When battle and duplicity determine power

Jacques G. Richardson (When battle and duplicity determine power)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 13 April 2015




Jacques G. Richardson (2015), "When battle and duplicity determine power", Foresight, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 226-230. https://doi.org/10.1108/FS-02-2014-0010



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

A review of Lawrence in Arabia, War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East


Here, we examine how political and military planners foresaw strategy and operations demanded by the pressures of a steadily intensifying war, first regional then global, between 1914 and 1918. Some strategies and their operational applications succeeded; others did not, too often calamitously. When the conflict exploded in June–August 1914, “Team West” included Britain, France, Belgium, Italy (until end 1915) and imperial Russia; Japan joined later. “Team East” comprised the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, soon joined by minor allies and the Ottoman empire from its capital in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul.

Seeking the way to undo what’s wrong, and finding how to do better – and then doing better next time: this is the school of retrostrategy[1]. It is an approach comprising several methods indispensable to the futurist, applicable in many kinds of undertaking. War correspondent/historian Scott Anderson does this ably (without naming it) in Lawrence in Arabia. His searching analysis of what the Triple Entente Allies (London, Paris and Moscow) did during World War I – to break away the Turkic Ottoman empire from its alliance with the Central Powers’ Germans and Austro-Hungarians – is this author’s future-seeking narrative.

Foresight’s readers will also be drawn to Anderson’s secondary theme of “war, deceit and folly” as strategic elements, in this case, in the molding of the Near and Middle East of the twenty-first century and its rivalry with neighbors near and far. And, perhaps inevitably, in its settling of accumulated scores with the Western world. But how are “war, deceit and folly” planned and (not always) executed?

Agency on the scene

After the outbreak of World War I, imperial Britain and France sought desperately to align the uninvolved Arab world against the Ottoman Turks, who were strategically linked with the adversary German and Austrian empires. The Gallipoli campaign had failed as a diversionary and costly ploy in 1915. So the Allies made promises in the Near East of glorious reward with help to create an Arab nation, even several. But the Allies were hoisted by their crude petard, a willful deception of the Arabs: they failed in their own design.

In 1916, two mid-level British and French diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, drew up a secret protocol accepted by their governments to foment Arab revolt in Ottoman territories. The pact allowed the same governments, secretly, to retain for themselves postwar sovereignty over the Arab soil that would become Mesopotamia (later Iraq) and Syria/Lebanon. The contrived deception, agreed in full connivance with Paris and London, would be exercised surreptitiously. The governments and their principal factotum-in-place, the famed Thomas Edward Lawrence of Arabia, suddenly embarked on an adventure of almost cross-purposes.

As a young British army officer and archeologist trained at Oxford, Lawrence had become first an enthusiastic, but gradually an increasingly jaded agent in a scenario intended to foment revolt by Arabs against Turks. His knowledge of the area, experience in field research and fluent Arabic were exploited to encourage prominent Arab leaders to rise against the Turkish hegemon and end its wartime collusion with the German – Austrian enemy. (Russia, third member of the Triple Entente with Britain and France, was never involved; she was wholly engaged against Germany and Austria first on her Western front and then alienated from the war by the Bolshevik revolution of late 1917.)

Scott Anderson’s book, a gripping account of Lawrence’s almost one-man campaign to win over the Arabs to the Allied cause, is also a convincing analysis of how everything went so wrong as to create a backlash against the West still in full progress today and exacerbate the flow of bad blood between Islam and the West by what the Arab world still considers a continuing conspiracy to establish a Jewish homeland in Muslim Palestine (instead of elsewhere in the world). In this respect, the primordial roles of Aaron Aaronson, an agronomist born in Bulgaria, and Chaïm Weizmann, a chemist born in Russia, in generating the Balfour Declaration of 1917 are carefully explained by Anderson – adding details to our knowledge of the origins and dedicated intensity of Zionism.

How a futurist reads this book

In a search for root origins of a plan that failed, the futurist has available processes of analysis that help. (Success is seldom subject to such probes, although the military with their after-action critiques and political parties, as well as the advertising/public relations industry with their post-campaign evaluations come close.) Here your reviewer has opted to use Causal Layered Analysis[2], a stratified dissection of why and how planning probably misfired.

When we apply the first, or litany level (1) to Lawrence and his desert Arabs, we recall that the purpose of the Allied operation in the Near East was to persuade disparate Arab potential to relinquish and overthrow Ottoman sovereignty and its military capabilities against the Western Allies. The events narrated transpired between 1916 and the northern winter of 1917-1918.

As to the societal causes (2) of Lawrence’s target problem, the Ottomans had aligned themselves early in the war with the Central Powers, or the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. This extended the scene of military operations eastwards beyond the European continent. In turn, the spreading of the conflict demanded the deployment of British and French human and economic resources badly needed in the main battle zones in Western Europe and in Mediterranean and Atlantic waters.

Box 1

Among the reasons that historians agree were the root-causes of World War I (3), curbing the military expansion by land and sea of the German empire since 1871 proved to be the prime casus belli of France, Britain, Russia (until autumn 1917) and the USA (from April 1917). Britain wanted, furthermore, to safeguard its passage to India via both ocean and land by thwarting the success of a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, while France foresaw extending its holdings in North Africa eastwards into the Arab/Islamic world.

Analysis at Level 4, that of metaphor or myth, may further justify Levels 1 and 2 as well as become argumentative extension of Level 3. In their privately held worldview, however, Britain and France sought to solidify and, if possible, extend the empires that they had systematically built since the seventeenth century with their accumulated holdings in the Mediterranean and Africa, the Americas and the Pacific basin and on the Asian mainland. With further reach of empire, the two major Western Allies offered their would-be Arab collaborators little more than flummery as the Anglo-French duo in fact laid claim to Mesopotamian/Syrian territories – and precipitated collaterally both Arab loss of confidence and the moral disaffection of Lawrence himself.

