’s exaggerated personal assumption of responsibility. As in the Arab Revolt, where he personally settled disputes in order to avoid bloodshed within and between the tribes, his writings about the Middle East are filled with phrases like “I promised” and “my betrayal,” in instances where he had no license to promise or betray anyone, He recognized himself the egoism of this overblown sense of responsibility. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom he wrote, “The self immolated victim took for his own the rare gift of sacrifice; and no pride and few pleasures in the world were so joyful, so rich as this choosing voluntarily another’s evil to perfect the self.

There was a hidden selfishness in it, as in all perfections” (Lawrence, T. E., 1937, p. 550). Further, Lawrence was committed to the sanctity of all human life, in spite of his participation in the violent campaigns of the Revolt. In Seven Pillars he also wrote:

To man-rational, wars of nationality were as much a cheat as religious wars, and nothing was worth fighting for: nor could fighting, the act of fighting, hold any meed of intrinsic virtue. Life was so deliberately private that no circumstances could justify one man in laying violent hands upon another’s (p. 548).

Let us look again now at the messages in Anwar Sadat’s speech to the Israeli Knesset in 1977, perhaps the preeminent example of extraordinary self-responsibility in the Middle East conflict. Consider some of the things that Sadat actually said:

No one could have ever conceived that the President of the biggest Arab state, which bears the heaviest burden and the main responsibility pertaining to the cause of war and peace in the Middle East, should declare his readiness to go to the land of the adversary while we were still in a state of war.

the obligation of responsibility before God and before the people make it incumbent upon me that I should go to the far corners of the world – even to Jerusalem to address members of the Knesset and acquaint them with all the facts surging in me, then I would I let you decide for yourselves.

I must sincerely declare before you that I have the same feelings and bear the same responsibility towards all and every man on earth, and certainly toward the Israeli people

to avoid an inevitable disaster that would befall us, you and the whole world, there is no alternative to the establishment of permanent peace based on justice, peace that is not swayed by suspicion or jeopardized by ill intentions

In all sincerity I tell you we welcome you among us with full security and safety. This in itself is a tremendous turning point, one of the landmarks of a decisive historical change. We used to reject you. We had our reasons and our fears, yes. We refused to meet with you, anywhere, yes

Yet today I tell you, and I declare it to the whole world, that we accept to live with you in permanent peace based on justice.

And finally,

It was a wall that warned us of extermination and annihilation if we tried to use our legitimate rights to liberate the occupied territories. Together we have to admit that that wall fell and collapsed in 1973. Yet, there remains another wall. This wall constitutes a psychological barrier between us, a barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, of deception, a barrier of hallucination without any action, deed or decision. A barrier of distorted and eroded interpretation of every event and statement. It is this psychological barrier which I described in official statements as constituting 70 percent of the whole problem (Sadat, 1977, pp. 13M and 14M).

We must pay attention not only to the repeated use of the word responsibility” by Sadat, but also to his emphasis on justice and security, on acceptance and acknowledgement, on the interconnection of all peoples, on the recognition of fear, suspicion, and other psychological dimensions of the conflict.

It is not always feasible for a head of state to act with the power and freedom that was possible for Sadat. Joseph Montville, Research Director of the Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs in the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, has introduced the concept of Track II diplomacy to describe the unofficial diplomatic efforts of individuals who hold no government office (Davidson and Montville, 1981-1982). Physicians, political scientists, and other citizens, professional and non-professional, can work to bridge the physical and emotional divides that separate ethno-national groups. Sometimes it is possible for individuals outside of government to assert leadership in ways that the official heads of state find difficult because of the constraints that operate within ‘the international political system. Anglican clergyman, John Austin Baker has provided dramatic example of Track II diplomacy. In 1979 he acknowledged in Westminster Abbey Britain’s historic sin against Catholic Ireland. In 1981, as Bishop of Salisbury, he was invited to the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in Belfast, the first Protestant clergyman to speak there. He acknowledged British atrocities and the neglect of Ireland. “Our methods,” Baker said, “had no moral foundations” (Montville, 1989 p.11). The effect of Baker’s words was electric and he had a powerful healing impact upon the conflict.

Montville himself, one of our foremost students of the Arab-Israeli conflict, is unusual in our government for his stress upon the need for acknowledgement of mutual national hurts, victimization, fears, distrust and insecurity on both sides of the conflict. In a recent article he wrote:

To reverse the dehumanization process requires that Israelis and Palestinians, preferably with the help of third parties, breach the wall standing between them created by their tragic experience and reinforced by the dynamics of victimhood … Each people will have to teach the other that they are worthy and valuable as a people, sharing the universal desire for security, identity and respect, and capable of recognizing and respecting this right in the other (Montville, 1988, p. 5).

