A student of European states finds much to wonder at in the recent Persian Gulf War. [1] Not that the armed, predatory character of Middle Eastern states, the invasion of a rich state’s territory by a financially strapped neighbor or a great power’s massive intervention in a local conflict lack European precedents. Victorious violence and armed repression, after all, shaped every major European state. Nor should any American be astonished to see the US government once again operating a protection racket: taxing and indebting its citizens to protect them from threats the government itself has generated while collecting payments from its collaborators in the attack on Iraq. Still, the obvious antecedents lie in the sixteenth or seventeenth century rather than in the recent past.

Has the Middle East been transported back to the Europe of pikemen over the same period — since 1945 — that Westerners refer to as the Long Peace? The Long Peace did bring an exceptional reduction of war among the Western great powers, but it also saw a terrible rise of military activity throughout the rest of the world.

What might earlier European experience have predicted? In Europe after the seventeenth century, the expansion of military capacity paradoxically produced a civilianization of government and a containment of war. Wars became bigger, more lethal and more general, but they lasted less time. In between wars, states restored their economic capacities. The buildup of big navies and expensive, nationally recruited standing armies, furthermore, entailed the disarmament of civilian populations, which reduced the prevalence of small-scale private warfare. Even more important, military expansion generated fiscal systems and civilian bureaucracies that made military leaders their dependents, even as they gave military organizations unprecedented means of warfare. Military expenditure continued to drive state budgets, but increasingly under the direction of civilian rulers who tended to the interests of civilian ruling classes. To some degree, making war even came to require popular consent. While we can not quite say that war caused democracy, bargaining over the means of war certainly involved European citizens in the creation of checks on arbitrary power.

After World War II, a simple view of Europe as a modeled many people to hope, predict and prescribe that Third World states — new and old — would follow similar paths to pacific democracy. The extension of a Western-dominated state system to almost the entire world, however, meant no such thing. The installation of European-style armies and constitutions had perverse effects. In state after state, ostensibly democratic polities gave way to authoritarian rule, one-party domination and military autonomy; during recent decades, people in roughly 40 percent of the world’s states have lived under regimes in which the military either rules openly or wields great autonomous power. During the 1960s and 1970s, the military coup became the most common form of political succession outside the Western world; only the stabilization of military rule in a number of countries and the demilitarization of a much smaller number of countries reduced the frequency of coups in the 1980s. After 1945, furthermore, civil wars became more frequent, as two or more parties within the same state acquired military capacity and used it to claim or contest state power.

The post-war proliferation of states had some surprising but understandable consequences for world politics. First, colonial boundaries that Europeans had imposed almost without regard to the distribution of peoples became defended frontiers of post-colonial states; only rarely did the new states accommodate to their cultural heterogeneity by partition or by reordering of administrative subdivisions. Second, boundary disputes and open invasions across international frontiers became much rarer than before World War II; the rulers of so many states acquired investments in precarious, arbitrary boundaries that none could endorse the forcible alteration of any state’s boundaries. Third, the world became more tolerant of a state’s massacre or displacement of its own residents on the ground of their disloyalty to the regime in power, with the result that civilian deaths from state action came to rival deaths in combat, and refugees mounted to the millions. Fourth, tacit intervention in guerrilla movements, insurrections and civil wars became much more common, drawing both great powers such as the United States, France and the Soviet Union, as well as small powers such as Cuba and South Africa, into distant combat. Finally, as the advantages of controlling a state increased, and existing states carved up almost the entire earth’s land area into distinctive states, populations that lived within established states or (worse yet) scattered across state boundaries began to demand political autonomy, even states of their own. In most of these changes, military force became salient.

The Cold War contributed to Third World militarization. The US and its allies competed with the Soviet Union and its allies to cement non-European states within their coalition; the cement included the opening of markets and the granting of economic aid, but it solidified around military assistance. Great powers intervened increasingly in non-Western civil wars — indeed, often fomented them. While Chinese and Israeli production constituted important exceptions, the world arms trade shifted from the mutual supplying of Western states to an export of weapons from Western powers to the rest of the world — notably to those states that could supply crucial commodities such as oil and/or a strategic foothold in a region of disputed control. The investment of great powers in arming Third World states gave Third World militaries powerful advantages within their own national politics.

With the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from the deadly game of threat and counter-threat, we might expect Western competition for non-Western arms markets and strategic non-Western allies to decline. We could reasonably suppose that the dissipation of the Cold War would have ramifications parallel to the ends of general shooting wars over the last five centuries or so. Alterations of the international system, reorganizations of individual states and transfers of power within states do not occur incrementally. They tend to be heavily concentrated in post-war periods. In that sense, the ends of wars present extraordinary opportunities for deliberate realignment of international politics — not always in ways that directly reflect the relative military success of the recent combatants. In the meantime, however, we live with the bipolar system’s deadly effects: heavily militarized Third World states, continued investment in that militarization by great powers and repeated Western intervention in non-Western civil wars.

