Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Uneasy lies the head that wears a turban?: armies, coups, and revolutions

I'm going to talk about Iran and regime change.

But first I'm going to take a detour for some news of the day. The latter may seem totally unrelated to the former, but please bear with me: though this be madness, yet there is method in't.

A military coup is going on in Thailand right now. For most of us who were not especially conversant with politics in Thailand prior to this--and I most definitely count myself among them--it's catch-up time. Reports indicate that the military has taken over from Thai's Prime Minister Thaksin, who was widely seen as corrupt. What's more, there's been unrest in the country for quite some time now; last April, after demonstrations against Thaksin resulted in a special election, the results of that poll were abrogated by the courts, leaving the country without a functioning legislature.

Now, there are those who might say that the phrase "functioning legislature" is somewhat of an oxymoron. But it does seem as though the situation in Thailand--a country which also faces a violent Moslem insurgency in its south--was ripe for change. The army took charge, as it often has in Thailand; there's a history of military coups there. Stability is provided by Thailand's 78-year old monarch Bhumibol, who has limited powers but has in the past used those powers, as well as his personal influence, to force compromise and allow Thailand to continue to function despite its history of coups.

This time the Thais are hoping it will happen again. Bhumibol, by the way, is the world's longest-reigning monarch, having been king of Thailand for 60 years (little- known piece of trivia: he was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts).

The fact that the military is behind the coup is not surprising. Not only does Thailand have a recent history of military coups, but coups are in general far more common around the world than revolutions coming from what Marxists like to call "the masses." That's especially true in countries where the people don't generally--or are not allowed to--bear arms, and in which the government is willing to gun down the opposition. Since those governments against which people might most want to rebel often have those two characteristics, that leaves those who would revolt (and those who would support them) in a quandary: how can it be successfully done?

Which brings us to Iran and regime change. Those who would like to avoid a repetition of the invasion of Iraq (and I think that includes virtually all of us) and who also consider the mullahs' fall a consummation devoutly to be wished (ditto), have puzzled over the conundrum of how such a change--which would amount to a revolution, or the undoing of a revolution that many in Iran now regret--could be accomplished.

Not only is it unclear how it might happen, but there's a sense that we're running out of time. Michael Ledeen's refrain "faster, please!" has taken on greater and greater urgency.

I was reading an interview with Ledeen recently. He's far from a warmonger, although he's sometimes portrayed as such; Ledeen believes in political change through encouraging the people of Iran to overthrow the regime. Although this may sound naive, he's no dummy. And as I read the interview, the following passage caught my eye:

How far would the regime go to retain power? Nobody knows. But the regime does not believe the army would kill large numbers of Iranians, and the regime has its doubts about even the Revolutionary Guards, whose leadership changes quite often. Today the regime is shutting down any publication that expresses even the vaguest criticism, which to me suggests the regime is insecure.

Because the military in the US has a tradition of absolute loyalty to whatever "regime" is in office, we often forget that the military constitutes a separate force in many countries, a loose cannon of sorts (in fact, I seem to recall that this was used as an argument against the all-volunteer military when the draft was about to end). Even the most repressive regimes have to keep their militaries in line, because the military represents a potential danger. After all, one thing the military does is to bear arms. And those arms can work against any regime in several ways: either by action, such as supporting a coup (as in Thailand); or by inaction, refusing to enforce the will of the leaders (as in Iran in 1979), or through some combination of the two.

Ledeen's commentary in the interview rang a bell for me. In one of my recent pieces on the 1979 Iranian revolution that got us into this mess in the first place, I wrote:

But as things escalated, and the Shah eventually lost the support of the army and the police (a turning point), few seemed to be prescient enough to predict what forces would replace his regime.

Hmmm. There's also this statement from commenter "ForNow" on the SAVAK thread on this blog:

...I had heard from an Iranian whom I knew back during Carter's presidency when the Shah was still in power...Back then, this Iranian said he was son of one of the Shah's generals, a claim which I was able by chance to corroborate...He said that all sectors of Iranian society hated the Shah and his secret police, and that his own father -- a general under the Shah -- hated the Shah...

When hatred of a ruler or rulers is so widespread that it has become rampant among those who would protect those rulers or enforce their edicts, then those rulers may be in big trouble, no matter how repressive and brutal they are willing to be to suppress dissent. Because they cannot do it alone; they must have a cooperative armed apparatus in place to enforce their will.

The 1979 revolution had a course that was not only difficult to predict, it also occurred rather swiftly once the Shah lost the support of those bearing arms. Could this happen now, with the mullahs? Faster, please.

[ADDENDUM: This is Thailand's 20th coup since 1932, when it established democracy over a previously absolute monarch. That's a lot of coups. And I seem to recall something about that absolute monarchy in Thailand (originally Siam); wasn't it the topic of the musical "The King and I?" This is not a joke, although it sounds like one; the lyrics to the song "Is a Puzzlement" contain a fairly serious discussion of the burdens and decisions an absolute monarch faces in times of cultural transition.]

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