But Montville did something more. To illustrate, indeed to demonstrate, the responsibility of each of us Track II diplomats he concluded a plenary address to the American Psychoanalytic Association by reviewing the unprecedented history of Christian oppression of Jews and then symbolically asked forgiveness “as a private, individual Christian… of the Jewish people for the hurts inflicted on them by Christendom.” He asked to be allowed to mourn Jewish losses with Jews and to

work in brotherly alliance with Jews and Arabs to mourn unjust hurts suffered by some Arabs as Jews fleeing Christian brutality in Europe established a homeland in Palestine and ultimately the State of Israel. And I ask to work with Jews and Arabs to establish a relationship which assures a secure and just, future for them and their children (Montville, 1989, p.16).

But what of us, Jews and Christians, in the West? What of me, an American Jew, a physician, a citizen of the power that is perhaps dominant in the Middle East region if not in the world – the richest country on earth? What can I do? What can we do? It would be presumptuous of me to apologize or to ask forgiveness as Sadat, Baker and Montville have done. But surely something of this sort is needed. In the fall of 1979 the Iranian militants holding the U.S. hostages in Tehran, who were taken after the Shah was permitted to come to the United States for medical treatment at the request of David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger, asked that the United States apologize for “crimes against the Iranian people” (Carter, 1982, p. 467). I do not know if it would have been a good idea for Jimmy Carter to have made such an apology, but thousands of Iranians had been tortured and killed by the U.S. backed regime of the Shah. Surely the Iranian militants’ request should not have been dismissed out of hand.

We would do well to question deeply the decency of letting the desire for oil of the western nations dominate our policy, risking global nuclear war to protect the flow of supplies in the Persian Gulf. We need to experience how unseemly it is for the United States with less than 5% of the world’s population to consume 40% of its resources. Perhaps we should apologize for permitting the flow of arms with which the peoples of the Middle East kill one another and for having been willing to supply arms or guide both sides in the devastating Iraq-Iran Gulf war as revealed in the Iran-Contra affair. We might apologize to Arabs, indeed to all Moslems, for our tendency to look down, to devalue and dehumanize, and to dismiss their political struggles through our too great readiness to see them as fanatics or terrorists without troubling to learn the sources of political unrest among the groups in the region.

Instead of simply railing piously against the phenomenon, we need to learn that so-called “terrorism” is a form that warfare assumes for the politically disenfranchised, whether we approve or disapprove of the political cause in question. For example, the current Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, wrote as “Michael” when he was a member of the command of the Lehi underground organization:

But first and foremost, terrorism is for us a part of the political battle being conducted under the present circumstances, and it has a great part to play: speaking in a clear voice to the whole world, as well as to our wretched brethren outside this land, it proclaims our war against the occupier. The real terrorist hides behind his stacks of papers and of laws he himself legislated. (Our terrorism) is not aimed at persons, but rather at representatives, and therefore it is effective. If, in addition, it shakes the Jewish population out of its complacency – so much the better. Thus, and only thus, will the battle for liberation commence (Shamir, 1987-1988, p. 23).

Many Israelis and Jewish Americans who are resolute about the importance of Israeli security are also troubled about the brutal turn of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. In their report the Physicians for Human Rights group notes, almost in passing, that “The uprisings are causing fear among the Israelis, threatening a sense of domination of Palestinians that has been the bulwark of many Israelis, awakening echoes of terrorist assaults in others and increasing the ambivalence about the future of the west bank and Gaza in many” (PHR Report, p.36). Many American Jews are also becoming increasingly troubled about the one-sidedness of a U.S. policy in which huge sums of money are given to the Israeli government with few questions asked, especially about the cost in Palestinian lives.

We can, we must, commit ourselves to a just, even policy in the region which recognizes the basic rights and national aspirations of both peoples. In Israel leading citizens are even calling for U.S. pressure to bring about a solution. Gideon Samet in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz wrote in February:

I don’t care if it’s the devil himself who brings about negotiations for a settlement – where the alternative is to submit to the far worse dictates of settlers and the sundry nationalist-messianic evangelical rejectionists who are pushing us towards a dead end in a country that will continue to send Its sons to beat people with clubs, to blow up ships in foreign harbors and then ceaselessly explain to us that peace hasn’t got a chance because of the villainous nature of the Arabs.

It is against the backdrop of such a future, mapped out for us by politicians who are blocking any movement, that I hereby declare my readiness to welcome American pressure as a fresh morning breeze (Samet, 1988, p. 14).

