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Coups, Conditional Surrender and Just Peace

December 20, 2010

In late 2002 and early 2003, during the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the Saudi Arabian government proposed an alternative to the Western world which now seems unusual: a Ba’athist coup in Baghdad. The plan for the coup was to leverage the increasingly dissatisfied Republican Guard by guaranteeing amnesty for “all but 100 to 120 of the most senior Baath Party officials, including Saddam, his sons, close relatives and others who have long formed part of the ruling circle.” This would have required a UNSC resolution. It is unlikely that France, Russia or China would have liked such maneuvers more than invasion enough to drop their opposition to intervening in Iraq. Nor is it likely such a solution would have averted the disaster of toppling the Iraqi government without deploying US troops. It is unclear how outside powers could have steered Iraq away from internal strife during any kind of regime change. Iraq’s coups have always involved some degree of bloodshed. While repeating one of Iraq’s previous military coups would have looked far better compared to the invasion of Iraq, it is unclear why the increasingly assertive Kurds would go along with a neo-Ba’athist government, nor why Iran would choose not to launch a proxy war to destabilize an almost certainly hostile Sunni-secularist military junta.

All practical considerations aside, the idea of a coup does might not sit well with us for another reason: it simply is not done anymore, or not supposed to be done. Without the Cold War, a CIA or militarily-installed pro-Western regimes is no longer “our son of a bitch,” it’s just a “son of a bitch.” America’s non-interest in supporting the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002, its commitment to democratic regime change and nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its condemnation of Honduras’s coup recently all show a bipartisan rejection of the traditional coup d’état as a valid tool of statecraft. Even if the current Iraqi government slides into anti-Americanism, it is hard to imagine either a Republican or a Democratic president countenancing a Diem solution for its troubles in Baghdad. For all the fuss Julian Assange has raised about the Wikileaks diplomatic cables, it is quite clear that the US no longer engages in the sort of Cold War Machiavellianism when it comes to regime change. There is no practical consideration, it seems, strong enough to override America’s preference for bringing about democracy. The mild backing for the post-Soviet color revolutions probably would not have occurred were they not so avowedly democratic.

In an age of liberal democratic triumph, it is difficult to justify intervening in a country to replace its dictatorship with a less brutal dictatorship, or ending a war by leaving an enemy regime relatively intact when the US had the option of overthrowing its government entirely and leaving a proto-democracy in its stead. But it is difficult to imagine that the US should, in every circumstance, choose such an option. Were the US to become entangled in conflict or crisis with Iran, Burma, or a similar regime, an outright coup might not be possible, but certainly something short of  occupation, democratization and counterinsurgency might prove prudent or necessary.

America does not generally choose such coups or half-hearted regime changes against the enemies it directly wages war with, however. If American lives are publicly committed, anything less than democracy for a defeated state seems like a betrayal of our values and a missed opportunity. Certainly this must be how some neoconservatives and others felt about the first Persian Gulf War, particularly after Saddam resumed the brutish habits of his rule. But are these demands for unconditional surrender even ethical? Michael Walzer, in Just and Unjust Wars, notably argued that pursuing unconditional surrender against Japan was morally wrong, particularly when it seemed the Japanese government was willing to surrender without either the firebombings, atomic bombings which occurred, or the multi-million casualty invasion which they served as alternatives do. Leaving most of the Japanese regime intact in exchange for an end to its invasion campaign might have been a more ethical way to end WWII in the Pacific.

There are a number of problems with this assertion, of course. One is that its unclear whether such an agreement, without securing Japanese withdrawal from the Asian mainland, would really stopped Japanese occupation and expansionism. It could hardly be ethical to trade Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki for the millions of Koreans and Chinese who still lived under Japanese occupation. If Japan could hold on to the Asian mainland in exchange for ending its amphibious war with America, then such a conditional surrender could have prolonged the war in Asia, whether the Soviet Union chose to intervene or not. Walzer also chose to contrast Japan with Germany, whose ruthless expansion and genocide constituted a “supreme humanitarian emergency.”

