Peace and War: The Arab-Israeli Military Balance Enters the 21st Century, by Anthony H. Cordesman

By Cohen, Stuart | Shofar, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Peace and War: The Arab-Israeli Military Balance Enters the 21st Century, by Anthony H. Cordesman


Cohen, Stuart, Shofar


Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002. 209 pp. $104.95.

Ever since the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, relationships between the successor states of the Middle East have been chronically volatile. Today, too, alliances and alignments continue to shift, in response to both external concerns and domestic pressures. For Israel, one fortunate result is that she almost never has to worry about a united coalition of all her potential foes. Rather, she can distinguish real "threats" from potential "risks" and accordingly base her strategic planning on a variety of possible scenarios, involving different combinations of enemies, by-standers and partners.

Anthony H. Cordesman's latest study analyzes what those combinations now might be, and then goes on to itemize the balance of forces in each case. His book is therefore somewhat oddly mistitled. Fundamental to its argument is that there exists no such thing as a single "Arab-Israeli Military Balance," at either the conventional or the nonconventional levels. Instead, Cordesman insists (p. 625), there are "many possible `balances,' each tied to different problems and potential sources of conflict that can suddenly escalate into crisis or conflict.... Focusing on one possible contingency, or balance, at the expense of the others ignores real-world uncertainties affecting the region."

Cordesman guides us through this maze of possibilities with his customary mastery. One of the best-informed and most prolific writers on contemporary near eastern military affairs, he is completely in command of his subject. He has read widely (in English) and has supplemented the leads thereby obtained by acute personal observation and individual interviews with several key military figures in the region. His text perches upon almost 1100 footnotes and a dozen pages of bibliographical references. The only faults are minor: the maps are useless (and in one case, on p. 494, misplaced); occasional repetitions (e.g., the descriptions of the death of Brig.-Gen. Erez Gerstien on pp. 416, 418); and some retention of summary notes of interviews where a synoptic analysis might have been more elegant (pp. 202-5).

Overall, however, the book is a triumph -- especially of organization. Its opening chapters overview recent Arab and Israeli military acquisitions and arms transfers, and then proceed to a panoramic comparison of Arab and Israeli forces by service and country. Subsequent chapters analyze individual dyads (Israel-Palestinians; Israel-Syria; Israel-Lebanon; Israel-Jordan; Israel-Egypt) and a number of possible "worst case" scenarios. These include: (a) a conventional war between Israel and all of her immediate neighbours; (b) large-scale fighting between Israel and an alliance of more distant foes (Lybia, Iran, Iraq); and (c) the possible resort -- in any of these situations -- to various weapons of mass destruction, with the specter of a nuclear confrontation of one sort or another lurking in the background.

Although Cordesman is not addicted to number-crunching, he certainly supplies substantive fare to those who are. Numerous tables and charts provide comprehensive inventories of the region's armed forces and their arsenals, and detailed audits of the financial burdens that their maintenance has imposed on each national economy over recent decades. Nevertheless, Cordesman does not assume that the figures "speak for themselves. …

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