History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 6)

The original title of Prof. Richard Bulliet’s lecture given on January 29, 2009 at Columbia University lecture is “Inequality” vs. “Difference”, but I found after listening to his lecture, that the above title more specifically addresses the contents.   This next post deals most specifically with the topic mentioned in the title.  

14. The Military-Commercial complex in the Islamic world

This is Plato’s Guardian class in action. It didn’t work. The Janissaries found that being a professional military to protect people who made a lot of money and lived happy lives while they went on campaigns and got killed and they got nothing didn’t seem right with them. So after time the Janissaries pressed the Sultanate to relax the restrictions, to allow them to get married, to engage in business, to lead something closer to normal lives. So that by the early 1600s more and more of the Janissaries were being drawn from the sons of Janissaries or other people who found access to the court. They were entering the army without going through the rigid military training of the earlier Janissary core. The reason this longing for increasing privileges was effective was that the change in military technology had made the traditional cavalry increasingly marginal, and the organized forces of the Sultanate were the most effective and the most important. Over time, however, the Janissaries became less and less effective and more and more involved in business.

The reason why they became involved in business in an effective way because they were not subject to the regulations of the guilds that controlled most of the manufacturing in the Ottoman Empire. Regarding the formal responsibility in terms of laws or in terms of whom they could be disciplined by, their only governance came from the head of the Janissaries. So they could compete with guild members without being penalized, or more likely in terms of descriptions we have from the 18th century, they could offer their patronage to an artisan who wanted to escape the guild rules and so the Janissary would become the public partner of the artisan. There are descriptions of Janissaries in Egypt in the 1700s who would sort of sit out in front of a shoe shop all day carving soap figures or doing something else useful just to show they were protecting that shop from any legal incursions that might be made within the structure of the guild system.

So you have an institution that had begun as a slave soldiery to buttress the state, and ends up playing an important role in the economy with diminishing effectiveness militarily. When they integrate, they don’t integrate as aristocrats—that’s the point Prof. Bulliet is trying to make. You have military leadership that does not result in a hereditary class or military leaders. Even in Egypt under the Mamluks before the Ottomans took over, the sons of Mamluk generals did not themselves become Mamluks; they were prohibited from becoming Mamluks, some of them joining a kind of junior Mamluk auxiliary corps. So no son of a general could become a general. There are no John McCains in Egypt under the Mamluks (laughter). You couldn’t have that. And yet that was the ideal within the European aristocracy.

Later on in the course, simply to extend this endless digression even further (laughter), I will make the argument that one of the most striking characteristics of Middle East politics today is the survival of the fundamental structural aspects of the Mamluk system. In other words, many of the governments of the Middle East today are what people refer to as neo-Mamluk governments. What is meant by that is a military officer corps, frequently from socially marginal backgrounds, who monopolize political power and military leadership, but whose notion of integrating into the society is in the normal commercial fashion rather than as a military elite. So that, the sons of the neo-Mamluks today don’t necessarily go into the military pattern, maybe they go to dental school or they go to get a degree in business degree in Belgium, or something like that, but they don’t become a hereditary military. You end up with states like Syria, Egypt, Iraq before Saddam Hussein, and perhaps now evolving in Iran, that are characterized by governments that are of, by, and for the officer corps, but the officer corps does not become an aristocracy. The officer corps wants to sell shoes, and you get a very powerful impetus for officers to engage in the economy.

There is a striking moment in Egypt when the general who provided chicken for the Army through his chicken farms asked Parliament for permission to sell chicken to the general populace. He said, “I produce chicken more cheaply than the chicken farmers that you have, and therefore I should be able to sell chicken to everybody.” The Parliamentarians responded, “You’re using draftees for your labor; of course you can produce chicken more cheaply, because you’re producing military chicken.” And they did not give him permission to sell his chicken to the general public.

15. The Military-Industrial Complex of the Western World

The whole idea that this is what you would aspire to do is strikingly neo-Mamluk. Our retired generals coming from a tradition of the military aristocracy go to work for Boeing, for Blackwater, or for Beltway consultants; they go into the military-industrial complex.

The military officers in neo-Mamluk states get Starbucks franchises (laughter). It’s a military-commercial relationship. Neo-Mamluk militaries are profoundly risk averse. Let’s say you were a general in this country and then you become an executive of Boeing and a war is looming. You would think, well if we lose 50 F-16s, then we’re going to have buy 150 F-something elses to replace the F-16s, so war is good for our business because it’s a military-industrial business. War isn’t necessarily as negative as it would appear.

On the other hand, if you’re sane enough on the neo-Mamluk side of things, you would think, well if war comes, not many people are going to be able to go to Starbucks because they’ll be at war, and the chicken industry is going to hit, and so forth and so on (laughter). It’s a different way of articulating the military elite with the commercial society and it is one that has never been integrated into our understanding of military elites in the Middle East and North Africa. There is an assumption that, as soon as Western-style military academies are established in the 19th century in Egypt and Turkey, and in the 20th century in other states, it’s assumed that along with the structure of the Western-style military academy comes the ethos of the Western military officer. You send them to Fort Leavenworth for three weeks of general command training and they will be pro-American forever and they will be like John McCain (laughter).

It didn’t work that way. The people who visualized the modern military in the Middle East never looked back to see what is the tradition, what is the ingrained relationship of the military elite to the rest of the society. To Prof. Bulliet, this is a profound difference between Europe in the 17th and 18th century and the Middle East with regards to the nature of the military and its relationship with the aristocracy.

If Prof. Bulliet characterizes the military-commercial complex of the Middle East as being “risk averse”, the corollary of that is that the military-industrial complex of the West is more “risk seeking” or “adventurous.”    No less than President Eisenhower warned about the dangers of the military-industrial complex in his farewell address to the American people on January 17, 1961.  This is one of the most trenchant critiques of Washington by a man who himself had served the highest roles in both the US military and the US government:


In the final post of this lecture, Prof. Bulliet talks about the religious elite in the Middle East and North Africa and its relationship to society.

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