SWJ Book Review: “A Military History of the Modern Middle East”

SWJ Book Review: A Military History of the Modern Middle East

Alma Keshavarz

James Brian McNabb, A Military History of the Modern Middle East. Praeger, 451 pages, 2017.

A Military History of the Modern Middle East represents a new offering by James Brian McNabb. The author is adjunct professor in Troy University’s M.S. in International Relations (MSIR) program and holds an M.A in National Security Studies and a Ph.D. in Political Science (international politics) from California State University, San Bernardino and Claremont Graduate University respectively. He has significant overseas cultural knowledge with teaching appointments held in Kazakhstan, Japan, South Korea (ROK), and Iraq and having conducted research for this work in Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. Derived from this educational and professional expertise, Dr. McNabb offers an in-depth analysis of the Middle East’s military history and operations since the turbulent end of the Ottoman Empire. He guides the reader through the events that occurred in the region beginning with the Napoleonic campaign in 1798 to the present by chronicling the military events that defined Middle Eastern politics. His research and analysis of the regions rich history is extensive. Moreover, McNabb’s perception of what he calls a “clash of universalism” stems from Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” A fundamental argument of the book is that throughout the history of the Middle East, empires and regimes alike have attempted to amass power, exploit ideology, and display strong military performances. These have molded the political, economic, and social environment of the region, but has also shaped the nature of military affairs. Organizationally, the book consists of an introduction, ten chapters, a section on endnotes, selected bibliography, index, and the frequent use of maps throughout the chapters to better understand the geographical setting of a respective military incident.

Chapter 1 (“Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign and the Decline of the Ottoman Empire”) begins by explaining Napoleon’s strategy in entering Egypt in 1798. McNabb references key battles, Napoleon’s objectives—which was to establish a base in Egypt, seize control of Egyptian society to free the people, and ultimately rebuild the government that tore down elitism in the country—and the eventual withdrawal of French forces in 1801. He also introduces Mehmet Ali who was a leader ahead of his time in modernizing Egyptian society, economy, and the military by using Europe as a template. In terms of the military, Ali recruited French advisors and even sent Egyptians to Europe to learn French so they may translate French into Arabic. McNabb then sets the stage for the rise of Islam in the chapter. In Arabia at the start of the nineteenth century, the “Wahhabis” emerged, working with the House of Saud. This fundamentalist group targeted the Ottoman Empire in the Arabian Peninsula and in 1802, the group captured Mecca. In response, Ali dispatched his two sons—Tosu and Ibrahim, both notable military figures—to fight with their respective forces. Achieving success through tough battles, Ali spread his influence not only in Arabia, but also in Africa. He also grew more powerful by assisting the Sultan in Constantinople—Mahmud II—who’s provinces in the Balkans, Greece, and Macedonia were being contested. In return for his military support, the Sultan granted him territory to the Ottoman Empire. McNabb outlines the battle, including the violence which ultimately led to the Treaty of London in 1927 by Britain, France, and Russia to enforce an armistice on the Empire. As the chapter concludes, McNabb explains that the decline of the Empire was not necessarily due to the lack of might, but the lack of financial capital. The Ottoman Empire appeared to be left in the dust while the rest of the world developed.

McNabb transitions into Chapter 2 (“The First World War and the Ottoman Succession”) with the introduction of the man that became the Ottoman’s Minister of war, Esat Pasha, who was in part responsible for allying Istanbul with Germany during World War I. Pasha and another Ottoman commander during the Dardanelles campaign, Mustafa Kemal, received extensive German military training. Eventually, as McNabb explains, this education was influential in revamping the Ottoman military. During the War, the Ottomans managed to control key straits in the region. As McNabb details the military events of the war, he notes that Gallipoli was the most successful achievement on the part of the Ottomans. This is because the Allies could not control the Dardanelles, which ultimately isolated Russia and it changed the dynamics of the war. Providing this information to the reader, McNabb moves into 1917 with the arrival of General Sir Edmund Allenby to Egypt, who assisted in pushing back the Ottomans and the German forces from the Levant and established the basis for Jewish land to be developed; thus, laying the groundwork for the state of Israel.