Turning back to T. E. Lawrence I find new meaning in his conflicts, in his exaggerated assumption of responsibility. Perhaps It is his personal struggle, his self-consciousness about violence, his exaggerated concern for the well-being of each tribal or national group in the Middle East region, which is of particular value for us now. Feisal’s English biographer Mrs. Stewart Erskine, spoke with Feisal when he was King of Iraq in the early 1930’s. “Lawrence,” Feisal told her, “said many things about me which are not a bit true and I should probably say things about him which would not be true either. He was a genius, of course, but not for this age.” “For a past age,” she suggested. “On the contrary, for the future. A hundred years hence, perhaps 200 years hence, he might be understood; but not today,” the King replied (Mack, 1976, p. 204).

Irving Howe in his essay, “The Problem of Heroism,” wrote, “what finally draws one to Lawrence, making him seem not merely an exceptional figure, but a representative man of our century is his courage and vulnerability in bearing the burden of consciousness” (Howe, 1963, p. 36). I took the title of my book on Lawrence, “A Prince of Our Disorder,” from Howe. It refers to our psychological and moral disorder, especially in relation to the Middle East.

I will leave the last words to the famous Israeli novelist and essayist Amos Oz and to Lawrence himself. Oz wrote an article in the Hebrew Dally Davar two weeks after the Six Day war of June, 1967. The article was reprinted in the Israeli; monthly, New Outlook in December, 1967 and again 20 years later in January, 1988 because of its continuing relevance:

I believe in a Zionism that accepts both the spiritual implications and the political consequences of the fact that this small but precious land is the homeland of two peoples fated to live facing each other, because no God and no angel will come down to judge between right and right. The lives of both, the lives of all of us, depend on the hard, tortuous, and essential process of learning to know each other in the strifetorn landscape of this beloved country (Oz, 1988, p. 24).

Lawrence, in his introduction to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which he suppressed because he believed the time was not yet right for it, wrote the following words. They reflect his egoism, his susceptibility to the biases of his time, but also his vision of possibilities for the Middle East and for the planet yet to be realized:

If I have restored to the East some self-respect, a goal; if I have made-the standard of rule of white over red more exigent, I have fitted those people in a degree for the new commonwealth in which the dominant races will forget their brute achievements, and white and red and yellow and brown and black will stand up together without side-glances in the service of the world” (Lawrence, T. E., 1922, p. 211).


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Davidson, W. D. and Montville, J. D. (1981-82), “Foreign Policy According to Freud,” Foreign Policy, No. 45, Winter, pp. 145-157.

Garnett, D. (1938), The Letters of T. E. Lawrence, London: Jonathan Cape.

Howe, I. (1963). A World More Attractive. New York: Horizon Press.

Lawrence, A. W. (1937), T. E. Lawrance by His Friends, London: Jonathan Cape.

Lawrence, T. E. (1920), “The Changing East,” The Round Table September. Reprinted in Lawrence, A.W., Oriental Assembly, London: Williams and Norgate, 1939, pp. 71-97.

Lawrence, T. E. (1922), Suppressed introductory chapter, 1922 (Oxford) Edition, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, reprinted in Mack, J.E. A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence, Boston: Little, Brown, 1976.

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Mack, J. E. (1976), A Prince of Our Disorder, Little, Brown & Company.

Montville, J. D. (1988), “Psychological Considerations in the Peace Process” In: The Arab Israeli Conflict: 20 Years After the Six- Day War, Westview, in press.

Montville, J. D. (1989), “Psychoanalytic Enlightenment, and The Greening of Diplomacy, “ Plenary Address, American Psychoanalytic Association, New York: December 19, 1986, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, in press.

Oz, A. (1988), “The Meaning of Homeland,” New Outlook, December, 1967. Reprinted in New Outlook, January, 1988, pp. 19-24.

Physicians for Human Rights (1988), “The Casualties of Conflict: Medical Care and Human Rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “ Report of a Medical Fact Finding Mission by Physicians for Human Rights, March 30.

Sadat, A. (1977), New York Times, November 21, pp. 13M and 14M.

Shamir, Y. (1987-1988). “The Ideology of Terrorism, “ Al Hamishmar, 24 December, 1987, Reprinted in Israel Press Briefs, December, 1987-January, 1988, pp. 22-23.

Tabachnick,S. ed. (1984), The T. E. Lawrence Puzzle, Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.

  • John E. Mack, M.D. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

© John E. Mack, M.D.
Keynote address, T. E. Lawrence Symposium.
Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA
May 20, 1988