Why Arabs lose wars...

In my GQ thread of a few months ago, I asked, How did Israel win the 1948 war?

In my OP, I said:

I never got a really good answer. Then, a few months later while putzing around on Google, I came across this article: Why Arabs Lose Wars: Fighting as you train, and the impact of culture on Arab military effectiveness.

The thesis, essentially, is that they are culturally unsuited to the requirements of modern warfare. Specifically, the kind of coordination required for modern combined arms warfare. The article states:

I would be curious to know what if anything Dopers think of this idea, especially ones with knowledge of military history and/or training, or knowledge of Arab culture.

Only thing i know about middle eastern is that they are generally honest and passionate people. They however do remember what there great grand father had for breakfast 80 years ago and if it was bad they will not eat it.

Weird_Al_Einstein: Interesting and surprisingly balanced article. You would probably have to appeal to Collounsbury or someone with similar first-hand experience in the Arab world to get a knowledgeable criticism ( positive or negative ) of the universality of a few of the wider cultural issues De Atkin invokes. For example even though it was a throwaway, near -joke line, I wouldn’t put too much value in something like “inherent Islamic fatalism.”

But I will say that his anaysis of recent Arab military and political culture agrees with most everything I have read or surmised on the subject. All of these states are undemocratic to one extent or another and in that context the military becomes a double-edged sword. The more autocratic the state, the worse this becomes. Hence the compartmentalization and at the extreme a reliance on near-Praetorian units, like Saddam Hussein’s reliance on Tikritis or, as De Atkin mentioned, Syria’s reliance on Alawis ( at one time I believe virtually all of Syria’s combat pilots were drawn from that one small community ). I understand that for a number of years, it was SH’s policy to transfer his more imaginative and capable officers ( those he didn’t shoot ) into military engineering where they didn’t pose an armed threat - The result was a better than average ( by Arab standards ) engineer corps that actually produced some effective, even imaginative, defensive works in both the Iran-Iraq and even the Gulf War ( this was obviously lessened by American/coalition dominance in the latter however ).

The relative tenacity and technical competence of these armies at the smaller unit levels vs. their lack of cohesive functionality at the higher levels, also shows up in the fact that in the latter half of the 20th century Arab armies have tended to perform significantly better when forced onto the defensive ( granted one always gets an advantage in such situations ).

Still, it would be a mistake ( one that I’m getting the impression De Atkin doesn’t make ) to take these genralizations too far. Given limited goals, it has been shown that Arab armies can still perform capably, as per Egypt in 1973 and that there can be a real difference in performance between different Arab armies - again Egyptian vs. Syrian performance in 1973. Regimes with broader ( if still fundamentally undemocratic ) bases of support, like Morocco or even Jordan ( probably the most effective Arab combatant in both '48 and '67 ) will suffer less from the tendencies noted above. And in all of these armies, there tends to be carefully groomed elite units with a relatively higher level of professionalism of the western sort.

As to the historicity of these current “cultural problems” ( more accurately perhaps, “political culture problems” ), IMHO I’d plant them pretty firmly in the post-colonial 20th century. For example although I have no argument with the examples given of withholding information to preserve authority and influence in today’s Arab armies - it makes sense given the current political culture milieu - I’m pretty dubious about chalking up Egypt’s military secrecy and surprise attack in '73 as being a lineal cultural descendant of medieval Arab “steppe tactics”. That would be a bit like saying that the blitzkrieg followed natually from the medieval Crusaders fondness for heavy calvary charges ( when the “steppe tactic” Mongols utilized a far more blitzkrieg-like scheme ) or modern western armies CCC structure and reliance on non-comms is derived from western feudalism with its reliance on a hiearchy of semi-independant nobles ( when medieval Arab armies of the time often had a surprisingly similar, if not really identical, structure ).

Also this…

Without commenting on whether everyday Arab culture ( as opposed to the rarefied internal uniververse of modern Arab political culture ) really does promote “subtlelty, indirection, and dissimulation in personal relationships”, I’ll quibble with the reality of the “seemingly permanent attributes” part, as I’m not sure what he is basing that on.

