September 29, 2007

Laying the Foundation for a Coup D'Etat

Napolean - Coup d'Etat
Talk of war with Iran has increased since the Senate passed the Kyl-Lieberman Resolution expressing the "sense of the Senate" that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps - the largest branch of that country's military - is a terrorist organization. Fueled as this resolution appears to be by the type of innuendo and questionable intelligence that led the United States to invade Iraq, there is deep and justifiable concern that its passage may be seen by the Bush Administration as authorization to openly attack Iran.

With our armed forces bogged down in Iraq and slowly being destroyed by extended deployments, it may seem incredible, but reports from earlier this month indicate that the White House has indeed begun looking at plans for an attack on the Islamic Republic. Such plans would apparently encompass the intensive bombing of 1,200 sites over three days, with the intent of eliminating Iran's military in one fell swoop. The success of air power alone in producing victory has repeatedly proven tenuous at best, however, and it is doubtful that some role for ground troops in either "pacifying" or occupying Iran in the wake of such an aerial campaign could be completely bypassed.

Given the dismal planning and performance by Bush White House war architects for post-invasion Iraq, it is perhaps unsurprising that the question of "And then what?" doesn't appear to have been addressed. Leaving aside for the moment such reasonable inquiries, as "How will we deploy troops for mop-up?"; "From where will said troops be re-deployed?"; and "Aren't we leaving ourselves exposed to other threats already by tying up the bulk of our military in Iraq?", there are disturbing rumblings that indicate a potential threat to the fundamental relationship between American civilian leadership and military commanders that has made the dependably peaceful transfer of power possible throughout the history of the United States.

As I wrote in A Military Man Spells Out the Problem, General John Batiste resigned his commission to speak out against the ineptitude of the Rumsfeld Pentagon in prosecuting the occupation of Iraq. Since that time, more than 20 retired generals have broken with long-established tradition and spoken out against the policies of a sitting president under whom they served. The significance of such acts should not be underestimated - this simply does not occur on this scale in the United States - and there are increasing signs that the rift between policy makers and active duty military leaders are continuing to grow.

Despite General David Petraeus' willingness to play political messenger for President Bush - he disturbingly appeared on several talk shows prior to his report to Congress on the recent escalation of troops in Iraq - other interactions between the armed forces and executive branch have been increasingly intractable, if not bordering on the confrontational. Earlier this month, Army Chief of Staff General George Casey stated that "The tempo of our deployments are not sustainable, our equipment usage is five times the normal rate and [we are] continuously operating in harsh environments," clearly putting the White House on notice that things cannot continue as they have.

Meanwhile, back in May, it was reported that Admiral William Fallon privately vowed that an attack on Iran "will not happen on [his] watch" while blocking Vice President Cheney's efforts to deploy an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf for the purposes of pressuring Tehran. The admiral left little doubt about his feelings on the matter - or his willingness to lay his career on the line - by going on to say that "There are several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box."

Unquestionably, there is a certain joy in seeing opposition to poor policy decisions from those who are asked to lay their lives on the line to pursue them, especially in the face of spineless congressional opposition. Any feelings of relief that the abjectly foolish efforts of the Bush Administration are being stymied by the military, however, must be heavily tempered by the knowledge that we are treading on dangerous ground when the armed forces becomes involved in politics.

One of the most important foundations of the United States is that, in order to protect the neutrality of the armed forces, service men and women swear an oath to defend the Constitution rather than personal allegiance to the president. In return, the military expects the nation's civilian leaders to act sensibly in the national interest, and to avoid sustained foolishness that wastes lives or forces the military to back one policy or leader over another. Throughout the life of this country, this system has worked well; the initiatives of the commander in chief have been broadly reasonable and largely respectful of the sacrifice inherent in the lives or service people, and soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have done as they were ordered.

