Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Military Coups in America: Revolution or Regime Change

Most people assume it couldn't happen in the States: troops in the streets, martial law, political executions on a massive scale. It's a subject that has been treated in the past. This essay, Origins of the American Military Coups of 2012 by Lieutenant Colonel Dunlap at the Army War College, is particularly worth reading. Still, it seems unlikely at first. The American military has been under the perfect control of the civilian government ever since the founding of the country. It's composed of patriotic American citizens sworn to defend their country, men drawn from every walk of life and every part of the nation, who would never take up arms en mass against the population. Coups d'etats are a problem faced by other countries, basket-cases with corrupt governments and restive populations split by a mix of mutually repulsive, vehement ideologies or simple ethnic division.

Actually, put that way it doesn't seem so foreign, does it...?

A coups in the US is a probably a certainty in the near-to-mid term. Probability theory alone suggests that, at least once in US history, there will be a military coups. After all, no state ever lasts forever, and military intervention is the most common type of sharply discontinuous political event that leads to the death of one state and the birth of another (climate change, historically, is a distant second.) Military intervention can either be external - successful invasion by another country - or internal, ie, a military coups. When you're talking about the towering giants of history, military revolts generally precede outside conquest.

Now, you could apply Copernican probability theory - the assumption that there is nothing inherently special about the place or time from which we observe - to the question of how long the current constitutional order will survive. It's been around since 1787, so there's a 5 percent chance that the union is in it's final 11 years of existence, and a 5 percent chance that it will last for another for and a half millenia. And, of course, a 90% chance that it's remaining span is somewhere in between the two.

Copernican theory is a clumsy tool, however, for use only when no other data points exist. Data about the US abounds.

If you're talking about a coups, politics is one of the areas that deserves close attention. Part of the agreement the military, in effect, has with the political class is that they trust the politicians to make the call when it comes to going, or not going, to war. This requires that the military believes the political class to have the best interests of the country at heart and, beyond that, to know the best way of realizing that interest. The contract has held for almost two and a half centuries, and has largely worked out for the best. But there's nothing to say it couldn't sour in the future (and in fact, there's plenty of evidence it's souring right now.) If the common perception amongst the population that politicians were nothing more than venal, corrupt criminals were to spread to the troops as well, the military might well decide at some point that enough is enough, and simply remove the government from office.

Here's one scenario: Washington in general, and Congress specifically, finally puts an end to the Iraq war. The US military is withdrawn as fast as it can, and the country collapses into bloodshed along sectarian, political, and ethnic lines. The consequences of that little collapse lead to a larger one; a discredited US finds itself increasingly pressed everywhere around the world. The economic fallout of that loss of credibility is grim: possibly a sharp drop in the value of the dollar, maybe even just a long-term period of slow growth while the rest of the world rockets ahead (one or two percent in the US, but a decade of twenty percent in China, India, and Brazil....) Precisely what the consequences would be is hard to tell, but one lesson of history is that no war has ever been lost without some sizable fraction of wealth being taken afterwards from the loser.

Meanwhile, the military seethes. They know they could have won the war, but were betrayed from the top, sold out for cheap and ephemeral political gain. It becomes a bitter narrative, endlessly muttered by by soldiers, by former soldiers, and by their supporters. Their numbers grow; as the economy struggles, more people are willing to believe the tale of betrayal and treason at the top, especially with corruption and scandal becoming more apparent by the day. Finally things boil over. Congress is dissolved (ie imprisoned or executed), the president is replaced with a five-star general, and the American people wake up the next day to find themselves living in a military dictatorship.

This is perhaps the uglier scenario, driven as it would be by vengeful bitterness. It could be made uglier still: the successful nuking of an American city, for instance, would in this scenario turn Americans against their government with even greater malice. Media and academia, too, insofar as they're seen as supporters of that government, would come in for rough treatment. This is the kind of scenario where the streets might run red with blood, where hundreds of thousands might 'disappear' in detention centers and secret executions.

The second scenario is not necessarily so grim. The premise is the opposite to that of the first: America doesn't lose Iraq. In fact it succeeds, and proceeds to perform regime change on a regular basis, once or twice per decade taking out an odious government and inviting in a massive global network of NGOs and corporations to rebuild the country afterwards, establishing the conditions for a democracy and then protecting whatever starts to grow. This is essentially Thomas Barnett's view, and it is a strategy that bears thinking about. Executed correctly, it would benefit the entire world, from the country being invaded (which in exchange for some short-term instability is presented with both freedom from repression and economic opportunity), to the global community (who would gain in both a newly opened economy, and a reduced security threat from a basket-case regime.)

