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Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness

Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness

February 26, 2019
Kenneth Pollack

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Kenneth Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on Middle Eastern political-military affairs, focusing in particular on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries.

He served twice at the National Security Council, first as director for Near East and South Asian affairs and then as director for Persian Gulf affairs.

He began his career as a Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA, where he was the principal author of the CIA’s classified postmortem on Iraqi strategy and military operations during the Persian Gulf War

Since the Second World War, Arab armed forces have consistently punched below their weight. They have lost many wars that by all rights they should have won, and in their best performances only ever achieved quite modest accomplishments.

Over time, soldiers, scholars, and military experts have offered various explanations for this pattern. Reliance on Soviet military methods, the poor civil-military relations of the Arab world, the underdevelopment of the Arab states, and patterns of behavior derived from the wider Arab culture, have all been suggested as the ultimate source of Arab military difficulties.

Armies of Sand, Dr. Pollack’s riveting history of Arab armies from the end of World War II to the present, assesses these differing explanations and isolates the most important causes. (The book will be available for purchase and signing.)

He examines the combat performance of fifteen Arab armies and air forces in virtually every Middle Eastern war, from the Jordanians and Syrians in 1948 to Hizballah in 2006 and the Iraqis and ISIS in 2014-2017.

Sweeping in its historical coverage and highly accessible, this will be the go-to reference for anyone interested in the history of warfare in the Middle East since 1945.

Dr. Pollack is the author of nine books, including Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, 2013, named one of the “Best Books of 2013” by The Economist; A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, 2008, which was chosen as an editor’s choice of The New York Times Book Review; The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, 2004; and The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, 2002, a New York Times and Washington Post bestseller.

He earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his B.A. from Yale University.

For more on governance and reform in the Arab world, see Mansour Al-Hadj’s Westminster talk, What are the Prospects for Real Reform in Saudi Arabia?, and Shmuel Bar’s Westminster talk, The Demise of the Arab State, Re-Tribalization, and the Emergence of “Jihadistans” in the Next Five Years.

Transcript:

Robert R. Reilly:

Now, our speaker tonight is as you know Dr. Kenneth Pollack, who’s a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute where he works on Middle Eastern political-military affairs, focusing on those countries in the Gulf.

He served twice at the National Security Council, first as director for Near East and South Asian affairs, and then as director for Persian Gulf affairs.

He began his career as a CIA analyst, where he was the principal author of the CIA’s classified postmortem on Iraqi strategy and military operations during the Persian Gulf War.

His new book focuses on why Arab armed forces have lost so many wars that they by right should have won. Maybe for his next book he can write why the United States military forces have during the same time period lost its military engagements.

But he probably needs to rest after this magisterial tome for which you are to be congratulated for, a work of the first magnitude and importance in which he examines the performance of 15 Arab armies and Arab forces in virtually every Middle Eastern war since 1948.

Now, Dr. Pollack is extremely prolific for someone of his tender years, having produced – it depends on your perspective – and he’s written nine other books. I’ll just mention a couple of them: Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, 2004.

He earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his B.A. from Yale University.

The topic of his speech tonight is the title of his book: Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Ken Pollack.

Kenneth Pollack:

Thank you all for coming out. It’s really a distinct pleasure to address this audience. Thank you Bob for such a lovely introduction. It’s one of those where at the end I feel like saying, yeah, I’m really going to be interested to hear what this guy has to say and I hope I won’t disappoint.

As Bob suggested, my topic tonight is about the way I usually put it, the underperformance of the Arab militaries over the last seventy years and this is something that we see throughout history.

In every historical era, there are countries which punch above their weight militarily and those that punch below it. Prussia in the eighteenth century was a tiny little country. When you look at it in terms of its economics, its demographics, Prussia should have been a secondary state in Europe. But because of its military competence, it became one of the great powers of Europe.

Right, and all through time we’ve seen that. Countries that for economic and demographic reasons, they seem like they’ve been weaker or stronger or they seem like they should have been stronger or weaker.

And I wanted to look at this question of why has that been the problem that the Arabs have faced over the last seventy years. Why is it that time and again when they’ve gone to battle, they have underperformed. They have lost wars that by all material measure, they should have won and often won very big.

And when they’ve won, they’ve managed to eke out very modest victories in circumstances where other factors should have argued that they should have won an overwhelming victory.

That was my topic and that’s what I tried to come to grips with in this book. Obviously, this is becoming more than just academic interest. I would actually argue that it has been of more than academic interest for a long time in part for reasons we don’t really think about.

I think the most obvious reason why people should be thinking about this now is that you know, let’s face facts. Most Americans would very much like to see an end to America’s involvement in the Middle East.

But most Americans also don’t want to walk away from the Middle East only to have the Iranians, or Hezbollah, or Daesh/ISIS, or Al Qaeda takeover as we leave.

See the rest of his talk…

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