Iraq: Just a Coup Away

Los Angeles Times

The provisional results of the December elections in Iraq are already in dispute, but that doesn’t stop Washington from pointing to the vote as a success in its quest to create a peaceful, stable and free Middle East.

But the mere fact of an election cannot change a fundamental truth about Iraq: Saddam Hussein governed as a brutal dictator not simply because he was cruel but also because of the treacherous political landscape that destabilized his relationship with his own military. Hussein was highly vulnerable to a military coup, and future Iraqi leaders will be just as susceptible. Regardless of the election’s outcome, a coup will probably follow a U.S. pullout, and Iraq will again be ruled by a dictator.

With University of Minnesota sociologist Evan Schofer, I developed a quantifiable way to assess a nation’s risk of a coup. Our measure is a bit like a blood pressure test in that high scores equal high risk — but it measures the risk of coups, not strokes.

The test cannot predict with certainty when or if any particular regime will experience a coup. But it has proved to be a powerful tool for establishing which regimes are vulnerable. Governments with the worst scores on the test are about 30 times more likely to be overthrown in a coup than those with the best scores. When we computed our results before the U.S. invasion, Iraq already had a bad score. Today, following years of violence, it is surely worse.

The test looks at three factors. First, the strength of a nation’s civil society, which is based on the number and robustness of civic organizations such as political parties, unions, social clubs and the like. Such groups, it turns out, have the capacity to disobey coup plotters’ orders. In Bolivia in 1979, for example, a labor union organized protest strikes that sent a rebellious army garrison back to its barracks after an attempted coup. By contrast, when civil society is weak, there is often little to stand in the way of a coup.

Second, a nation’s history of past coups. A recent coup increases the score; past coups are a good predictor of future coups, because the violent overthrow of a government undermines institutions, such as courts and legislatures, that check instability.

Legitimacy, the third dimension of our coup-risk test, refers to whether citizens accede to the state’s right to make society’s rules. When a political system enjoys legitimacy, the armed forces are unlikely to try to take control.

Before the U.S. invaded, Iraq performed well — that is, it showed a low risk for military takeover — in only one area: it hadn’t had a coup in more than 30 years. But that very fact meant that Iraq scored dismally on the other two factors. That’s because to prevent coups, Hussein ruthlessly cut off challenges to his power, executing or jailing high-ranking generals, for example. Such actions don’t nurture a civil society or create political legitimacy.

Hussein also imprisoned, tortured and executed would-be organizers of civil society: intellectuals, artists, clerics and politicians who demonstrated an independent streak. He may or may not have understood that civic groups act as a guard against coups, but he clearly realized that they also can be the source of popular revolutions. Had Hussein allowed Iraqi civil society to prosper, he might have ended up overthrown, like the shah next door in Iran.

Hussein did try to boost the legitimacy of his government. He appealed to Iraqi nationalism, sided with the Palestinians, condemned imperialism and picked fights with regional adversaries. But such tactics were never very effective given the illegitimate means — coups and conspiracies — by which he and his cronies had assumed power in the first place, and given the brutality with which he crushed civil society.

If all this sounds like a vicious cycle, it is. Yet some societies do manage to escape from authoritarianism, minimize coup risk and consolidate stable, democratic institutions. The U.S. cultivated democracy in Japan and West Germany after World War II, and in South Korea after the Korean War. The Bush administration has invested considerable effort into creating the conditions for democracy to emerge in Iraq. So why isn’t that tipping the balance?

As Niall Ferguson notes in his book “Colossus,” the formal American occupations of Japan and West Germany lasted seven and 10 years, respectively, and it took nearly 40 years of American military presence in South Korea to nurture a genuine stable democracy there. The commitment of treasure and troops was massive.

And critically, in each of those cases, democratization achieved traction only after the cessation of violence, of which there is no end in sight in Iraq. Under warlike conditions, the country’s social infrastructure can’t develop — insurgency and counterinsurgency aren’t the building blocks of civil society.

And what about the elections? It’s important to remember that about half of all coups are launched against democratic regimes. That means the December elections, however they turn out, will neither magically create a sense of legitimacy nor protect the Iraqi government from its own armed forces. Coup risk is a deep, underlying feature of Iraqi society at this time in history, and it will not disappear anytime soon.

Before the war, when foreign policy experts warned Bush that Iraq was ungovernable, they did not literally mean that the country could not be governed. Rather, they meant that ruling Iraq for any length of time, with any level of stability, requires an iron fist.

The experts were right. Washington still confronts the same dilemma that it has faced all along. It can install a dictator to rule Iraq after U.S. troops leave, or it can leave behind a situation — perhaps even a nascent democracy — that will ultimately yield chaos, coups and then a dictator.

It is true that whoever finally emerges as the last leader standing in Baghdad will not be named Saddam Hussein. However, only a cynic — or a con artist — would depict Iraq’s likely authoritarian future as a victory.

Aaron Belkin is associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author, with Evan Schofer, of “Toward a Structural Understanding of Coup Risk,” published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution in 2003.

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