Chapter 3 (“The Second World War”) and Chapter 4 (“The Cold War and the Establishment of Israel”) sketch the eventual decline and transformation of the former Ottoman Empire. McNabb does an excellent job of providing the reader with vivid descriptions of key operations and their significance. During the Cold War era, McNabb discusses the strategy of containment, the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and the 1955 Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), all of which he revisits in later chapters. Most importantly, as McNabb points out, what came after the end of World War II in the Middle East influenced the declining conditions that initiated the Cold War. The United States and Britain enforced political and economic pressure on Russia to abide by the Anglo-Soviet agreement of 1942 and withdraw Soviet troops in Iran, which was ultimately resolved in 1946. McNabb finally goes into detailing the battle for Israeli independence and the eventual creation of a Jewish state. In 1948, Ben-Gurion declared Israel an independent Jewish nation, and he immediately created the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Soon after came the Egyptian Revolt in 1951, which signaled Egypt’s decline. In the same year, McNabb outlines Mossadeq’s replacement of Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran. He explains that while President Truman believed that Mossadeq was a force that would prevent communism in Iran, President Eisenhower believed otherwise. McNabb discusses a joint U.S.-U.K. operation, known as “TPAJAX Project,” which was a U.S. presidential order to, “…cause the fall of the Mossadeq government; to reestablish the prestige and power of the Shah and to replace the Mossadeq government with one which would govern Iran according to constructive polices” (p. 138). Therefore, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi gained the throne in Iran, replacing the man that replaced his father. In closing these chapters, McNabb addresses the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, a group that refused—and continues to refuse—to accept Israel as a legitimate state.

Chapter 5 (“Arab-Israeli Conventional Operations”) and Chapter 6 (“British Military Withdrawal, the Iranian Revolution, and the Iran-Iraq War”) were suitably set up by the previous chapters to explain the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the ensuing military incidents in the region. First, McNabb details the role of Israel’s Moshe Dayan in the 1956 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. There is also a detailed discussion on the Six-Day War, how the battles were conducted operationally, and how it eventually concluded. Specifically, McNabb features the growth of the IDF, particularly how Ariel Sharon used the U.S.’s “air mobility/air assault” tactic, and Israel’s armor and tanks during the war. He also discusses operations during the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. Regarding Iran, McNabb clearly explains Iran’s military transition. Beginning with the Nixon Doctrine, the reader is provided with important details on how Iran was supplied with U.S. weaponry, trainers, and intelligence-security specialists, among other specifics. McNabb then fast-forwards to 1978 and how protests and demonstrations crippled Iran and weakened the Shah. Ultimately, the Shah sought to modernize the country through industry, education, and equal opportunities for woman; however, the clerical force behind the protests did not share the same sentiments. As a result, the Shah and his family left Iran in January 1979 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from his 14-year exile in February of the same year. This was the 1979 Iranian Revolution. McNabb also discusses the November 1979 hostage crisis in the American Embassy in Tehran, which lasted until January 1981. During this time, according to the author, there was a lack of interagency cooperation, particularly between the State Department, Department of Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). McNabb also offers a lengthy discussion on the Iran-Iraq War, which included the “tanker-wars,” and from there, Desert One and Operation Eagle Claw. From Iran, McNabb transitions to Syria and what came to be known as the “Hama Massacre in February 1982. He also dedicates attention to the rise of Hezbollah and the chaotic environment surrounding Israel in Lebanon due to Hezbollah and the PLO frequently targeting the Jewish state. He does an excellent job by simplifying the terrorist acts by Hezbollah, including the U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut and the Marine Barracks bombing, showing linkages to the Iranian regime. During this time of turmoil, McNabb sets the stage for events that would occur beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which led to greater turmoil in the region.

In Chapter 7 (“The Establishment of USCENTCOM, Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait, and Operation Desert Storm”) and Chapter 8 (“Containing Saddam, Jihad in Afghanistan, and Terrorist Attacks on the U.S. Homeland”), McNabb focuses his attention on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the attacks on September 11, 2001. First, he provides the reader with a clear understanding of how and why the Reagan administration created “Central Command,” or USCENTCOM, on January 1, 1983. As McNabb explains, the first objective was “to deter and, if necessary, defeat a Soviet attack aimed at the turbulent developments that engulfed Iran” (p. 239). By 1989, CENTCOM assessed that Saddam Hussein was the greatest threat in the region. This leads to an account of Hussein’s aggression and eventual invasion of Kuwait in 1990. McNabb delivers extensive battle points during the invasion, including Operation Desert Shield, which was to protect Saudi Arabia, and then Operation Desert Storm in 1991, in which McNabb explains U.S. strategy, the timing and execution of key campaigns and explains all of the tactical details of the operation. Following the end of Iraqi conflicts, McNabb shifts his focus to the Afghan Taliban, who by September 1996 had occupied Kabul and thus, had control of roughly 80 percent of Afghanistan. What follows is an overview of Osama bin Laden and the rise of al-Qaeda in the country. McNabb details the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, establishing the bases for a backgrounder on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, including his links to the “Bojinka Plot,” which was a terrorist plot planned in 1994 that was to be executed in 1995. The plan was to simultaneously detonate bombs on 11 airliners coming to the United States from Asia, assassinate Pope John Paul II, and finally crash a jetliner into CIA headquarters. To conclude, McNabb addresses the 9/11 attacks, Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 after the attacks, and then Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

