a legal coup the variable role of the military in politics

A Legal Coup — The Variable Role Of The Military In Politics

June 29th, 2009 | By: admin


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By Jason Steck, RealClearWorld Compass blog

The expulsion of former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the Honduras military has sparked a lively debate over whether or not the takeover should be called a “coup”. The reason for the debate is simple enough — “coup” conjures images of a military junta seizing power by extralegal force and repressing all opposition akin to Argentina in the early 1980s. Defenders of the Honduran military action point out that this action was not extralegal and was, in fact, authorized by the legislature and the courts in response to Zelaya’s own illegal attempt to extend his power in an imitation of his international mentor, Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. Critics, however, believe that this is just a rhetorical shill to cover up some kind of bias against Zelaya’s leftist politics.

What both sides miss is that a “coup” isn’t always extralegal. In short, what is happening in Honduras may be an example of a coup that is not only legal, but mandatory. The oddness of this concept to American minds requires an explanation.

Civil-military relations in the United States are founded on assumptions both inside and outside the military that derive from the work of the late Samuel Huntington in The Soldier and the State. Under Huntington’s ideal of “objective civilian control”, the military is granted substantial autonomy over a professional sphere of managing the application of violence, but is given no political role. Various forms of “subjective civilian control” where the military becomes embroiled in civilian political struggles are argued by Huntington to be militarily deficient and presumed by most westerners to be morally deficient as well. Americans frequently assume that this ideal is universally shared as an intrinsic component of a democracy.

But this American presumption is more a pretension than an objective description of how societies organize themselves politically. While it is true that American and European consultants make a priority of encouraging developing democracies to adopt Huntingtonian ideals (NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” is a notable example, as is the reformed curriculum of the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly-known and still-protested as the “School of Americas”), some countries explicitly endow their military with a role in maintaining democratic governance. For example, in Turkey, the military is constitutionally empowered to act as a check on the potential for Islamic parties to undermine the secular foundations. In 1962 and 1980, the Turkish military undertook coups that were not only seen as legal, but mandatory and necessary. This military influence has continued to function in less aggressive forms during more recent political crises involving the banning of Islamic parties and the selection of the head-of-state.

Like the Turkish military, Latin American militaries have a long tradition of political involvement. While in some cases, most notably Argentina, this tradition has been intentionally deconstructed (the disaster of the “dirty war” and defeat in the Falklands War provided a strong impetus for change), officers have continued to hold a widely-accepted political role in other countries. It is worth remembering, for example, that in spite of his pretensions of outrage over this coup in Honduras, Venezualan dictator Hugo Chavez was himself the leader of a coup attempt in 1992.

As more news continues to filter out of Honduras, it appears as if the Honduran military was specifically authorized by a court order to arrest a President that was judged to be out of control. The fact that the American military would never be so authorized should not distract us from the possibility that legal authorizations for military interventions into politics might exist in other countries’ constitutional arrangements. The takeover in Honduras might be, in fact, a legal coup.

The author is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His dissertation forces on variations in the political and policy-making roles of the U.S. military.

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  1. Kastanj

    June 29th, 2009 at 20:50

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    I guess if there were limits imposed on a president and Zelaya tried to breach them the resulting ousting is not so sinister. He pushed his luck when trying to have a referendum on constitutional change and he has exploited the (understandable) resentment and suspicion towards the US to engender support, only to side-step democratic limitations himself. He seems to be a hypocrite and a man who lacks the basic humility one needs to expect, at least/especially from a politician. Chavez was indeed targeted by the CIA only some years ago (so there are precedents) but this coup seems to be of a different, acceptable kind.

    I should point out that governments the world over have condemned the coup, but their criticism seems to be somewhat instinctual and not appreciating of all factors. I guess they would rather have non-physical solutions that would prevent any kind of power abuse or coagulation of undue power in the hands of the few. Still, Zelaya seemed incredibly stubborn, so it didn’t make sense to wait considering he had been told by other democratic institutions to give it up.

  2. Tully

    June 30th, 2009 at 07:23

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    I guess if there were limits imposed on a president and Zelaya tried to breach them the resulting ousting is not so sinister.

    There were, and he did. When the military refused to fill their usual role of monitoring the proposed referendum vote because the referendum itself was explicitly illegal under the Honduran constitution, Zelaya fired the head of the military and pushed on regardless.

  3. Patrick Glenn

    July 1st, 2009 at 16:47

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    First, excellent analysis, Jason. In following this story the past few days, I’ve noticed that your line of analysis has continued to inform and shape the ongoing debates.

    Second, I appeciate the argument that Obama’s approaches toward Iran and Honduras could be interpreted as undercutting the efforts of the Iranian regime and the Chavez axis to use anti-Americanism as a political & strategic weapon (see: R. Amsterdam link above). However, any possible benefits accrued from the Obama administration’s apology tour diplomacy are not achieved in isolation. If we want to evaluate the pros and cons of such an approach we’d have to tally up not just one possible benefit, but all the plusses and minuses. For example, apology tour diplomacy could also undercut liberal elements within the Middle East and Latin America. Also, in the past, detente tended to strengthen the hands of thug dictators more than it weakened them. As an American thug once said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

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