Saturday, July 16, 2016

Coups Be Coups: Turkey Edition

I am not a Turkey expert, but I do teach civil-military relations and have read much on coups, so much of what happened last night, despite/because of the chaos, was very familiar.  Also, playing the game Junta can be instructive.

So, what did we see that was so familiar?
  • Most coup attempts fail.  Anyone reading the failure and thinking that a failed coup means it must have been a plot by Erdogan ignores the many, many cases where coups fail.
  • Coups are risky: those who fail face jail at the best, and death is quite likely.  So, who is going to fake-coup with the stakes that high?
  • Coups are huge gambles.  Coup plotters will not know when they start who will be with them, who will be against them, and, most critically, whether their forces and/or their opponents will be willing to shoot.  Coup plotters cannot engage in surveys to assess which elements of the military or of society will support them, as any effort to get beyond a small circle of trust risks being found out and then defeated before they even start.  This uncertainty is inherent in coups not just because plotters cannot survey, but because one never knows who is willing to kill their own citizens and brothers/sisters in arms.  In conventional war, the expectation is that units will hold together and fire their weapons, although many studies have shown that unit cohesion and firing weapons varies widely.  In coups, there is much more uncertainty because of who the targets are.
  • Surprise is, thus, a dual edged weapon.  The coup plotters need it to succeed.  Without it, they get stopped before they start as most governments, especially those where coups have happened before, are fairly vigilant.  The other edge of surprise is, again, the coup plotters are largely blind about who will support them.
  • Coups are fast or they are not coups.  The plotters must seize the commanding heights of the political system and then impose upon the forces of the status quo the hard choice of whether to shoot or not.  Most of the action is in the capital and not throughout the country--as the coup plotters seek to capture the politicians, control the media, and present an image of inevitability.  This all has to be done quickly.  If done slowly, the officials can escape and can find the parts of the security forces that are dependable to defend the key spots.
  • Coups are about perceptions and momentum.  Lots of fence sitters will try to figure out which side will win and join that side before the outcome is determined, so that they both reap any rewards for being loyal to the winning side AND avoid being punished for joining the losers.  This applies not just to those inside the country but also outsiders (did the US and others support democracy a smidge late? Hmmm).  
  • One of the primary ways that governments prevent coups and defeat them is to distribute the means of coercion among a variety of agencies.  This creates more uncertainty for potential coup plotters, which often deters coups, and means that there are likely to be forces available to defend the government from the other branches of the armed forces.  It is too soon to tell who was doing what in Turkey, but it seemed like the police were loyal to the government, that the army was split, the air force seems to have supported the government, and the navy was irrelevant (in Junta, much effort is made to make the navy relevant, but these things are settled on land).
  • What about outsiders?  Mostly irrelevant as things happened pretty quickly with the locals responding to domestic incentives/risks.  NATO does not intervene in civil-military crises in members--there have been more than a handful over the years.  In countries with smaller militaries and with colonial histories, the old colonial power (we will call it France) can swiftly move in and be a force one way or the other.  But in this case, there was no one that could intervene.  Oh, and the nuclear weapons that may be stored in Turkey were never at risk despite the best efforts of those online to create some fear about them.
  • People power can matter.  It does seem to be the case that the coup plotters were somewhat stymied by crowds of citizens.  But calling the people out to confront the coup plotters is a desperate and problematic move.  The people can stop a coup in its tracks if the shooting hasn't started yet, if that critical barrier has not been bridged.  Once the firing starts, the citizens are very likely to be harmed as the shooters may not stop shooting.  But coup outcomes do not depend on whether the public loves the coup or not, but whether the coup plotters have enough support throughout the military and other security forces.
  • Coups are not progressive--coups and coup attempts do not lead to more democracy, less corruption and more economic growth.  The coup plotters claim such stuff, but the track record of military governments is not a good one.  The best one can say is that human rights may not suffer after coup failure.
  • The dynamics of coups are a smidge different in the age of social media, as the coup plotters seized TV stations but could not stop the president from facetiming a message to the public and to outsiders.  Not sure it was critical since the actual effort seemed to suggest weakness and not strength.  It did indicate that Erdogan was still alive and uncaptured, and that was significant.

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