Friday, July 05, 2013

Responding to Coups

David Brooks' column today crystallizes an unfortunate reality in U.S. reaction to undemocratic changes of government. In short, elections are irrelevant.

Promoting elections is generally a good thing even when they produce victories for democratic forces we disagree with. But elections are not a good thing when they lead to the elevation of people whose substantive beliefs fall outside the democratic orbit. It’s necessary to investigate the core of a party’s beliefs, not just accept anybody who happens to emerge from a democratic process.

This has been very apparent for Latin America. Elections in Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras and particularly Venezuela were shams if adversaries won. If there is popular protest, then coups are not just OK, they are good. We've recently seen hundreds of thousands in the streets of Brazil as well, unhappy with the government. That's what happens in democracies, and the United States should not condone moderator coups just because we happen to dislike the particular government.

I am not going to defend the Muslim Brotherhood, but they won the election. I am not going to defend many of Hugo Chávez's policies, but he won election after election. Mel Zelaya won an election. They all won and then lots of people--often elites with close ties to the United States--felt threatened.

From an ethical standpoint, celebrating a coup is simply wrong, as it makes a mockery of what the United States constantly claims it stands for. From a purely strategic self-interest standpoint, it is a dangerous game. The U.S. shot itself in the foot by supporting (and/or participating in) coups in Iran (generating a revolution), Cuba (giving life to Fidel Castro), Guatemala (giving oxygen to Marxist revolutionaries), Honduras (increasing drug trafficking), Nicaragua (thus helping to create the Sandinistas), El Salvador (giving fuel to the FMLN), Venezuela (increasing Hugo Chávez's support), and there are plenty more.

What Brooks and others fail to realize is that supporting elections alienates far fewer people than does negating them. I have yet to see any evidence that accepting the existence of Chávez or Nicolás Maduro makes Venezuelans in the opposition despondent or angry at the United States, yet we hear about how Barack Obama is somehow abandoning them. However, we saw very well in 2002 what Venezuelans think when the United States supports a coup.

So go ahead and support coups, but do not be surprised if you get scorched by blowback.

Update: The Wall Street Journal takes David Brooks one step further, and openly says that Egypt needs an Augusto Pinochet.

Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.

That leaves me pretty speechless.


jdgalvez,  5:33 PM  

I really enjoy your blog Dr. Weeks so please forgive me if I take exception to some points made in this post.

One man's coup is another man's revolution. Regarding Egypt--Mubarak had elections too. Was his removal a coup? Now, after massive protests in Egypt, Morsi is removed. Why celebrate Mubarak's removal as revolution and mourn Morsi's fall? If Morsi was seeking to monopolize power for political Islam, as seems clear, on the principle of one man, one vote, one time, then can we not fell at least a little happy that this agenda has been stopped by the Egyptian people?

Maybe our government must express "concern" when these things happen but should we really have been working to block Morsi's ouster (which it appears we were)?

But regarding the Pinochet reference, yes that is pretty bad...

Greg Weeks 6:39 PM  

Mubarak had elections the way Fidel Castro had elections. Morsi won the first real election in Egyptian history, so his case must be judged differently. And no, I don't feel happy about any freely elected president being overthrown even if I disagree with their policies. We can agree to disagree about that.

jdgalvez,  11:56 PM  

OK, point taken on elections under Mubarak but it is not as if Morsi was elected by a mature and established democracy--the Muslim Brotherhood was the only really organized force which is why they pushed for earlier votes. I guess if I believed that Morsi and the MB intended to proceed with "real" elections in the future I might agree--and of course we will never know for sure but my money was on "no". The stakes were pretty high for Egyptians considering the real consequences of living under an entrenched MB Islamist regime (especially for women and religious minorities, Copts and Shia)--they made their voices heard in the millions and the army acted, as they effectively did in responding to the protests against Mubarak. Anyway, I understand your point but I think on the balance this is probably better than the alternative--lesser of two evils. I can certainly live with agree to disagree.

Justin Delacour 2:34 AM  

I agree with Greg on this one. No matter what you think of Morsi, it's really hard to move toward democracy without some level of respect for elected authority.

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