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September 30, 2009


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The writer from Conservomax or whatever it's called is attacking a straw man, the purported inefficiency or incompetence of cabinet officials in the current administration, rather than his real object, President Obama himself. If Hilda Solis and Eric Shinseki and Ray LaHood are so ideologically focused that their execution of policies has suffered, then why wouldn't Obama replace them himself?

Besides, the military has a pretty poor record in nation-building lately, so it's inane to imagine conservative plot-gnomes conspiring to put “battle-tested” soldiers and sailors in charge of rebuilding the American nation. And considering the military's heavy reliance on contractors and DoD civilians for sensitive jobs, who would trust soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, without their civilian colleagues, with the nation's welfare? And if you keep their civilian colleagues on the job, then what's the whole point of a military takeover?

I personally would assume that the first thing the military would do upon taking over would be to enact universal Medicare (nationalize all the hospitals and conscript all the doctors!) and state-funded childcare, as poor health and family issues have got to be the two biggest roadblocks to full readiness of the armed forces. If PFC Jones gets mobilized for coup duty, writing responses to GAO reports on the programs of the Department of Labor, who's going to take care of her babies?


Is it still LT, LT?

The Newsmax columnist seems to be a pretty solid whackaloon. And he's hated Obama since 2004, with rising shrillness and craziness over the last year or so.

What's interesting about the column is how thoroughly and roundly it's been denounced. /Everyone/, outside a small subset of Teh Crazy, recognizes this as a batshit stupid idea. That's why it went viral.

Otherwise, Luttwak nails it. Not a lot more to say.

(Outside of Latin America, has there ever been a military coup in a mature liberal democracy? I can't think of one.)

May 1958 in France. If something like that happened in the United States, even with an ex post fig leaf slapped on by Congress and a constitutional convention, I would call it a coup. Wouldn't you?

April 1961 was an attempted coup, although it didn't come all that close to success. Still, it was a serious attack on French democracy.

Then there's October 1982 in Spain, which was a very close-run thing. Of course, it would be fair to say that Spain wasn't a mature democracy, so that isn't as clear. Ditto Greece in 1967. The country was 18 years out from the civil war by that point, but one might reasonably argue that it wasn't mature.

But 1958 seems pretty hard to dispute.

I am waiting for Jussi and Bernard. They both have argued strenuously against the idea that democracies have made interstate war obsolete. Would they argue that the arrow of history runs only in one direction, and once a democracy becomes "mature," it will never be reversed?

May 1958 in France. If something like that happened in the United States, even with an ex post fig leaf slapped on by Congress and a constitutional convention, I would call it a coup. Wouldn't you?

One could argue that it was a threatened coup rather than an acutal coup. Outside of Algeria and (IIRC) Corsica the military did not actually seize any government facilities or take any politicians into custody, though those things almost certainly would have happened had the government resisted deGaulle's return. It may be a matter of semantics, when does an almost certain and imminent threat become reality?


I am waiting for Jussi and Bernard. They both have argued strenuously against the idea that democracies have made interstate war obsolete. Would they argue that the arrow of history runs only in one direction, and once a democracy becomes "mature," it will never be reversed?

I've never subscribed to Francis Fukuyama. But on the other hand, I'm not quite ready to admit that Robert Ludlum's The Aquitaine Progression might have actual value as a speculation in political science, either.

Still, eventually, democracy will be replaced. So, it's probably not unthinkable that it might even be reversed, under the proper conditions. I'm just not quite sure what those conditions would be.

Democracy, as we know it, is not immune to deadlocks, lethargy and dissipation. A lot depends on the institutional base, as well as on the proximate issues. In other words, what is "mature"? And what happens when a mature democracy turns geriatric? We don't know that yet.

About the examples mentioned, there's also the Turkish coup in 1980, although that may be a borderline case, as the last one in a series of coups.


J. J.

Random thoughts.

1. "Am I missing some set of circumstances in which the U.S. military could cease to respect civilian authority?"

You're talking about the military actively overthrowing the civilian government. However, the military could be part of an overthrow by standing aside when it could have reasonably been expected to act. See the end of the Soviet Union.

2. "...argued strenuously against the idea that democracies have made interstate war obsolete."

If the Islamic Republic of Iran were a real and mature democracy, there would be less chance of a war between it and the US or Israel than there is now, but there would still be a real chance.

3. "In other words, what is "mature"?"

For that matter, what is 'democracy' in this context? Forms are important, but one of Dr. Maurer's fictional examples was a US where the forms of democracy had been preserved but had become empty and meaningless.

Years ago I read that modern democracy was best understood as an attitude toward government, rather than a form of government. This was suggestive (while being almost terminally vague) but would the attitude in question in say 1949 be the same as the attitude in 2009?

