The Secretary might also have benefited from watching “Lawrence of Arabia”.

November 10th, 2007

This Michael Hirsh piece from Newsweek discusses Secretary Rice’s recent comments that the U.S. might have paid more attention earlier on to the balance between local, provincial, and central administration in Iraq.

You think?

Here’s the key bit conveying Secretary Rice’s comments:

“I’m sure there are lots of things we might have done better,” she said. “I’ll give you one with Iraq. If I had to do it all over again, we would have had the balance between center, local and provincial better. But that’s the kind of thing you learn over time.”

Rice has admitted on occasion that the U.S. government made “tactical” mistakes in Iraq, but rarely has she gone into specifics. Reminded that Mideast scholars had long advised that controlling Iraq would require winning over local, provincial and tribal authorities, Rice said, “I would like to go back and find out who gave that [advice] … Arab states can be very centralized. This is actually a fairly new model of local and provincial responsibility. I don’t think it was self-evident that this was the case.”

Before reading any further in the article, I repeated this part to my wife, who was sitting in the room with me. It’s no insult to my wife to say that she typically takes little interest in history or foreign affairs. (We joke about how different we are in this regard.) But she responded immediately that anyone who had ever watched Lawrence of Arabia would understand at least the basics of historical strife among groups within the Arab world. Even a fictional depiction like that conveys this basic message.

Not only is my wife right about this, her comments are borne out by area experts later in the Newsweek article:

Both [Larry] Diamond [of the Hoover Institution] and another Iraq scholar, Judith Yaphe of the National Defense University (NDU), say that just about every expert in the region, going back to the British occupation after World War I, has known how crucial it was to build relations with the provinces and tribal leaders in Iraq. Prewar reports by both the Future of Iraq Project, run out of the State Department, and NDU had emphasized this at a time when Rice was national security adviser, Yaphe says. “If you look at Saddam’s rule, he knew very well how important local and tribal leaders were,” says Yaphe. She also says that Rice’s idea that this was a “fairly new model” is wrong. “It seems to me anybody in that area understands that full well. That’s how that system has operated there for a long time.”

Setting aside any comment on the Bush Administration’s overarching Iraq policy — i.e. the basic decision to go in — this is an area where it has flatly failed until recently. Not sort of, not only when looked at in a certain light. It’s been failure, plain and simple, to deal with sectarian issues that were easy to predict — and which were predicted by Iraq experts — before U.S. forces ever set foot in the country.

I’m glad we’re dealing with it now.  We should have been dealing with it much earlier.

One Response to “The Secretary might also have benefited from watching “Lawrence of Arabia”.”

  1. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Pardon the oncoming metabolic burst. Says:

    […] So, please brace yourselves as I share substantially more ideas with you. All of this is by way of reshaping this blog to be a more active venue for my professional as well as personal thoughts. Oh, I’ll still assail you with my off-the-cuff remarks on life, do not fear, but you should also expect to see much more on literature, the environment, foreign policy, history, and other chewy topics. […]

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