Thursday, May 03, 2007
Edward Luttwak is a very genuinely interesting writer. His book on the grand strateg of the Roman Empire was terrific, and his Coup D'Etat is that astounding thing: a great work of political science that is also a hilarious satire. Part of the secret of his success is his tone of total confidence. He makes startling claims in a tone that says, "If only you knew my super-secret sources ..."
His article in the current issue of Prospect fulfills the rule of Luttwak's interestingness. It's called, "Why the Middle East Doesn't Matter," and it magisterially and sardonically attacks a whole series of intellectual errors that allegedly dominate expert opinion on the Middle East. For instance:
The second repeated mistake is the Mussolini syndrome. Contemporary documents prove beyond any doubt what is now hard to credit: serious people, including British and French military chiefs, accepted Mussolini's claims to great power status because they believed that he had serious armed forces at his command. His army divisions, battleships and air squadrons were dutifully counted to assess Italian military power, making some allowance for their lack of the most modern weapons but not for their more fundamental refusal to fight in earnest. Having conceded Ethiopia to win over Mussolini, only to lose him to Hitler as soon as the fighting started, the British discovered that the Italian forces quickly crumbled in combat. It could not be otherwise, because most Italian soldiers were unwilling conscripts from the one-mule peasantry of the south or the almost equally miserable sharecropping villages of the north.
Exactly the same mistake keeps being made by the fraternity of middle east experts. They persistently attribute real military strength to backward societies whose populations can sustain excellent insurgencies but not modern military forces.
In the 1960s, it was Nasser's Egypt that was mistaken for a real military power just because it had received many aircraft, tanks and guns from the Soviet Union, and had many army divisions and air squadrons. In May 1967, on the eve of war, many agreed with the prediction of Field Marshal Montgomery, then revisiting the El Alamein battlefield, that the Egyptians would defeat the Israelis forthwith; even the more cautious never anticipated that the former would be utterly defeated by the latter in just a few days. In 1973, with much more drama, it still took only three weeks to reach the same outcome.
In 1990 it was the turn of Iraq to be hugely overestimated as a military power. Saddam Hussein had more equipment than Nasser ever accumulated, and could boast of having defeated much more populous Iran after eight years of war. In the months before the Gulf war, there was much anxious speculation about the size of the Iraqi army—again, the divisions and regiments were dutifully counted as if they were German divisions on the eve of D-day, with a separate count of the "elite" Republican Guards, not to mention the "super-elite" Special Republican Guards—and it was feared that Iraq's bombproof aircraft shelters and deep bunkers would survive any air attack.
That much of this was believed at some level we know from the magnitude of the coalition armies that were laboriously assembled, including 575,000 US troops, 43,000 British, 14,663 French and 4,500 Canadian, and which incidentally constituted the sacrilegious infidel presence on Arabian soil that set off Osama bin Laden on his quest for revenge. In the event, two weeks of precision bombing were enough to paralyse Saddam's entire war machine, which scarcely tried to resist the ponderous ground offensive when it came. At no point did the Iraqi air force try to fight, and all those tanks that were painstakingly counted served mostly for target practice. A real army would have continued to resist for weeks or months in the dug-in positions in Kuwait, even without air cover, but Saddam's army was the usual middle eastern façade without fighting substance.
Ha ha! Good stuff! What idiots those Middle Eastern experts must have been to fall for that Mussolini error about feeble old Saddam. Especially this one:
All those precision weapons and gadgets and gizmos and stealth fighters . . . are not going to make it possible to re-conquer Kuwait without many thousands of casualties.
Who said that? Edward Luttwak, as it happened.
05/03 01:26 AM