4. "And what happens when a mature democracy turns geriatric?"

I think this analogy is misleading. A better one might be a house, which like a human being tends to decay with time, but which can last much longer if well maintained and can go through several cycles of decay and renewal depending on the health, wealth and attitude of the owners, and can even be remodeled and renovated, but which remains vulnerable to arsonists, irresponsibility, and the ground shifting under the foundations.

5. Stability of democracies generally.

a. How many mature democracies have had to deal with the kind of existential threat that say France did in both World Wars? To some extent we've simply been lucky.

b. One weakness is that a successful democracy needs to have just about everyone feel that an election that puts the other side in is a legitimate if undesirable result. Once people start thinking that Those People can't really be legitimate things get dicey.

c. France in 1968?

France 1958: see above. Is a very strongly and plausibly threatened coup the same as a coup?

It's not clear what would have happened if the military had gone all the way. They were planning a descent on Paris with paratroopers and armor -- "Operation Resurrection". However, at least some elements of the government would have defied them, and Paris had plenty of Communists and Socialists, many with wartime experience, who would have been willing to fight. DeGaulle himself said that Operation Resurrection was "an adventure that would have led to civil war". So it wouldn't have been a walkover.

Also, I'm not sure if 1950s France counts. "Mature" may be misleading here. Maybe "functional", in the sense of "not dysfunctional"? The Fourth Republic was famously screwed; just for starters, it went through 21 governments in the 11 years of its existence.

Doug M.

"Is a very strongly and plausibly threatened coup the same as a coup?"

Yes, it is, for two reasons. (1) Civilian control over the military failed. (2) The civil order was threatened. In fact, in France in 1958, the civil order went through an extraconstitutional change.

I'd call a coup that results in a civil war lost by the coup supporters a coup. Mexico 1923 is an example. If something like 1923 or 1958 happened in the United States, none of us would be sitting around asking whether the system worked; we'd be asking why it broke down. Right?

The functioning democracy point is more interesting. I don't know. You don't want to define "functioning" tautologically, of course: there are several democracies around today that are functioning as badly as the Fourth Republic (Belgium comes to mind) but show no sign of an imminent coup. So how would you exogenously define a "functioning democracy"?

I'd agree that civilian control over the military failed. The ensuing change was not extraconstitutional, though. Or at least not formally. DeGaulle did not want to be seen as coming to power in a coup, so he insisted that forms be observed. The Fourth Republic committed suicide very formally and carefully, first making him prime minister, then voting him emergency powers for six months (which was, if not allowed by the Constitution, certainly not forbidden -- the Constitution of the Fourth Republic was a very vague and mushy document), and then setting up an exceedingly complicated process for drafting a new Constitution which, remarkably, was accomplished in just three months.

I think failed coups are a grey area. I see your point about Mexico 1923 -- but consider, on the other hand, Spain 1981. The post-Franco coup against Juan Carlos failed and, in failing, showed that the young Spanish democracy was much stronger than anyone had thought.

(I hold no brief for Franco, who was odious on multiple levels. But one measure of a dictator is how well he prepares the country for the transition away from dictatorship. So, for instance, I think Suharto gets moved up several circles in Hell because of his willingness to allow civil society to blossom and mature under his reign. Franco is IMO in the unusual position of doing this more or less inadvertently: a liberal, secular constitutional monarchy was the last thing on his mind, yet he laid the foundations for exactly that.)

Anyway. Functioning vs. non: I agree, this is tricky. "It hasn't collapsed yet" is indeed tautological (and worse, not useful).

Well: for starters, any government has ceased to function when it fails to perform the basic functions expected of it. These vary from country to country; "keeping balance among the ethnic groups" is relevant in Belgium, less so in Iceland. But losing wars, being unable to resolve differences between key interest groups, and national bankruptcy are all negative indicators.

I don't think Belgium is as badly off as the Fourth Republic. The Fourth had lost one colonial conflict, was in the process of losing another (winning the war, but losing the conflict), had horribly mismanaged the national finances (halfway through France's longest period of dramatic economic growth ever, the state was pretty much bankrupt), and was pretty much universally despised. I don't know of any close equivalent in modern Europe, thank goodness.

Still, deserves more thought. More anon, perhaps.

Doug M.

Good point about Mexico v. Spain. Mexico's government was weak and headed towards something resembling despotism ... even if De la Huerta hadn't revolted, the underlying problems would have been there.

I'm less sure that De Gaulle's decision to observe all the forms made 1958 less of a coup. After all, the U.S. constitution doesn't expressly forbid voting the president emergency powers, and there is a procedure for calling a constitutional convention that could, if handled well, produce a new constitution in a matter of months.