Today, however, the serial abuse of the American armed forces perpetrated by the Bush Administration and a complicit Congress are clearly pushing military leaders into what they perceive as a choice between dutifully serving criminally negligent zealots, or shirking the oaths they have taken to preserve the Constitution. Stupidity and incompetence are not unconstitutional, after all, but judging by the unprecedented number of retired generals and admirals speaking out, it is clear that they have strong concern for the welfare of both the institutions in which they served and the men and women for whom they were directly responsible. While recent reports that military personnel are donating to Democratic candidates at levels previously unseen in the postwar era are encouraging, the desperation which is leading top commanders to resign or retire in order to become dissident voices against the Iraq War is deeply troubling.

Politicizing the military is anathema to successful democracy; one need look no further than Pakistan, Fiji or Thailand in recent years - or Turkey, historically - to see what happens when the armed forces act to counter civilian leadership in what they believe is self-preservation, the national interest, or both. Given the history and tradition of both this nation and its military, it is unlikely in the extreme that a coup d'etat would ever take place on American soil, but it should always be remembered that once it occurs, direct involvement of the armed forces in politics is almost impossible to reverse.

The plausibility of a coup may seem extremely low today, but only recently the thought of generals speaking out against the president and admirals thwarting deployments would have seemed nonsensical, and it would have been fair to say that the possibility was non-existent. Likewise, the ideas of institutionalized torture, secret American prisons and the elimination of habeas corpus would have been considered fanciful only a short time ago, and it is worth remembering that major crises are generally the product of smaller steps - of the combined weight of incremental failures - than of single catastrophic events. The increasing politicization of the military that we see today must be addressed.

For all President Bush's claims that he wants the "generals on the ground" to make the decisions that guide the mission in Iraq, it is clear to those commanders that they are only allowed to do so within the narrow constraints of White House policy, whatever the realities of Iraq. Something has to give, and it is in the best interest of the nation that it be current policy, for few things are more destructive to democracy than convincing generals and admirals - especially through civilian stupidity, arrogance, neglilgence or incompetence - that they can do a better job of guiding the nation than elected politicians. If we wait until the voices of dissent among active duty personnel become equal to those from retired ranks, it will be too late.


Dave Baldwin said...

This is an excellent summary of the tensions between the Bush White House and the Pentagon. As I was reading, I kept thinking about Pervez Musharraf’s takeover of Pakistan in 1999. Nawaz Sharif may have been corrupt, but the generals' coup led by Musharraf was clearly a lawless act. Then, sure enough, late in your post, you mention the military coup in Pakistan. Is the United States sinking so low that we could be another lawless banana republic? Are we no better than Pakistan? What an awful thought.

As a former naval officer, it bothers me no end to think that military brass would ever be called upon to refuse orders from the commander in chief in order to save the nation. When the founding fathers talked about checks and balances, mutiny was never a consideration.

How did we get to this deplorable state of affairs? I’ll tell you how. This is the inevitable consequence of a lethal mixture of incompetence and mendacity over a six-year period. Events finally caught up with Bush. My roofing contractor, Mark, who knows nothing about government, would make a better president. He would be equally incompetent, but Mark is a decent guy. He does not lie and cheat his way through life. Also, he is not a violent sociopath. I can’t say the same for Bush. Bush is a know-nothing and a bad person to boot.

What should we do? I honestly think the best strategy is to somehow, legally and politely, keep the Bush White House from doing any more harm. Specifically, we need to make damn sure Bush and Cheney do not lash out at Iran or Syria or anyone else. We need to take military options off the table until we have a new president.

PBI said...

Thanks, Dave.

Agreed on all counts. The one thing that the Bush Administration seems to do REALLY well is put this country at the top of slippery slopes. The damage they have done will take decades to correct.

Barry said...

Paul, great post. And I'm not just saying that because great minds think alike...

I had the same reaction as you to reports of military resistance. For a second I thought, thank God -- but a moment later realized the larger implications.

PBI said...

Thanks, Barry. (And it's OK that great minds think alike!)