  • Tamerlane

If the above is the only thing you know in re the Middle East, do me a favor and don’t share it. I do not believe I have to point out how inane the observation is.

In re the article. I’ll print it out and read it. I have a meeting to go to presently so perhaps it will keep me awake.

I recall from reading the article that the cultural aspects noted by the author seem more applicable to any country that’s lacked a good experience with democracy, and is currently in the grip of a dictatorship of one form or another. In other words, the same features could probably be found in Africa or the Far East.

That article, if correct, is a real eye opener. Despite relative developmental disparities compared to the current western world, I have always assumed that Arab societies (however one construes this complex assemblage of peoples and cultures) have some degree of fundamental organizational and administrative competence as (IIRC) they have had some wide ranging and powerful empires. This article makes me wonder how that could be the case as the author describes such levels of social stratification and hermetic insularity in sharing vital information it’s difficult to see how anything gets accomplished.

Here is the entire text of the article with the bibliography listed in The Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA).

As a side note in looking for reviews of this article I stumbled across this article/web page from the StrategyWorld.com website by James Dunnigan that basically summarizes and cribs the entire De Atkine article (and uses it’s title!) with no apparent acknowledgement to the author whatsoever.

This cribbed De Atkine summary is apparently also included in his book “Dirty Little Secrets” for sale on Amazon.com

The MERIA journal is fully online and has a fascinating collection of articles about the middle east.

I haven’t had much interaction with the civilian population of the Middle East, so I’m interested to see how Collounsbury interprets the article.
I have had to opportunity to work on a limited basis with members of the Royal Saudi Air Force at Prince Sultan AB in Al Kharj. I found them to be (excuse the following generalizations) personally very friendly and exceedingly hospitable. My feeble attempts at Arabic (I know my numbers, letters and some words, the average toddler puts me to shame) were greeted with the utmost enthusiasm. I didn’t see the distrust mentioned in the article. However, the enlisted personnel seemed rather apathetic towards their duties. Some of this may stem from what seems to me to be a cultural difference on the importance of things like punctuality, but it’s more than that. For example; on many occasions I was allowed into “sensitive” areas on the main base area that required security credentials issued by the RSAF. Although I did have the credentials required, many times I wasn’t asked for them, and on several occasions I was waved through without even having to stop. This would be an inexcusable dereliction of duty in the US Military, but there it seemed to be permissible. I saw similar attitudes in the civilian arena, such as police officers stationed at intersections (presumably to control traffic) who could regularly be found sleeping in their vehicles (not hiding or anything, in plain sight) apparently without fear of punishment. I tried to see if it was just certain times/days (like a siesta) but if there was a pattern I never saw it.

This kind of attitude would seem to hinder the operational readiness of an organization.

One of the most interesting things about that article is that the first two examples he gives of poor Arab military conduct…Egypt fighting a a losing war against Yemeni irregulars, and Syria needing an overwhelming force to defeat Lebanon, are cases of Arab armies fighting other Arab armies, so you could even use them as counter examples.

I agree with some of the earlier posters though. The traits the author highlights: poor exchange of information, unimaginative military training, high social stratification between ordinary soldiers and the officer corps, and a non-flexible hierarchy aren’t due to Arab culture as much as they’re due to authoritarian culture. He comes close to noticing this when he says

Let me open by noting that his initial comment on Huntington’s idiotic Clash of Civilizations is a pure straw man, an extremely stupid comment on his part. Not a good beginning, and I was rather irritated by it.

Quite right. I would note that Yemani social organization is quite different from Egypt, for example. The Yemanis are truly tribal in large part. Different set of social relations.

In each case, you doubtless, if one looked into the situation not in terms of “Arab” culture but motivated local groups versus unmotivated conscript armies, you would get a better view.

(BTW: is there ever going to be a solution to the disappearing quote problem, it is bloody annoying)

Precisely. I noted the same thing.

