Over the past two years, the Trump administration has floated the idea of creating an alliance of pro-American Arab states, perhaps based on the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. Such an organization, if it had existed five years ago, could have fielded troops to fight Islamic State or to restore order in Yemen or Syria; it could have also provided an important bulwark against Iranian expansionism. But, argues Norvell DeAtkine, similar fantasies of Arab unity possessed T.E. Lawrence in his day and Arab nationalists a generation later—and have time and again failed to deliver:
Any attempt to build a unified Arab institution is based on a shaky foundation. The mistake is assuming there is an “Arab world.” Conventional wisdom holds that the “Arab world” is united by a “common language and heritage.” Neither is true. The people inhabiting the region stretching across Africa and Asia from Mauritania to the borders of Iran speak various versions of Arabic, but they are not uniformly mutually intelligible. . . . The history of Egypt or North Africa has very little in common with that of the Levant or Iraq. . . .
The history of the Arab Deterrence Force sent into Lebanon in 1976 to quell the bitter civil war between Christian militias and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is a case study illustrating the ineffectiveness and dangers of this type of Arab operation. Although it was supposed to be a joint Arab force, the vast majority of the troops were Syrian and, as the Christians had assumed all along, the Syrians turned the peacekeeping operation into a permanent occupation of Lebanon. Entering Lebanon in 1976, they remained until 2005. . . .
Having lived in the Middle East for over eight years, I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase “Israel is a foreign body lodged in the heart of the Arab world.” . . . . Given the supposed universal and visceral hatred of the Israeli state, one would be moved to believe that in efforts to erase the “Zionist” state Arab unity would be at its zenith. But that has not been the case. Nothing has illustrated the disunity of the “Arab world” more than its efforts to destroy the Israeli state. . . .
Arab lack of success . . . is a function of a culture that, as the peerless [14th-century] Tunisian historian ibn Khaldun wrote, promotes an individuality in which every man wants to be the leader. “[T]here is scarcely one among them who would cede their power to another.” It is still a largely tribal and clan-oriented society, in which [Western-style] civil society has never taken root. Concentric circles of loyalty, in which only family, tribal, or clan members are completely trusted, vitiate the trust in your fellow soldier.
As DeAtkine goes on to demonstrate, the repeated failures of the various Arab attacks on Israel have stemmed in part from the inability of various Arab states to coordinate their military operations; even during the Yom Kippur War—which showed a higher level of cooperation than any that preceded it—the Egyptian government misled the Syrians about its plans.