Sunday, February 20, 2011

Reviewing the Month in Civ-Mil Relations

David Sanger has an interesting piece addressing the key questions concerning the militaries and the dictators they prop up.  As I have been repeating, he starts with the premise that the key is when military has to choose--to shoot at the people or not.  The forces of coercion in Bahrain seem to be making a different choice than the Egyptian military.  As are Libya's. 

The problem for outsiders is that we can guess, expect, hope, predict and so on, but just like war, outcomes are rarely certain.  Sanger focuses more on what the prospect of change means for the military.  That is important, of course, but I think another key factor is the uncertainty of the situation.  Unless a military has a track record of intervening and repressing, it is not clear that the officers at the top have either the resolve or the capability to use force against their people.  These officers do not know whether the guys in the square with the guns will actually fire, and so they are going to be wary.  To try to shoot and to fail risks their positions and perhaps their lives.  They must worry about provoking a civil war, with the military fracturing with some supporting the dissenters and others supporting the government.  So, in my non-Middle East expert eyes, it is not so much what change means, but whether the military elites believe that they can be successful in holding back the tide without destroying their institution.  Yes, the threat of change matters, but they must consider whether they can stop the future and at what cost.

What this article demonstrates best is that the Obama Administration actually tries to figure stuff out and then reacts, rather than trying to impose their dreams on reality, which is, ironically, what Rumsfeld is trying to do with his new memoir.  They have experts on democratic transition on the National Security Council, they ask ahead of events about the possibility of instability and political change in the Mideast, they consider various cases to see if there is a pattern, and they consult experts to assess the situation.  Seems basic, but what a breath of fresh air.
He [Michael McFaul] spent the past few weeks churning out case studies for President Obama and the National Security Council, as it sought lessons about how to influence the confrontations that have engulfed close American allies and bitter adversaries. “There is not one story line or a single model,” said Mr. McFaul, who drew on work he did as a professor at Stanford. “There are many paths to democratic transition, and most of them are messy.”
Sanger finds that in this case the key was the military and its views on Mubarak vs the alternatives:
“You could almost hear them making the calculations in their heads,” said one senior American official who was involved in the delicate negotiations. “Did they want to stick with an aging, sick leader whose likely successor was his own son, who the military didn’t trust? And we just kept repeating the mantra, ‘Don’t break the bond you have with your own people.’ ”
Again, they were also calculating not just what happened if they were successful, but whether they would be successful and at what cost.  Would repression work, what would it do to the military?

Finally, one of the interesting parts of this article is how it so neatly sums up the Saudi perspective:
they [the Egyptian military] ignored the advice of the Saudis, who, in calls to Washington, said that President Hosni Mubarak should open fire if that’s what it took, and that Americans should just stop talking about “universal rights” and back him.
 What does this say about the Saudis?  That they are scared, that they may understand only too well how fragile the legitimacy of their regime is, that they would prefer others to use force openly and brutally so that they do not have to do so.  They would prefer to keep their repression in the form of prevention and not on TV.  Apparently, they do not imagine themselves to be the Chinese--to use force decisively and not only get away with it, but get rich as a result.

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