Assessment of Military Influence in the Middle East

Q5. What best explains the diminished role of the military in the dispensation of power across the Middle East?

  • Jibin Mathew George

The military has been fundamental to the existence and sustenance of the modern Middle East since its inception as a largely colonial police force in the early 20th century. And it is the relative omnipresence and longevity of the military in the Middle East that has gradually evolved it to be seen as a symbol of stability in a troubled region.

The question put forth however begets the question of the range of power and influence the military enjoyed in the past few decades.

It is therefore necessary to assess the military influence in the Middle East, declining or otherwise through the lens of existing literature that seeks to explain civil-military relations.

Consider Samuel Huntington’s hypothesis in The Soldier and the State; Here, Huntington argues that a measure of objective control within the state, one where the military structure recognizes the political and foreign paramountcy of the civilian government and where the civilian government recognizes the military’s professional competence and autonomy is one which is more likely to have a subservient military to a dominant civilian state, and is therefore the most effective measure against the prevalence of coups.

On the other hand, Janowitz in his book The Professional Soldier argues that separation of powers as Huntington proposes would instead invite coups, and is better prepared against coups by a constant, mutual interaction between the military and civilian government, facilitating the civilian oversight of the State’s military arm.

Both Huntington’s and Janowitz’s arguments for civilian control over the military are essentially arguments for what some scholars say was ‘coup-proofing’ against anarchy and errant branches of the military. Here, ‘coup-proofing’ suggested steps such as tokens of special loyalties, compartmentalization, rotation and the institution of the commissar system and a dedicated internal intelligence service to keep a check on the military’s political power and influence within the state.

However, it has also been argued that ‘coup-proofing’ has inadvertently led to the ascendance of domestic state with a highly politicized, and yet very ineffectual military capability. In other words, the dissociation of trust between the civilian structure and the military by way of ‘coup-proofing’ has evolved the military into one devoid of military capability. Such evidence was evident as far back as the onset of the 1st Gulf War when highly modernized Arab forces were beaten on the field by the well-organized Iraqi Army.

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It must be noted however that Huntington’s and Janowitz’s case for explaining civil-military relations was largely borne out of western construct and experience and were largely myopic, with respect to the fact that they incorrectly viewed a coup as the sole and final exercise of military power. Huntington and Janowitz did not calculate and hypothesize that officers in barracks may be as influential and powerful as officers in the government, that officers may rather be kingmakers than kings.

It is in light of such coup-less exercision of power by the military that the question of its declining influence in the Middle East be addressed, especially considering that military coups have often been considered to be a measure of military influence in a state. Therefore, considering the fact that the number of coups have steadily fallen in the Middle East since the 1970’s (With countries like Syria having a turbulent and frequent history of coups not having had one since 1970), it is understandable to conclude that the military’s influence in steadily waning. However, that may not be a perfect assumption.

Here, it is important to consider the case of three Middle Eastern States; Turkey, Israel and Egypt.

Israel for one, may be argued is a warfare state, a nation-state born out of conflict, with a society where the preparation of conflict permeates all levels of economy, society and culture. And it is this very nature of society that has contributed to the relative permanence of the military in Israeli politics. Israel is a true democracy but, it is one where the significance of the military has allowed it significant precedence in Israeli society. The military is largely overseen by the civilian structure but, their relationship is one of co-dependence and partnership rather than one of paramountcy as Huntington argued. This relationship is owing to a lot of factors not limited to the openness of entry from the military to the political field (Moshe Dayan, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon), the very active lobby of ex-military officers within the business and industrial rank and the relative autonomy the IDF enjoys in terms of recruitment, education, training and technological procurement. Also, the existing civilian-military structure in Israel is a perfect illustration of Janowitz’s civilianized military in action, albeit one where the military still enjoys immense influence, that may go as far as political autonomy (In the occupied areas of West Bank and Gaza) as well as a lack of fear from long-term repercussions (Kahan Commission report).

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On the other hand, the evidence in Turkey is of a military which has been increasingly confident of its duty to preserve the Kemalist Turkish state. It has been a powerful and cohesive institution that has often absorbed tutelary powers by way of coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1977 against democratically elected governments which it didn’t believe was preserving the Turkish state. And contrary to popular convention, the army in Turkey preferred to remain kingmakers rather than kings, which is why coups were usually followed by exit guarantees for military officers and a larger role for the military in Turkish domestic and foreign politics (National Security Council after the 1961 constitution following the ’60 coup). Presently however, under the more assertive Erdogan, relations have been strained and the military, especially since the 2016 coup attempt has been increasingly devoid of any significant power and influence. It is that rare state in the Middle East where a democratically elected leader is leading the State away from a partial democracy to a more authoritarian regime.

Egypt on the other hand, is a case of a Praetorian state where the lines of distinction are often blurred. It is a state where the military not only did and still does wield a lot of influence and power, but is in charge of a military industrial complex that permeates the all socio-economic levels of the society.  In Egypt, the pattern of increasing arms production and procurement by the military and the expansion of military enterprises into the civilian economy, so much so that 40% of the production capacity is owned by the military, is reflective of the significance of the military in Egypt. Much is the same in Jordan, where its armed forces have entered into joint venture partnerships with 26 foreign defense contractors.

However, the cases of Israel, Egypt and Turkey are anomalies in the larger Middle East. In nation-states like Saudi Arabia, power remains solely with the dynastical-clerical network while the military constituted by foreign-trained, apolitical officers and the division of labor allows no real power to the military. Iran remains a theocracy, where power remains removed far from the military, an incidence ensured by the Commissar system which ensures fidelity of the armed forces to the Republic by the Revolutionary Guard. In countries such as Iraq and Yemen, the regular armed forces are splintered into rival factions on primordial and tribal lines. In Syria, similar to Egypt, the institutionalization of the military’s economic interests within the State has ensured the survivability of the regime.

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There is no single factor responsible for the diminishing role of the military across the Middle East. In fact, it can be argued that the military remains a powerful force in countries such as Egypt and Israel, arguably the most powerful states in the region. However, any power or influence it may have is no longer exercised as it once used to be. ‘Coups’ have a been a thing of the past for the last few years (Yemen and Egypt being rare exceptions), largely because coups have been increasingly realized to not be the only way to exercise military influence. The same can also be attributed to the fact that regimes such as Syria have grown to perfect ways to ‘coup-proof’ their regimes by way of not only military division of labor and compartmentalization, but by the utilization of a well-oiled intelligences services like the Mukhabarat, making it even more difficult for civilian regimes to be disposed of. There are other factors to consider as well, such as the fact that coup-proofing measures have diluted military cohesion, an incidence which makes it almost impossible for a small, disillusioned detachment of the military to wage a coup without the support of the rest of the larger diversified, and highly specialized military such as the Air Forces.

To conclude yes, it can be argued that when compared to recent history, the military is enjoying a rather diminished role in Middle East politics. However, this is owing to a multitude of factors, with no single factor solely responsible for the same. That said, the cases of Israel and Egypt do signify that the military does have a significant role to play, if not directly, but by way of a broader, more pervasive degree of influence that has permeated certain Middle Eastern societies.

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