The danger comes in the downstream risk to America's own political order. Once again, were the general perception that the civilian government is deeply corrupt, counter-productive or even injurious to the country's interests to deepen, what would there be to stop the military from executing regime change at home? Indeed nothing would be easier. There wouldn't even be a military to oppose them.

Rome's transition from republic to empire bears comparison. For centuries, Rome made a habit of sending its army out, conquering foreign lands, and establishing Roman governance. Practice made them good at it, until Caeser was able to roll up the whole of Gaul within just a decade ... after which he made the logical connection that if a city could be conquered and her lands taken away, well, Rome was just another city and the same principle applied.

Caeser, of course, sought personal gain, though he justified his actions by pointing to the corruption of the Senate, claiming that it acted not on the side of the people but for the wealthy minority. His stated intentions were not to win a throne but to restore the old republic; almost certainly, these statements were mere public relations. But would a modern general be so cynical? One can well imagine some Caeser ordering the dissolution of Congress, all the while stressing that his motivation was merely to clean the slate and go back to a better day ... and actually meaning it. As an example, the gerrymandering of congressional districts is widely seen as a gross perversion of the democratic system; the coups leader could declare that elections based on such a system fail the test of free and fair elections, and all leaders so elected thus utterly illegitimate. First he would occupy Washington, banishing Congress from the city. Next, he would plead for cooperation and patience from the American people; the military government would last only so long as it would take new elections to be held, and that - given the American peoples' boundless experience in conducting elections - would likely be a very short time, almost certainly less than a year. In fact, there's no reason not to let all or most of the sitting congress run for their seats; competing in a fair arena (ie, congressional districts modeled more like third-grade shapes and less like regions of the Mandelbrot set) most of those congressmen would likely lose anyways, and if they were allowed to run it would do a lot to increase the perception of fairness.

Of course, there's no reason the people would have to passively allow their government to be dismantled, but it's worth keeping in mind that general confidence in presidential and congressional competence (19% and 14% respectively) are dwarfed by confidence in the military (64%.) The scenario presented above requires only that this massive divide continue long enough for some old warrior to decide to use that political capital to affect change back home.

There's also no overwhelming reason that the coups leader would have to be true to his word. He could, like Caeser, use reform as merely a pretext to the seizure of power. Even if he didn't, the possibility of another military coups would be eternally at the back of everyone's mind. Nevertheless, this second scenario is quite a bit more user-friendly than than the first; America, rather than becoming a nightmare of repressive government, would in all likelihood remain a livable country, as the transition from old republic to new republic, or republic to whatever comes next, would be managed in a much less destructive fashion. If a military coups is indeed in the long run inevitable, I for one would prefer it to follow the second rather than the first scenario.

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BrianFH said...

You even got it wrong in French. "Coups" is plural.

Whatta maroon. You've said nothing more than that the military (anywhere) has the arms to take over.

Name one liberal democracy where this has happened.


Keitousama said...

Huh. Expected a higher caliber of commenter from the Belmont Club.

Ben said...

You made a math error with your Copernican theory. The 5% upper bound to expected duration would be 95 x 200 or 19,000 years. So, what you are saying is that given no other data, it is slightly possible that the US will last another decade, a 5% chance that the time remaining will exceed all of recorded history, and a 90% chance that the duration will be in the middle. Hmm.

But the theory itself is suspect. It claims, for example, that if I watch a building being erected, and then for its first 24 hours of occupation, it is 5% likely to collapse within the next hour or so- and since this is patently absurd, we can conclude that the whole thing is implausible.


Ben said...

I should also point out that your scenario is lacking a step, and is therefore logically faulty.

Ahem. Watch:

"Here's one scenario: Washington in general, and Congress specifically, finally puts an end to the Iraq war."

That was A. Now B:

"The US military is withdrawn as fast as it can,"

Ok. B follows plausibly from A. But then C:

"and the country collapses into bloodshed along sectarian, political, and ethnic lines."

You must show how that would follow plausibly from B, and you have not done so. That makes your scenario actually TWO different and mutally irrelevant scenarios, pasted together across a causality break. It is like saying "I ran out of butter, and so I injured my foot." It may be a fact that a chain of events set in motion by running out of butter resulted in a foot injury, but if we are calling this a scenario, it demands that it be spelled out. Exactly how did the lack of butter cause the foot injury?