Sean said...

I don't know, it just seems like you're giving the military too much credit in becoming a political factor in the government. Maybe because in my mind it *already is* a factor in American politics. A military industrial complex that essentially provided the direction for the national economy for the last sixty years is very telling of that. As far as retired general officers and their deviant opinions go, it's a reflection of the breaking down military, but hardly of the concerns such asinstitutionalized torture, secret American prisons and the elimination of habeas corpus. In the large, why would they care? All their professional lives they've operated more or less under a dictatorship anywho. You spend any time in the military and are perceptive enough, you quickly pick up on the fact general officers don't become general officers by accident. Those that go through the military slalom and survive usually fall along the party line in some way. The notion of a division commander leading a coup out of patriotism and love for democracy just doesn't seem realistic.

Now I can see a break down in the chain of command resulting from a commander refusing to mobilize his soldiers for Iraq. For whatever reason - be it he/she doesn't agree with the war, sees the mobilization order as an illegal order, stops conducting a deployed unit as order overseas, whatever - an officer refuses their duty, they can be replaced and sequestered. The military is so compartmentalized that a commander can easily be replaced when necessary. It's also no coincidence the same people who make up a general's PSD detail are also military police.

The biggest reason I don't see a military junta probable is that it really is a little naive to compare the United States to countries like Pakistan, Thailand, or even Fiji. How many hands have those countries changed? How many governments in the few decades? Those countries have hardly been around long enough to establish much history compared to the 230+ year of the US. They don't enjoy the same kind of status the US does - largely fat and working population, a world-class military that is actually paid better than clockwork, etc. Particularly in Thailand, one of the last Asiatic kingdoms left, the coup stripped the civilian government and left the kingdom alone, numerous expatriate blogs said the whole event went by largely unnoticed; save the APCs and increase police presence on the streets.

It's just such a huge hypothetical "what if". To assume a military coup could work one would also have to assume the bulk of the American military would support it. There's just no guarantee that it would, certainly not on the whole. The second assumption made would have to be the military taking complete of the White House, the President and his cabinet, congress and the senate at the least. It's been said in the news that a shadow government exists (several NY Times articles on this after 9/11) in case the publicly known administration were to be eliminated. Thus it can be assumed that during a time (say a revolution attempt or junta) when the President and his cabinet are rendered useless, power would be automatically transferred to someone else. That newly activated power declares martial law and uses the remaining military to crush the dissenting military unit. In which case you'd have a venerable civil war brewing.

PBI said...

Hi Sean,

Thanks for visiting and for your comment!

I think you may have taken what I wrote as expressing a higher probability than I actually conveyed. I agree that (quoting myself here) "Given the history and tradition of both this nation and its military, it is unlikely in the extreme that a coup d'etat would ever take place on American soil."

No disagreement that we are not Thailand or Turkey or Pakistan or Fiji, but I don't believe my main point is off the mark, and that point is that in order to have a military coup, the first thing that has to happen is that the military has to become a direct force in politics. What we're seeing today in the U.S. - with what you describe as a breakdown in the chain of command - is the precursor to that; the dissident generals likewise.

A lot of things have changed incrementally during the Bush Administration that have eroded the foundation of the United States, and I count this as another. As I wrote, "... major crises are generally the product of smaller steps - of the combined weight of incremental failures - than of single catastrophic events," and my point in writing this post was to call attention to the implications of dissidence in the military, not to warn of impending rebellion.

Finally, it might not be that a group of officers would need to be patriotic to lead a coup. I think that in the tiny realm of possibility in which one could occur, it would be much more likely to happen out of a desire to preserve the institutions of the armed forces. Colin Powell, for instance, believes that the Army is already, in his words, "broken."

Again, I'm not saying any sort of coup is imminent. Rather my belief is that we are taking the first step on the path towards conditions that are necessary for one to take place. The journey to that spot might indeed be a very long ways, but as Lao Tzu said, "A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step."