Enter the Gulf war. The United States and other great powers did not invent Saddam Hussein. Yet they certainly created a situation allowing him to act in contempt of humanity at precisely the moment when a war-weary world might have expected serious moves toward durable peace in the Middle East. For the three decades since 1960, Western European powers, the Soviet Union and the United States have treated the Middle East as a testing station for Cold War conflicts, a profitable outlet for weapons, a source of cheap oil and an experiment in the containment of competing nationalisms. As the Western states maintained an uneasy peace, and the rest of the world moved from international wars to civil wars, the Middle East remained the only significant region where inter-state wars continued. As boundary disputes and incursions across international frontiers became less and less frequent elsewhere, they became major forms of conflict in the Middle East.

Great powers not only intervened massively in Middle Eastern politics, they also tried to use individual states as stalking horses for their own foreign policies. As concerts of states acted to end colonization and annexation through most of the world, the United States defended Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and its “security zone” in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia became a major customer for high-technology American arms and, with Washington’s encouragement, promoted the Yemen Arab Republic’s military effort against the Soviet-leaning People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, not to mention helping to finance Nicaraguan and Afghan rebels. With fair consistency, the US acted to protect Israel, to crack Arab unity, to foster oil-producing collaborators who would undercut OPEC unity, to sell American weapons to reliable clients and, in the process, to establish the legitimacy of its own military presence in the Middle East.

The United States did not act alone. Before their detente began in earnest, Moscow and Washington conspired implicitly to let Iran and Iraq bleed each other in a war that cost many hundreds of thousands of lives — just so long as the blood did not leak out of the Persian Gulf. In the process, they furthered the transformation of Iran, Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia into four of the world’s most militarized states. By the middle of the 1980s, non-Western nations were receiving about three quarters of the entire world’s arms shipments; the great bulk of those shipments came from the United States, the Soviet Union, France or Great Britain; about half were ending up in the Middle East.

All this happened in a part of the world that great-power policies had made much less peaceful. A simple comparison of 1960 and 1986 provides appalling evidence of lost opportunities. While worldwide military expenditure, in constant dollars, rose about 40 percent, in the Middle East it sextupled; military expenditure rose less rapidly than national income in most of the world, but increased from 5.6 to an exhausting 18.1 percent of GNP in the Middle East. With help and encouragement from the United States, Israel pumped up its military expenditures from 2.9 to 19.2 percent of GNP, Saudi Arabia from 5.7 to 22.7 percent, Iran from 4.5 to 20 percent, Iraq from 8.7 to a debilitating 32 percent.

By 1986, almost a third of Iraq’s entire national income was going into military expenditure. Iraq, Israel and Syria expanded their armed forces to the world’s highest proportions of their total populations: As of 1986, one Iraqi in 20 was serving in the armed forces; in Israel and Syria, the figure was more than one in 30. Those percentages approach the highest proportions any Western state has ever placed in its armed forces, even in times of total war. In short, Western powers aided and abetted the Middle East’s massive militarization. It is hypocritical for them now to treat Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait as a madman’s private escapade.

The timing of Iraq’s strike was devastating to the rest of the world. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had been giving hopeful signs of suppressing their urges to turn every local conflict into an international confrontation by proxy. Realignment in Eastern Europe, the emergence of European institutions, settlements of old divisions in Germany and South Africa, and the incipient demilitarization of Latin America seemed to provide the greatest opportunity for creative innovation the world has faced since the end of World War II.

As short-run measures, an embargo on commodities and arms to Iraq and a boycott of Iraqi oil made ironic good sense. If they had provided a precedent for a more general effort to break the lethal exchange of arms for oil, that would have been a brilliant improvisation. Flying more arms into Saudi Arabia and bombing Baghdad, on the other hand, constituted a return to the same old big-fist policies. The best hope now would be for the United States to pull back its forces, allowing internationally sponsored negotiations to begin and a more general peace settlement in the region to take shape. If these now unlikely steps occurred and forced a recognition of missed opportunities for peace and justice in the Middle East, we might even end up grateful to Saddam Hussein for calling the moral bluff of Western powers. If, on the other hand, the United States turns chiefly to pouring more arms into the Middle East, “strengthening” those states whose positions it currently approves, it will forward the very process that made Saddam Hussein’s blitzkrieg possible. Strengthening peace requires an understanding of the embeddedness of Iraq and the Middle East in a dangerously changing international system of states.


[1] I have adapted some sections of this essay from Charles Tilly, “Teeth of Dragons,” Protocol 3 (August 1990), while drawing especially on Joe Stork and Jim Paul, “Arms Sales and the Militarization of the Middle East,” Middle East Report 112 (February 1983); Fred Lawson, “Class and State in Kuwait,” Middle East Report 132 (May 1985); Joe Stork, “Reagan Reflags the Gulf,” Middle East Report 148 (September-October 1987); Fred Halliday, “The Great Powers and the Middle East,” Middle East Report 151 (March-April 1988); Jonathan Marshall, “Saudi Arabia and the Reagan Doctrine,” Middle East Report 155 (November- December 1988); Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990); and FBIS reports from June-August 1990.

How to cite this article:

Charles Tilly "War and State Power," Middle East Report 171 (July/August 1991).

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