First, though, while the defeat of Germany did not require atomic bombings and the like, the degree to which this was part of the Europe-first choice in American grand strategy is open to debate. If the US had chosen an Asia-first strategy, would there have been atomic bombs falling over Germany? Similarly, the earlier defeat of Germany also required immense slaughter and humanitarian disaster on the Eastern Front. Most accounts of WWII remain relatively Eurocentric and I do not think Walzer’s is an exception, given the limitations of the source material this is understandable, but it is unclear whether the defeat of Japan was so much more bloody and ruthless than necessary. Similarly, defeating Germany in the manner the Allies did required condemning millions of Europeans to communist rule.

Another issue is that Walzer assumes the Nazi regime was inherently worse than the Japanese one. Again, it is easy to forget just how awful Japanese imperialism was for many of its subjects. The historical memory of the trauma of Japanese occupation in Korea, China, and elsewhere remains very painful, and understandably so. Walzer’s rejection of the “supreme emergency” label for the war in Japan does seem to value the well-being of Europeans more than Asians, or at least underestimate the terrible nature of the war in the Pacific.

This raises an interesting and somewhat disturbing question. If Japan and Germany were really not occupying separate ethical categories of enemy, then, if we accept that unconditional surrender in Japan was a moral error, should we say the same in Germany? Raymond Aron, in Les Guerres en chaîne, makes exactly this argument. Aron, no apologist for totalitarianism, argues that the Allies missed a number of opportunities to separate the most odious elements of the Nazi regime from their many military, political and conservative opponents. These elements, if they ever received some degree of Allied support, argues Aron, might have ended the European war without the additional suffering and expenditure, and with a regime better suited to confronting the new threat of the Soviet Union.

Edward Luttwak (who also wrote the relevant Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook), in Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, noted the Byzantines owed much of their ability to managing their precarious strategic position and forestalling their decline to their aversion to such unconditional defeats or total wars. Leaving enemies relatively intact and forgoing the expenditure of entirely conquering them served both to preserve their resources and leave intact potential allies in the ever-changing geopolitical stage of Medieval Europe. If the world is returning to some degree of multipolarity and the US really is in decline, then we may – not soon, but eventually – come to a time when coups and conditional surrenders become the norms, not the exceptions, to the way the US manages its threat environment.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2011 11:00 pm

    As usual, it’s late and I’ve read this quickly, but this post seems to pose a false choice: either (a) invasion, occupation, and (supposed) democratization-at-gunpoint or (b) coups d’etat. How about (c) neither? The idea that multipolarity will or might require the US to revert to the justifiably condemned covert ops and coups of the Cold War strikes me as, well, a bit bizarre. The reason the US doesn’t sponsor coups is not simply that “they’re not done anymore”; at least part of the reason is that they were rarely justified on moral or empirical grounds and usually didn’t work. The ‘limit case’ was when the US helped overthrow the democratically elected govt of Salvador Allende. No one who was alive then, as I was, and remembers 11 September 1973, the day Allende was deposed and killed, can possibly think a return to coups is good policy for the US; at least, I can’t.

    The stuff on WW2 in the post raises interesting questions but I can’t comment on them now. Perhaps later.

  2. January 3, 2011 11:35 pm

    Certainly I’m not writing this post to advocate for coups as an alternative to sanctions, softer coercive measures or non-intervention. Although I do admit I was playing something of the devil’s advocate/the annoying contrarian when this post started to germinate in my mind.

    The question I’m posing is more whether it’s moral to countenance a coup once war has begun and it is clear the US will not have the resources to engage in full-on regime change. I don’t think a return to multipolarity will force the US to resort to coups per se – but may make coups or less-than-total regime change a more likely outcomes of whatever wars do emerge in a multipolar world where US resources are more limited and the environment for sustained nation-building or counterinsurgency is less forgiving.

    Optimistically, the US would be fine with simply offshore balancing or non-intervention and not need to take out any sort of hostile government. But, assuming the US does enter some kind of war and can’t extricate itself, might a regime change that requires a lesser amount of social overhaul be worth it?

    I probably should have made it clear upfront that while it’s an important indicator the US no longer supports coups as alternatives to war, my main interest is in coups or conditional surrenders which remove only the top of the enemy leadership pyramid as alternative ways of *ending* war. So really the WWII stuff is the heart of the matter. I’m quite in agreement that most of the “peacetime” coups were both unjustified and unnecessary.


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