Very well, my reaction.

First, the basic issues he identifies are clearly serious and real ones. And not just in the military sector, I have run into the same issues in my professional experience. I could waste a great deal of time sharing with you endless, somewhat amusing stories in line with the issues: (a) criticism and lack of (b) information sharing, or rather lack of © extreme adherence to hierarchy etc. However, having a great deal of actual work to do, I will say only that the private sector suffers rather badly from this as well.

In general I see several issues behind this, all largely attached to the problem of most Arab political culture being formed in conditions of authoritarianism (formal or informal) and highly hierarchical. As most states in the region are very weak in terms of internal cohesion, the real use of the armies is not against foreign armies but against internal competitors.

As such, the structure and usage of militaries in the region is fairly rational. The Egyptian army is not designed, in reality, to fight Israel. It is designed to cow the populace, as well as be a prestige building tool for the elite military class. There is also something of a nation building aspect in the universal service requirements, but I believe while this was a genuine goal in the 1960s and 1970s it has fallen by the wayside.

It occurs to me that the author, instead of comparing modern US military practice to current Arab army practices, might very well have looked to early 19th century European and to an extent American practice. In other words a period when Eurpean armies (a) distrustred their own soldiers, (b) were in the process of nation building © themselves were rather more deeply hierarchical. Based on my rather limited understanding in this area, I would say there are some strong similarities.

In the end, I do not believe one can make a strong case for Islamic fatalism or anything like that, but rather a strong case for authoritarian culture being the origin of most problems.

Further to that, something American commentators always seem to have trouble grasping, is the issue of direct versus indirect communication. American commentators frequently attribute indirect communication to something specific to whatever the culture they are looking at.

My experience globally and my reading leads me to the conclusion that Anglo-American directness (probably something fairly new, even in our own culture) is rather divergent from most societies in the world. “We” are the guys with the wierd habit of bluntly speaking our minds. That of course is often useful. But it also requires a decent amount of common understanding and culture to pull off right. In societies with fractured sources of legitimacy, etc. it may not be a terribly good idea, period.

Certainly in the Arab world ‘qaboul’ – acceptance-- of criticism needs to be developed more fully, and in some countries there is progress I think. It is, in my opinion, a key problem. However in the political culture, the dominance of authoritiarian regimes inhibits a wider social development.

Well, I haven’t the time to write an essay, so the short of it is that I think the author attributes rather too much to “Arab” culture versus the typical results of authoritarianism, and should have asked himself what the real goals of Arab militaries are in the end. They are not what he presumes, reflexively, they are.

The habits and problems, however, are quite real.

(BTW: one should not draw sweeping historical conclusions about Islamo-Arab society based on current problems, which are really based on the long decline of the Islamic world post-1492, impoverishment and weakness of the societies. It would be rather like judging Rome by France in 890 AD.)

BTW in re Islamic political organization, you should probably look up works by Bernard Lewis, as e.g. The Political Language of Islam**. His works are readily available and he is a solid scholar. I find him to be a bit on the literalist side, but I think his historical works are among the best you can find in your average bookstore, and as I said, unlike many popular works, his scholarship is first rate.

It doesn’t seem to be answered what degree Muslims see themselves as being a part of those glory days of Islam. As an American, I have little difficulty in empathizing with the founding father’s debates, or with setting up tiny religious communities in New England.

When a group such as Al-Qaeda or the Taliban reach for their roots, it seems to me, the casual observer, that they are identifying with their perception of Islamic values hundreds of years ago. Recognizing that the traditional Arab military is not going to garner what they want, they switch to other techniques and philosophies also drawn – as they conceive – from historical precedent.

This quote from the OP – to my progressive Californian tastes – exactly describes the attitudes of business people in “cutting edge” Silicon Valley: “These attributes included over-centralization, discouraging initiative, lack of flexibility, manipulation of information, and the discouragement of leadership at the junior officer level.”

This suggests that societies make highly selective choices about what is “progressive”. Another society, looking at the choices might admire them – or they might trivialize them.

