A bitter legacy: Coup d’etats and Western interventionism

    The US and its allies have toppled numerous national governments since the Second World War, all while proclaiming the importance of democracy and the rule of law.

    Long before his Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order came into the limelight, American political scientist Samuel Huntington advanced the idea of the primacy of military over civilian rule. Huntington claimed that the political role of the military as the ‘guardian’ of existing regimes appealed to the sensibilities of “American opinion leaders” and that “frequently the United States was quite happy to have the military dislodge governments it disliked.”

    These words capture well the logic of foreign policy of the United States and some of its allies around the world. US-sponsored coups have toppled numerous national governments ranging from Iran’s Mossadegh (1954) and Chile’s Allende (1973) to Indonesia’s Sukarno (1967) and Pakistan’s Ali Bhutto (1977).

    In fact, hundreds of coup d’états have taken place since the end of the Second World War, a majority of which were sponsored by Western governments, even when their official narrative promoted democracy, rule of law and self-determination. Obviously, there was a high level of sophistication on how the US decision-makers behaved vis-a-vis these military takeovers.

    Criteria, which include factors such as the existence of close connections to coup leaders, their intention to carry out their ‘international obligations’, their abilities to assert full control over public life, and the level of violence used, determine whether and how fast the US would recognise the coup leaders. For instance, John Foster Dulles, in reference to the 1954 Guatemala coup, said: “We want to feel satisfied that the new regime will be able to and willing to carry out its international obligations. If we are satisfied on that point…we should proceed to recognition.” Likewise, when it became known that the 1967 coup leaders in Greece were well known to the US intelligence and had close ties with the military attache office, US officials recognised the coup without delay.

    Other factors such as labelling and levels of cooperation are strong indicators sent to partner governments about the undercurrents of their bilateral relations. For example, former secretary of state John Kerry did not accept the labelling of the Abdel Fattah el Sisi military take-over in Egypt as a coup. According to him: “The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment – so far. To run the country, there’s a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy.” Similarly, Hillary Clinton refrained from naming the army’s takeover in Honduras in 2009 as a coup d’état.

    A coup d’etat by other means?

    The reasoning behind much of Western interventionism in the developing world, particularly in the Middle East, has been one of ensuring the consolidation of particular interests. The coup option is only the most drastic in the arsenal of interventionism. Others are more subtle, including economic sanctions, lawfare and, at times, so-called economic reform packages.

    Even as a consensus continued to spread following the Second World War that democracy represented the form of government most conducive towards shared prosperity and international cooperation, the option of replacing and/or changing to the nature of undesirable, even if legitimate governments remained at the forefront of foreign policy options. This was particularly true for the Middle East in the eyes of American policymakers.

    If there was any doubt that this would remain an option, the 1973-74 ‘Oil Shock’ sealed the deal so to speak. Just prior to the ‘Oil Shock’, at a conference held in Algiers, a call was issued by 77 developing nations to replace the Bretton Woods order with a New International Economic Order that would make the global economic system more amenable to the needs of the developing world.

    The fact that the price of oil rose by more than 380 percent over a three month period marked an unprecedented assertion of national sovereignty on the part of developing nations and frightened American policymakers who saw a possible shift in the balance of power between the industrialised and developing worlds. The American response was heavy handed. Policymakers became convinced that they had to break ‘Third World’ solidarity and made steps to ensure that the international system would severely reduce the ability of a state or a group of states to disrupt or distort the flow of international commerce.

    As part of this process, in 1979, the US Federal Reserve raised interest rates precipitating the debt crisis of the 1980s. In response to the debt crisis, a series of policy initiatives were introduced that all but destroyed the principles underlying the call for the New International Economic Order, and ushered in what is known as the ‘Washington Consensus’. The point here being that, under threat from the economic nationalism of the developing world, the West, led by the United States, initiated a programme that would effectively ensure the same dominance that the former colonial states, and then the US had previously enjoyed.

    The logic underlying of the ‘Washington Consensus’, is at its core, the same as that which justifies military coups as a legitimate policy option. Despite continuous rhetorical support for ‘democracy’, leading states have consistently undermined local sovereignty when it has been deemed to be against their interests.

    The case of July 15

    The third anniversary of the July 15 attempted coup in Turkey is an opportunity to reflect on where we stand today. The tepid response that night from many European and American leaders to the events is as clear an indication that the thinking in Western capitals remains mostly unchanged.

    Beyond vague statements supporting the democracy and the rule of law in Turkey, it was only when it became more clear that those behind the coup were not the usual cadres of military officers that more, albeit sceptical, concern was raised in Western capitals.

    If it were not for the will of people from across the political spectrum that night in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey may have been in a very different, much darker situation today, one that would have likely have been brushed over by policymakers in Europe and the United States – as it was in Egypt and elsewhere – despite the obvious contradictions with their political rhetoric. Until governments denounce military coups and interventionism in legitimate domestic affairs more clearly, the perception among those on the receiving ends of the policies that the self-proclaimed leaders of democracy are ultimately engaged in is nothing more than a hypocritical imaginary politics.

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