Keitousama said...


Given some thought, I can name a few democracies where the military took over. Chile and, more recently, Thailand both come to mind. Whether they are (or were before the takeover) liberal democracies is something I'm not, frankly, entirely sure about. What exactly is an illiberal democracy?

As to the spelling mistake, my bad. I've been living in Japan for two and a half years, and all the Japanese I've been learning has been squeezing the English out of my brain.


Now that's more like it, commentary with some substance!

First, the math: if the entity in question is in the first five percent of it's existence, that's the same as having completed the first 1/20th, so to find out the upper limit on lifespan, multiply by twenty, not 95. 220 years since 1787 gives a four thousand four hundred year total lifespan (or an expiry date around 6187 AD.)

Like you said, though, Copernican theory is of pretty limited utility, and can give some hilariously wrong predictions. It's only to be used in the absence of any other data.

Now, so far as the logical fallacy goes, you're right, I sort of skipped over the part between the US military pulling out (prematurely, I'm assuming) and Iraq falling apart. I was sort of drawing on the received wisdom of the blogosphere, at least, those blogs that follow Iraq closely; countless voices that know the situation in far more detail than I do have repeatedly warned that sectarian bloodshed would be the almost inevitable result of a premature pullout. Which, I know, is the argument from authority (tenuous at best with the blogosphere ;) My understanding, though, is that Iraq is surrounded by bigger, badder countries that would love a piece of it (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey); at the same time, internally, it consists of ethnic and sectarian groups that have no love for each other. The US is big and bad enough to keep all those competing forces in check, but only barely; take the US out of the picture and, well....

I'd actually say the really tenuous part is the connection between the pullout and the coup. I can't offer any causal connection at that point either; all I could possibly say is that there seems to be a historical causation between wars that go badly and subsequent economic and political instability at home. Germany, Russia, China, Turkey, and many other nations have shown exactly this dynamic throughout history: one or two lost wars, followed by a complete and usually messy meltdown of the domestic political order.

Ben said...


Here is how I see the math:
If we assume that we are "in" the first 5% of a lifespan, we cannot assume we are therefore at the "end" of the first 5%. The 20 x multiplier you use does exactly that. Admittedly, I went in the other direction and used 95, when the correct multiplier should be 39.5, I think.

If you read the NYT times article you reference, you will note that the upper bound times are not 20 x the observed period. But it's still just a silly game, an absolutely implausible theory that contradicts reality by stating that the newer something is, the more likely it is to vanish soon. This is simply not true. If it was, manufacturers would charge less for longer warranties than for shorter ones, on the idea that a machine that exists for 3 years is more likely to exist for 1 more, than a brand new machine is to exist 1 year.

Now, as to the issue of Iraq collapsing in bloodshed- personally, I think even worse could happen: Iran and Saudi Arabia could easily come to blows as each feels it necessary to help "their" side and restrict the influence of the other. But on the other hand it is possible that a US withdrawal could lead to a final victory over the Sunni, who depart en masse, leaving a Shi'ia nation behind. My criticism is only that you have not shown a cause-effect relationship between
your two events.


Keitousama said...


I'll admit, I modified the numbers a bit. Dr. Gott goes for 95% accuracy, with 2.5% on either side. I was happy for 90%, with 5% on either side. To be honest I'm not sure if that's a proper use of the theory. Like you said, though, it really is just a silly numbers game.

When it comes to a situation as complex as Iraq, I'm not sure if it's possible to trace out in advance a step-by-step pathway between US withdrawal and increased bloodshed.

It's possible the Sunnis might leave before a real civil war could start, but the ones who can do so easily (the professional, skilled, and monied classes) by and large already have, and those who have stayed behind have done so in spite of the considerable violence that's already happened. Given that, the threat would have to be pretty dire before they left, and when they did leave - keeping in mind the one's who can afford to leave in style are already gone - it would be a massive refugee problem more than an issue of routine emigration.

If the Sunnis were to clear out (something I agree would happen over the long run, one way or another, if the US pulled out), I think it's almost certain it would be because of a bloody conflict.

byi said...

Copernican theory only applies when you know absolutely nothing about an entity or object except for its age. In the example of the building, you know that buildings last years and that a building would not be erected if it where structurally unstable.