Is Joint Militarism Really the Answer?

This is the moment to ponder whether excessive reliance on militarism as a response to political and ideological disagreements is in fact the appropriate solution, or actually one of the causes of the problems we face.

When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi announced in late March after an Arab summit at Sharm El-Sheikh that leaders there had agreed on the principle of creating a “joint Arab military force” to respond to security threats in the region, the idea was greeted by considerable skepticism across much of the Arab world. Now, some two months later, and after chiefs-of-staff of Arab armed forces met in Egypt to discuss the matter further without announcing any of the results of their deliberations, the idea still elicits great doubts.

The idea of a joint Arab military force indeed makes much sense, and could be a positive step to deal with a wide range of security threats across the region. Yet doubt reverberates all around it because there is little confidence that the high-level decision-making mechanisms of the current Arab leaderships would allow this sound concept to be translated into reality in a manner that elicits widespread popular support and actually serves the security and well-being of Arab citizens.

For one thing, the manner in which such important issues are addressed is typical of the top-heavy, I-command-my-people-to-love-and-obey-me style of leadership and decision-making that defines the Arab world today, and has done so for decades. A serious issue such as this joint military force that could see Arab troops from different countries waging war inside other Arab countries, against a variety of potential foes, should be debated and decided upon in a wide consultative process that allows ordinary citizens as well as our most learned scholars and analysts to weigh in on the pluses and minuses of the idea. Arab leaders can decide behind closed doors if they wish on a unified technical standard for evaluating imported tuna fish packaging, or agreeing on reciprocal protocols for postal service deliveries; but when it comes to a joint force that will fight and kill across the region, it would seem critical for the idea to be widely discussed and debated, so that a final decision benefits from a genuine consensus.

Two main operational problems seem obvious in such an idea. First, being a voluntary endeavor, this new Arab military force runs the risk of simply perpetuating the ideological, sectarian and other divisions that already plague the Arab world. So if those who join are the same countries that now operate together under Saudi Arabian leadership in the war in Yemen, it is likely that their decisions to deploy to keep the peace or even to go to war would reflect these same countries’ ideological fears of Iran’s influence across parts of the Arab world. This is likely to heighten regional tensions rather than lower them.

Second, it will be difficult for the Arab states involved to collectively sufficiently coordinate their military logistics, supplies, mechanics, equipment, training, communications and other technical aspects of their work to be able to engage in useful military action. That could mean that the main point of such a unified force is not necessarily to engage in active conflict, but rather more to function as a peace-keeping force whose presence on the ground in a conflict situation could reduce tensions and prevent an outbreak of active warfare.

Existing situations such as the expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) clearly call out for a joint Arab military response, because ISIS threatens many Arab countries simultaneously. The turmoil in Libya and Yemen, as in Lebanon in the 1970s, also cries out for a coherent response from Arab countries, but not mainly in the military sphere. Political and economic issues that threaten various Arab countries need as much attention as military and security ones, and in these realms the Arab leaders have zero credibility.

So there is little to be hopeful about right now in the current talk of a joint Arab military force, because it brings together three of the most destructive legacies of the modern Arab world: military men in power, making decisions by themselves, and relying on military force to get things done, or just keep things quiet. Traditional Arab governments’ reliance on security responses to growing threats and tensions that are created by social, political, demographic, environmental and economic forces is likely to generate more stress and conflict, rather than less.

I understand the panic that strikes in the hearts of Arab leaders who fear the expanding influence of Iran in the region or the turmoil that could spread from Libya, Syria and Iraq. Perhaps this is the moment to ponder whether excessive reliance on militarism as a response to political and ideological disagreements and socio-economic disparities is in fact the appropriate solution, or actually one of the causes of the problems we face. 

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global