Armies and State-Building in the Modern Middle East: Politics, Nationalism and Military Reform by Stephanie Cronin (review)
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Armies and State-Building in the Modern Middle East: Politics, Nationalism and Military Reform, by Stephanie Cronin. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014. 310 pages. $30 paper.

Rarely can one characterize an historical study as timely, but Armies and State-Building in the Modern Middle East is, and by design. In her opening sentence author Stephanie Cronin notes that the Arab Spring “has once again propelled Middle Eastern armies to the centre of the political stage” (p. 1). Her stated objective is to render these armies and their behavior “more comprehensible and even perhaps a little more predictable” (p. 11) by placing them in a broader, comparative historical context, the key feature of which is the central state-building role played by militaries in Middle Eastern countries. [End Page 485]

The book’s four substantive chapters deal only with Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, with consideration of the other Arab states and Turkey restricted to the Introduction and first chapter, which are more theoretical in nature. Curiously this restricted coverage proves to be less of a liability than an advantage, for it underscores the remarkably similar development of Middle Eastern militaries and their political roles, whether in Arab or non-Arab countries. A related strength of the book is that it convincingly illustrates the remarkable persistence over some two centuries of the centrality of Middle Eastern militaries to the building and exercise of state power and the struggle, therefore, between domestic and foreign actors to shape and control those militaries.

Among the themes the author develops are several that emerge from the dialectic between national “defensive modernizers” and foreign powers enlisted in those efforts or self-invited by virtue of their imperial ambitions. The ubiquitous efforts to forge nizam-i jadid (new order) militaries to supplant traditional, part-time forces based on tribal or other social solidarities, for example, ultimately run up against common constraints that limit the effectiveness of the newly fashioned militaries, typically resulting in a resurgence of the traditional forces previously dismissed as hopelessly out of date. Key among the limitations are the “need for more regular and larger fiscal sources for the new regiments” which the states have historically been unable to meet (p. 18); conflicts between domestic winners and losers from the military modernization/state-building undertaking, with rulers at the center being resisted by peripheral, traditional notables; and endemic disagreements between national rulers seeking to build their personal power bases upon large conscript based militaries modernized with the assistance of foreigners, and the foreign providers of that military technical assistance, who typical prefer smaller, more professional militaries over which they may continue to exert influence. It is worth noting that only in Afghanistan has the periphery proved strong enough over more than two centuries to frustrate the repeated efforts to build nizam-i jadid forces, underpinned by a state strong enough to collect sufficient revenues to support them. But in none of the other Middle Eastern states reviewed, with the partial exception of Turkey, has military modernization and the state-building it drives managed to create effective militaries or states, as opposed to overly large, authoritarian ones.

In sum, Armies and State-Building in the Modern Middle East provides rich historical detail in support of themes embedded in a broader theoretical understanding of the vital roles played by Middle Eastern militaries in the building and management of state power. The book’s one small shortcoming is a considerable redundancy that no doubt results from it being compiled in part from material previously published. But the reader is well rewarded for preserving in the face of those redundancies.

Robert Springborg

Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Kuwait Program at Sciences Po, Paris, and Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King’s College, London.