This comment from the article also seems as relevant to Western society as to Arab:

“I have observed many in-country U.S. survey teams: invariably, hosts make the case for acquiring the most modern of military hardware and do everything to avoid issues of maintenance, logistics, and training.”

This describes very well companies acquiring new computer hardware and software. When doing well and expanding, and implementing “progressive” changes, they rush to buy the fastest chi-chi computers and technology (it’s GOT to be wireless!) and software that comes in flashy boxes with glossy manuals and online help with video tutorials. It’s purchased and mostly no one wants to invest the months it takes to actually learn these things well. Somebody does a couple cute “demo” projects, and then --often as not – it’s back to business as usual. When I worked for HP creating up-to-date manufacturing software, our salespeople would often discretely inquire what happened to the IBM hardware/software which we were replacing. Sometimes it was sitting in unopened boxes.

So ultimately, the OP article is in large part describing societal conventions that apply everywhere. It’s manifestations that change. Saying that Arabs are not effective on the world stage because of their military doesn’t look like crack American units misses the whole point. The terrorists are attacking just those American institutions we don’t care to examine closely.

Professor Lewis was on Book TV a week ago talking about his new book What Went Wrong. Here is a review:

Pretty much what Collounsbury was referring to above.

Have not read that book, but let me note I am not a fan of Lewis’ contemporary analyses. His historical work is good, his contemporary comments, much less so for a rather naive approach to economic and certain kinds of political issues.

I also found, BTW, the reader comments on that page to be … moronic.

Not wanting to bump my post, but I realized I only got to my point about the OP right at the end of my post, which was this:

The OP’s article claims that Arabs are losing because aspects of their military aren’t as well conceived and disciplined as Western armies. The author is missing a more essential point, which is that his “deficiencies” may apply to the Arabian military, but they also apply to Western business practices (and to Western government and civil service).

The terrorists are attacking where they recognize we are relatively weak, which are things we’re comfortable with and don’t want to examine – like capitalism, freedom of speech, movement and activity. The article levels criticism at Arab military without realizing that we are similarly vulnerable to “lack of discipline”, but in different parts of our society.

The mistake the OP’s article makes that it’s possible to remove all such vulnerabilities from a society. It isn’t a matter, e.g., of saying “over-centralization is bad” – sometimes it isn’t. These two-dimensional arguments such instill a belief that somehow the enemy isn’t as “good” as we are. But the OP’s article misconstrues what war we’re fighting. It isn’t one where the nation that has the most modern, disciplined military is necessarily going to win.

But is Coll’s point still the most valid?

whether it is in governmental culture or corporate culture?

(Not being part of corporate culture in any significant way, I tread in unknown waters here, but that seems to be what you describe.)

On my point in re authoritarian culture and responding to Dseid’s question, yes.

However let me be more explicit. The problems described in the article, which are also quite common in the private sector, are ones of degree.

In my personal experience, I see a range of behavior. Sure we can identify similar behaviors in corporate culture in North America. But then we have the question of severity. Common human instincts – Arab and other culture is not some bizarre offshoot – but expression…

The issues are far more severe and in terms of modern economic requirements, dysfunctional in the Arab world. Let me share an anecdote.

Last year I was working on a project for an investment in North Africa. One of my tasks was to get a sense of the quality of our proposed partner, identify operational problems etc. I am sure this will be familiar to many here. It’s not really my area per se, but as I speak the language and the dialects… I am a good choice for the up-close view. After a bit of time on-site I noted that they ( for a variety of reasons I will not identify the entity in question ) had what struck me as a truly bizarre set up in their financial department.

There was a room full of spanking new computers, nicely set up as work stations in a well-designed layout. Utterly empty. Right across the hall, they had a pack of interns doing research for them, analyzing a project I think, who had to share only two old piss-poor computers. I spoke with the interns to find they had no net access, had to go up two floors to use a net connected computer to download relevant information - it went on and on. Yet across the room, there were unused work stations.

