The July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey reminded us how difficult it is to predict the occurrence of such events or their likely outcomes. For several hours, many observers feared that Turkey’s history of periodic coups leading to military government was being replayed. But through a combination of inept coup planning and quickly mobilized popular support for the democratically elected government, the coup failed. The massive crackdown that has followed highlights the profound political implications of this type of episode for Turkey and for the broader international community. And within the policy and intelligence communities of Turkey’s allies and adversaries, reviews are undoubtedly underway to determine whether signs of unrest within the military and of the popular support of the Erdogan government were missed or properly anticipated.
I started writing this review of Zoltan Barany’s How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why with events in Turkey as a backdrop. As Barany states unabashedly, he seeks to provide the policymaker and the analyst with a predictive tool regarding the likely actions of a military faced with a popular rebellion. Would Barany’s tool have helped Turkey watchers in the period preceding the aborted coup, or is the tool relevant only in the specific circumstances of a military response to a popular rebellion? And where does Barany’s tool fit from the perspective of the human rights activist and democracy promoter confronting an abusive military?
Barany makes two core arguments: first, “the response of the regime’s regular armed forces to an uprising is critical to the success or failure of that uprising;” and second, “we can make a highly educated guess about—and in some cases even confidently predict—the army’s response to a revolution or popular uprising if we have in-depth knowledge about a particular army, its relationship to state and society, and the external environment.” My reaction to these arguments was excitement regarding the contribution such a predictive tool could make to national security, coupled with broad skepticism about the accuracy of such a tool in the real-world, quick-decision circumstances that challenge most policymakers; immediately, I searched my memory for examples that suggest the opposite of what Barany claims is so predictable. Barany, however, calms concerns about over-generalization by including the requisite qualifiers regarding the importance of understanding underlying context, and by presenting his arguments in a logical and readable manner.
Methodologically, Barany eschews creating an extensive database coding multiple factors, which would be time consuming and require extensive subjective judgments about diverse historical events. Instead he relies on a “process-tracing method to identify causal mechanisms.” He draws on a series of contemporary case studies, which include Iran (1979), Burma (1988), the 1989 uprisings in China and the Warsaw Pact countries, and the 2011-2012 Arab Spring. In each case, he analyzes what contributed to the military’s decision to intervene on the side of the rebels or to support the regime, or its inability to present a united front. With appropriate caveats as to the importance of context, he concludes that the following six variables are the most important (in descending order of significance): (1) the military’s internal cohesion; (2) whether the army is comprised of volunteers or conscripts; (3) the regime’s treatment of and directions to the military; (4) the generals’ view of the regime’s legitimacy; (5) the size, composition, and nature of the protests; and (6) the potential for foreign intervention. None of these six variables is particularly surprising, although they are all subject to the competing subjective assessments of the analyst.
But even accepting the premise that the variables can be accurately assessed, how useful, as a practical matter, are they to the policymaker confronting an emerging crisis? In the framework presented by Barany, the variables are limited to the circumstances of a popular uprising emerging over a period of time sufficient to provide the military an opportunity to consider various courses of action. The variables do not tell us when a popular uprising is likely to occur, but only the probable response of the military. Nor do the variables inform when the military as an institution or one of its components is likely to foment a coup or to provoke a popular uprising; these circumstances are as likely to confront the policymaker as is the popular uprising scenario. The variables also do not explicitly address how the population is likely to respond to a military-initiated action, although they do provide important insights. Thus, the questions that Barany is asking and answering should contribute to our understanding of the situations today in Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Egypt, but do not answer the most urgent questions that a policymaker needs answers to: is a popular uprising or a military rebellion imminent? And, given our geopolitical or humanitarian concerns, is there anything that we can do to stimulate a successful, and hopefully peaceful, popular uprising or military rebellion?
Barany does not address the mobilizing strategy of those promoting an uprising and their interface with the military, but approvingly references Erica Chenoweth’s and Maria Stephan’s 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works, which focuses on collective action and military reaction. Interestingly, Chenoweth and Stephan use the Iranian and Burma uprisings as case studies, and add the first Palestinian intifada and the 1986 Philippines People Power Movement. While the Palestinian case is anomalous for Barany’s purposes, I was surprised that there was not a single reference in Barany’s book to the Philippines example, whose lessons have been widely shared in both military and civilian circles.