Imagine if in the midst of some sort of crisis in the U.S. the military splits and coup mutterings become public, after which an unpopular president appoints somebody like Colin Powell to be secretary of state. Congress changes the sucession law, the president and VP resign, Mr. Powell takes over the Presidency, and Congress votes him some sort of temporary emergency authority. At that point a constitutional convention is called, and after three months the U.S. gets a new constitution that is not only still democratic, it's better than the old 1787 kludge.

The constitutional forms would be preserved, but the actors would have behaved out of fear of provoking extra-constitutional actions. That would be a coup, wouldn't it?

That's a pretty close American metaphor for what happened.

Coup: I'm not sure, actually. Acting under fear is not exactly the same as acting under compulsion. France '58 was unusual in that regard, too -- usually fear by itself isn't enough to do anything. The guys holding power would almost always rather roll the dice and risk a coup than just hand over.

-- Upon consideration, the Fourth Republic's instability probably made the transition easier. The guy he replaced, the marvelously named Pierre Pflimlin, was the fourth Prime Minister in less than a year. Nobody had managed to stay PM for more than a year or so. So, less incentive to hang tough; why fight if you're going to be spun out of office in a few months anyway?

The vote for DeGaulle, BTW, was far from overwhelming -- he got a clear majority of the Assembly, but more than 40% of the delegates voted against him. So while fear of a coup was surely a factor, it wasn't exactly a panicked stampede.

But let's turn it around. The key moment in May 1958, everyone agrees, was when Raoul Salan was persuaded to add "Vive DeGaulle!" to his speech in Algeria. That turned a relatively straightforward colonial/military rebellion into something much more complicated. The thing is, if the rebels hadn't come out for DeGaulle, the military forces in mainland France might have sat on their hands. To simplify a complex situation, the military were mostly Gaullist, while the Algerian colonial leadership was lukewarm for him at best.

So is it a coup if the military doesn't want to assume power itself, but only wants to see that the right person is pushed forward? I'm inclined to say yes, but it's not very clearcut -- especially since the French military never did anything like that before or after. (Of course, part of that was DeGaulle making damn sure they couldn't. But still.)

Doug M.

Forgot to add: when "a quartet of retired generals" tried the same trick against DeGaulle just three years later, the military mostly ignored them and their coup attempt collapsed pathetically in a couple of days.

Doug M.

I think we're in agreement about what makes a coup, and it sounds like we even have a consensus about 1958.

Most coups in history have led to the military enabling someone else to take power, rather than assuming control itself. Thai and Turkish coups have more-or-less followed that script, as have the several unsuccessful Philippine attempts in the Philippines. Even in Latin America, coups rarely led to a direct assumption of control by sunglass-wearing generals before 1954. Frex, Mexico in 1920, Argentina in 1930, and Brazil in 1945.

I'm not sure that we're in agreement about 1961 in France. Of course, it's true that the anti-De Gaulle factions in the military came nowhere near taking power. But it wasn't a comic-opera joke either, which is how I read "pathetic."

But that's minor.

Noel, I had the same thought as your 3:26 pm post myself. It would be simple to continue to observe the constitutional forms but have an undemocratic outcome as you describe.

But in your scenario from earlier in this afternoon, after the Concon, American democracy is preserved. That's hardly a failure mode, is it?

I think Jussi is very perceptive here: "Democracy, as we know it, is not immune to deadlocks, lethargy and dissipation. A lot depends on the institutional base, as well as on the proximate issues."

What you're missing: Global warming.

Erm? Explain, David.

Jonathan, I take your point. For example, the U.S. constitutional system failed in 1861, but the nation survived the failure and emerged stronger and better from the resulting war.

These posts would probably better be titled "failure modes of the constitutional system of the United States" or "failure modes of the government of the United States," but that seems a little clunky.

On the other hand, one could make the argument that France got lucky with the Fifth Republic, and that a break in constitutional norms constitutes a failure even if it works out in the end. It wouldn't be hard to improve the constitution of the United States, but it wouldn't be hard to muck it up either. Instead of a rejiggered version of the constitution of Canada, we could wind up with something more like California's.

But that's a nitpick; I do take your point. And Jussi, as very often, is spot-on.

Some idle thinking, as I've had Weimar on my mind of late.

It's 1928. German elections saw the DNVP (the far right party) get hammered; the Nazis get hammered; and the SPD and Center Party made broad gains, entrenching the Weimar Coalition.

Yet four years later, and the Nazis are by and large the largest party.

Is Weimar the exception, or will we hold that its democracy was much more fragile than the rest of the world?

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