Interview with Kenneth Pollack on new book ‘Armies of Sand’
JI: Could you tell us a little bit about your book— what it studies and why it’s important now?
Kenneth Pollack: “Armies of Sand looks at the question of why Arab militaries have underperformed so consistently in war after war since 1945, losing so many wars they should have won and winning modest victories when the material balance favored them so heavily. I look at 15+ cases of Arab militaries in combat—from the Jordanians and Syrians in 1948 to the Iraqis, ISIS, and Hizballah in 2012-2018—and I compare them to 6 non-Arab militaries. I ultimately conclude that it is a combination of underdevelopment, poor civil-military relations, and behavior patterns emphasized by Arab culture that have produced this parade of misfortune. I end by warning that while Arab military weakness has been a critical element of the military balance in the modern Middle East, one that has actually led to a certain degree of stability because most of the Arab states learned by the 1970s that they did not have the wherewithal to fight conventional wars against Israel, the U.S., or one another, Arab society and warfare are both changing in very significant ways, and the next 25 years could be far more dangerous as various Arab groups and states begin to believe that they can win wars that they once tried to avoid altogether.”
JI: Also, could you explain Israel’s current military strategy as it relates to Syria and Lebanon, describing what it has been in the past and how it might change in the future?
KP: “Israel faces a real conundrum in Syria. It’s goal is first and foremost preventing Iran from building a military infrastructure there that threatens Israel—like the one that it helped Hizballah build in Lebanon. Iran is building up the capabilities to mount terrorist and rocket/missile attacks against Israel from Syria. That is why Israel has repeatedly struck Iranian targets in Syria. But, Israel does not want to start an all-out war with Iran, because Jerusalem is rightly concerned that if it does so, Hizballah and Iran will fire thousands of rockets and missiles at Israel’s cities. Israel may still “win” but it will pay a heavy price and Iran would doubtless start rebuilding immediately, just as Hizballah does after every war with Israel in Lebanon. Moreover, air power is not an ideal weapon to use for this task. The only sure way to tear up the extensive military infrastructure Iran is building there would be to invade on the ground, but the last thing that Israel wants is to fight a major ground war in an Arab state—one that would require it to push through, if not temporarily occupy—Syrian cities like Damascus. That would be a nightmare for Israel. It’s why Israel’s strong preference is to have the U.S. remain engaged in Syria, build up the Syrian opposition, and either defeat Iran and force it to retreat, or force the Iranians to leave in return for an American agreement to stop backing the opposition. However, any of that would require a greater American effort in Syria, not the withdrawal that Trump has announced.”
Kenneth M. 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.