Chapter 9 (“The Iraq War and the Rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East”) begins by outlining the Iraq War, specifically the two concepts that were a driving force behind the decision for war. The first concept is “preemptive war,” which McNabb explains is “legitimate under international law in cases where an opponent or enemy has decided upon military action and an attack is either under way or very credibly imminent” (p. 314). In this case, a state that is about to be attacked acts first out of self- defense. The second concept is “preventative war,” in which “the enemy is positioning itself to strike, but has not committed forces for an actual attack” (p. 314). A state may have enough information or intelligence that the attacker will make a decision when the conditions are suitable to attack. Therefore, the state will attack first when there’s uncertainty if an authorization of force from the attacker has been made. This concept is based on ambiguity. However, McNabb explains that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was neither concept. Rather, it was because Hussein was in violation of UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. McNabb provides the reader with details of the Iraq campaigns, specifically the importance of the Battle of Nasiriyah. During this battle, the U.S. military faced an irregular paramilitary group, which troops were not sufficiently prepared for. This was primarily the Fedayeen Saddam, who were “in civilian clothing, set up ambushes, used small arms and RPGs” (p. 334). It’s not so much about the victory, according to McNabb, but that Iraqi morale received a boost because the battle showed U.S. weaknesses. Additionally, McNabb discusses the Battle of Baghdad and two raids nicknamed Thunder Runs, followed by the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the “de-Ba’athification” process meant to remove Ba’athists from Iraqi government. Moreover, McNabb explains the tension in Iraq, which was in part created by the Iranians in an attempt to empower Nouri al-Maliki and to continue the disenfranchisement of the Sunni population. To conclude the chapter, McNabb examines al-Qaeda’s resurgence with Zarqawi in Iraq in 2004 and the increase in insurgent activity across the region. This segues into the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the rise of the Islamic State.

Concluding in Chapter 10 (“Summary”) McNabb reviews the previous chapters and revisits his “clash of universalism” concept. According to McNabb, “the first half of the twentieth century was marked by Western efforts, particularly British and French, in filling the vacuum of power that arose from the Ottoman collapse and expanding their own influence. The second half of the century gave rise to a Cold War rivalry, and the United States replaced Britain as the primary military power in the Middle East and faced off against Soviet efforts at expanding its control and influence while simultaneously undermining Western interests in the region” (p. 359).  Ultimately, according to McNabb, “while the West has succeeded in achieving military superiority in conventional military operations, it lacks an understanding and competence regarding the nature of ghazi warfare combined with psychological ascendancy, and it does not appear to understand the ‘clash of universalism’ in the competing strategic narratives” (p. 376). Ghazi warfare, explains McNabb, is the blend of asymmetric and irregular warfare. Therefore, the challenges that the United States faces today, specifically violent Islamic jihadism (VIJ), requires an understanding that there was a psychologically ascendancy behind it; that is, a “strategy of controlling people, resources, markets, and trade routes for both security and economic advantage” (p. 389). Groups like the Islamic State are using religion to consolidate power, in which McNabb states, “moves from the will of God into the domain of potential crimes against humanity” (p. 389).

Overall, this is a superb book if one seeks to understand the history of military affairs in the Middle East, which ultimately has shaped the region’s politics. The author does not spare any details regarding key operations and has an engaging writing style. McNabb has not only traced the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the consequences and the events that followed, but he makes the reader understand how the history influenced the shape of Middle Eastern affairs in the modern era. In closing, A Military History of the Modern Middle East well deserves a place on the scholar-practitioner’s bookshelf next to other recent military-related offerings on this regional area such as Stephanie Cronin’s Armies and State-building in the Modern Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2014) and Barry Rubin’s edited tome The Military History of the Modern Middle East (Routledge, 2015).

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