To recap briefly, Ferdinand Marcos, who had twice been elected President of the Philippines, declared martial law in 1972. In November 1985, under considerable pressure from the United States and others in the international community, he scheduled a snap election for February 1986. A long-divided opposition coalesced and designated Corazon Aquino as their candidate, ultimately generating widespread popular support throughout the country under difficult and often dangerous campaigning conditions. In parallel, various citizen groups, which had organized several years earlier and were supported by an activist Catholic Church, mobilized under the banner of free and fair elections. When “official” results were announced that proclaimed Marcos the winner, the opposition mobilized mass rallies to denounce the process and to declare Aquino the “people’s” victor. Aquino’s claims were supported by the findings of domestic monitors and international observers, whose respective contemporary contributions to the cause of free and fair elections are often traced to the 1986 events in the Philippines.
Two weeks after the election, Minister of Defense Enrile and Deputy Army Chief of Staff Ramos mutinied against Marcos, proclaiming that they could no longer support his illegitimate regime. They were supported by a group of senior officers operating as part of the Reformed Armed Forces Movement (RAM), which sought to use an existing network of identified reformers to back the mutineers. When Marcos and the Army Chief of Staff threatened to destroy the rebellion by force, millions of Filipinos took to the streets and surrounded the two camps in Manila where Enrile and Ramos had launched their mutiny to protect them against an expected attack by forces loyal to Marcos. After a four-day stand-off, Marcos agreed to leave the Philippines for exile in the United States and Aquino was installed as president. The Philippines People Power revolution quickly became a model for democracy activists around the world to study and to emulate.
The Philippines case complements several insights included in Barany’s book. As Barany’s initial arguments suggest, despite the mass mobilization of Philippine People Power activists, it was not until the military shifted allegiance that the popular uprising was secured. More relevant, Barany’s variables suggest that the military rebellion should have been predictable, or at least not come as a major surprise: the military was not internally cohesive and was poorly treated by Marcos as an institution, and the soldiers were conscripts who were not likely to take action against large numbers of peaceful protesters, who were often led by recognizable religious figures.
The Philippines story, of course, did not end in 1986. In the ensuing years, there were several coup attempts, often led by RAM officers who were frustrated that the reforms they had advocated were not being implemented. A question for Barany is whether these coups or their outcomes could have been predicted using his variables, or whether there is an inevitable lag time following a cataclysmic event, such as occurred in the Philippines, that makes difficult the in-depth analysis required to use the variables as a predictive tool.
The Philippines example also highlights the important role that elections often play in mobilizing a population and the multiple roles played by the military in such circumstances. In the lead-up to an election, the military must decide whether to play a neutral role or to seek to affect the political outcome. The tools available to the military range from active intimidation of the population to genuine efforts to maintain the peace, to encouragement of military officers to support a particular candidate, to vote their conscience using a secret ballot, to facilitate massive fraud, or to protect the integrity of the process. Obviously, the military is not a monolith regarding these issues, and democracy activists wisely pay attention to the military’s pre-election, election day, and post-election rhetoric and actions. While the variables that Barany identifies as predictive of the military’s response to a popular uprising may inform our understanding of the military’s role in an election, they often trend in multiple directions and make definitive predictions difficult.
Despite its limitations, Barany’s book deserves serious attention. The tools presented provides a constructive frame for the analyst and suggests avenues for further research. In a distinct political crisis, even beyond the popular revolt/military response sequence, the tool will contribute to more informed decisions based on an accurate appreciation of the likely role that the military will play. However, we still yearn for the tool that can predict with high accuracy when a popular uprising or a military coup is likely to happen, so as not to be surprised by the seemingly random occurrence of, for example, a coup attempt and popular response in Turkey or the lack of coups and popular uprisings in countries with aging or inept authoritarian leaders, or with populations that have been victimized by brutal and corrupt leaders for extended periods of time. And so, we must continue to plan for multiple scenarios and not convince ourselves that we can rely on our ability to predict the future.