So, I asked, why are your interns not using that work area? The response, those work stations were intended only for full members of the department (nota bene, expansion was not in the offing, this turned out to be materials acquired for anticipated expansion that never happened) and interns were only to use intern designated machines.

I pointed out there was no imminent hiring to happen, according to what they had told me in re staffing and it was an utter waste of resources to force these otherwise bright kids to share two computers between them (6 of them if I recall correctly.)

Nope, no go. Status. Idiotic waste of resources, assuring that nothing useful could be accomplished, and both corporate resources (meager as they might be) and interns time was wasted.

Very, very typical. Similar habits and problems to those described in the article. Now, surely anectdotes not terribly dissimilar might be found in re developed world business operations, however one has to generally admit that the economic structure is unforgiving of rank stupidity in re wasting resources like this, on a sustained and continual basis. I feel fairly confident in characterizing the problem in the Arab world along these lines as being orders of magnitude larger than in America, for example.

Very serious impediment.

Thank you Coll for the expansion. Any insight as to how or why Arab societies have become so pervasively authoritarian?

It seems to me that Islam should inspire less of an authoritarian structure than that of the Christian world, given that the religious structure of Islam is itself less pyramidal in nature. I mean in Catholicism you have religious interpratations and edicts passed top down with the Pope having ultimate power to speak ex cathedra. Islam has no such structure. Interpretation can different depending on which iman you happen to listen to. Right? Shouldn’t such distributed interpretations evoke distributed power?

Or does it have to do with the place that religion still has in the society? That the Arab world is, to a greater extent than the West, holding onto the concept of theocracy, and resisting the alternative of acceptance of secular value systems that do not directly owe their validation to any particular God-concept? And that any theocracy will be authoritarian?

Your thoughts will be appreciated. Thanks.

I have no problem with the article, we passed it around our (Royal Saudi Air Force) office the other days. Many heads were nodding.

That being said, it is a rookie mistake to underestimate the other guy.

Well, that would require perhaps more learning than I actually have.

I have opinions, I think more or less well-founded, but adequately explaining myself would require a bit of time which I do not have.

Yes. But religion is often secondary to culture, tradition. Certainly I believe that much in the terms of Sufi societies, etc. are religious retreats from the fact of authoritarian secular power, dressed up in whatever terms.

If there is one point I disagree with much scholarship on is this characterization. I tend to feel there is a kernal of seperation of authority in actual historical practice, one which both the Islamists and Western observers tend to overlook/downplay for different reasons.

Second, much of the resistance to secularization is in itself secular in origin, an expression of the sense that secularism ™ is an imposition of an alien system’s values, and a political imposition by Colonial and Neo-Colonial powers.

There is a very, very large grain of truth in that. That tends to help suppress and/or abort more well-rooted native developments.

I would place the prevalence of authoritarianism on a bad stew of historical political development (pre and post Colonial, as well as Colonial era, although in some areas this is of tangential impact only), certain religious aspects coming to the fore and a long period of economic decline -centuries- that saw the deevolution of the region’s political institutions.

In re Paul’s comment: an underlying ‘problem’ with the article is its underlying tendency to phrase items in terms of immobile culture. It is in the background to be certain but it should have been critically foregrounded. The fellow’s utter misunderstanding of the reaction to Huntington was also irritating.

I’m not sure that I entirely follow your thoughts here. On that downplayed kernal of seperation of authority and secular origin of opposition to secularization stuff. Do I understand you to believe that Islamic theocracies are less authoritarian than is generally believed or that it is less due to their theocratic natures than to other factors? I think I get the next bit … that you beileve that the opposition to so-called secular values is really an opposition to Western values that are percieved as a colonial imperialist imposition, not per se originating out of a longing for a theocratic principles so much as a longing to shake off anything that is reminiscint of shackles long shuck. (Now say that three times fast!) However, from a practical POV doesn’t it amount to the same thing, since the “well-rooted native developments” were theocratic? Or were there democratic institutions independently evolving prior to the imposition of European regional hegemony?