And then? With the European Armistice of 1918 and the subsequent transformation of former Ottoman holdings by the Treaties of Versailles, Trianon and Saint-Germain a year later, the Arabs found themselves abandoned and excluded from the negotiating-and-spoils process long customary upon the ending of wars. The fraud was felt especially by two regional chieftains who had collaborated resolutely with Lawrence as his alter ego Arabs: these surrogates were Hussein ibn Ali [4] would-be king of a reconstituted Arabia stretching from Mecca to Baghdad, and his son Faisal ibn Hussein. The latter, in solitary frustration, finally declared himself king of Syria in the early 1920s after Lawrence and Hussein had left the desert scene for good (Allawi, 2014).

Box 2

When Lawrence began working in uniform with the Arabs in 1915 from a base in Cairo, the Allied scenario was complicated by German rivalry confronting the British and French presences. The French “Lawrence” was an army colonel named Edouard Brémond, whose main agenda was assuring that his country would gain sovereignty over as much territory as possible in the Muslim Near East. The chief German Arabist was Carl Prüfer, whose mandate was to develop at all costs a convincing German presence on the Arabian sands. All three were managed by their countries’ respective intelligence services, making for a three-cornered struggle to gain control of lands, peoples and resources not at all their own.

Yet, as Scott Anderson explains, the Allied premises were shaky at best. Britain’s interest was complicated by the need to keep supply lines to and from India working to maximum in view of London’a wartime needs. A major French aim was to raise further the influence it had established since the 1830s in North Africa’s Muslim Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Germany’s objective was to augment the presence already manifested by its ambitious pre-war beginnings of a Berlin-to-Baghdad rail system, the better to be able to interfere with Britain’s economic lifelines to India.

Snares and pitfalls

Ambition, greed, empire-building and contrasting scenarios: all these were thus ruthlessly pursued in the Arabia of T.E. Lawrence, as author Anderson makes clear. His tale is not only detailed as no popular Lawrence account has been heretofore (including Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom of the 1920s). The new account reveals stunningly how limited vision, competing incoherence in multi-nation wills, and the inevitable urge for short-term gains over long-range soundness, can thwart the pursuit at high-level of gains insufficiently thought out. Futurists beware!

But beware of what? Of repeating the same mistakes? Toward the end of his army service, Lawrence prepared a staff study of recommended behavior with Arab leaders, tribal chiefs and tribesmen. Called the Twenty-Seven Articles, this guide was read as recently as 2006 by General David Petraeus as he was preparing the American troop “surge” that year in Iraq (p. 495). The chance of making serious mistakes was already the precise risk Britain had taken in the mid-nineteenth century to neutralize national autonomy in Afghanistan. Further misguided initiatives defeated the British in Malaya and Kenya in the 1950s, the French in Algeria until 1962 and the French and then the Americans in Indochina until 1975. After came more repetition of misconception when the Soviet Union and the USA undertook all-out wars in Afghanistan (1979-2014), and the USA in Iraq from 2003 until 2012.

Failed incursions (even repetitive ones notwithstanding), national identity and self-determination among the abused remained unbattered. It was, rather, shortsightedness and irretrievable errors in planning and strategy that led many of the lands of Islam into their contemporary mode of catching up with lost time.

The last word belongs to another frustrated Arab leader, one who does not figure in Anderson’s otherwise remarkably complete recapitulation. Mesopotamian military chieftain Jafar Pasha al Askari commented to Gertrude Bell, British Oriental secretary in Basra, Iraq, 1920: “M’Lady,” Askari declared, “complete independence is never given; it is always taken”[5].

Note: With the many new studies marking the centenary of the beginning of World War I, readers may wish to consult Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan’s impressive The War that Ended Peace, The Road to 1914 (New York, Random House, 2013) and her earlier Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (New York, Random House, 2001). Both are fine examples of how not to step into a cesspool of failure and tragedy with eyes wide open.


A term coined by French engineer/economist/futurist Jacques Lesourne, who in the 1970s headed OECD’s ambitious, multi-nation Interfutures project. Now 86, Lesourne remains broadly active.

CLA is an epistemological/philosophical invention of futurist Inayatullah (2014). Rather than predicting the future, CLA delimits “transformative spaces for the creation of alternative futures” at four levels of reality (as perceived during the analysis). These are the “litany”, societal causes, the worldview and metaphor or myth. “The challenge is to conduct research that moves up and down” (Inayatullah, 2014) the four layers, each of which embraces different forms of knowing.

Fault-tree analysis is another what-went-wrong analytical method, from which CLA is in part derived, and originally introduced by the aerospace-engineering industry. It is not readily applicable in the present paper.

Hussein would be deposed in 1924 by Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud and his Wahhabi followers, founders of today’s Saudi Arabia. Exiled in Cyprus and then the new land of Jordan, Hussein thus saw the end of his dream of a strong new Arabia as his very own.

Cited in Wallach (1999), a biography of Britain’s Oriental secretary Gertrude Bell.

About the author

Jacques G. Richardson is the author of War, Science and Terrorism, from Laboratory to Open Conflict (2002) and a member of Foresight’s Editorial Board. Jacques G. Richardson can be contacted at: jaq.richard@noos.fr


Allawi, A.A. (2014), Faisal I of Iraq , Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

Inayatullah, S. (2014), “Causal layered analysis, poststructuralism as method”, Metafuture.Org Articles, The same author published, “Causal layered analysis defined”, The Futurist , p. 26.

Wallach, J. (1999), Desert Queen , Random/Anchor, New York, NY, p. 284.

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