Coups and the politics of security assistance

During the recent coup in Mali, the United States received some unfortunate news: Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, the nominal leader of the rebellious faction of the country’s military, was trained in the United States under the auspices of the Department of State’s International Military Education and Training program. While military aid to the country – aimed primarily at countering al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – has been suspended, the presence of an American-trained officer in an American-supported military at the forefront of a coup d’etat is a troubling sign for a U.S. foreign policy which would rather pride itself on democratic 21st century statecraft rather than what seems like 20th century skullduggery.

As anachronistic and self-contradictory as the idea of a 21st century coup d’etat may seem to modern observers (although let’s not forget Honduras), it remains as an extreme expression of political engagement that lies beneath the surface even in nominally democratic, transparent societies. Moreover, understanding this political dynamic is crucial in an age when the United States increasingly seeks to leverage and enhance the combat power of its foreign partners.

The Abnormal Situation

Armed forces and security services are, in theory and often in practice, instruments of power. But they are also nodes of power all their own. Their actions can make or break political transitions. Like all bureaucracies, they exert a degree of independent influence and compete for resources and power within a larger political system. However, because they are armed and highly cohesive, they have a unique capability to coercively implement and resist political change. Indeed, militaries are fundamentally political institutions because they are organizations charged with carrying out the ugly side of political behavior.

In a rational-legalistic state, military power exists in the shadow of legislative and deliberative machinery that guides its loyal military force. But militaries often exist to neutralize political conflict within the domestic sphere and enforce the basic rules of the game that make civic engagement possible. Even René Schneider, the 1970 Chilean Army Commander-in-Chief remembered for his resistance to military interference in Chilean politics, recognized that the apolitical role of the military was a political decision in favor of the status quo thus ensuring a normal political process. But Schneider added a caveat: “the only limitation is in the case that the State stopped acting within their own legality. In that case the armed forces have a higher loyalty to the people and are free to decide an abnormal situation beyond the framework of the law.”

In Honduras, for example, the Constitution contained no impeachment process and explicitly stated that the military was responsible for the alternation of the presidency. In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was critical to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, yet crafted a constitutional order in which the military retains an implicit veto on any changes to the parameters of Egypt’s burgeoning democratic political system. In both cases, the militaries in question had received large degrees of U.S. support.

The Articulation of Loathsome Interests

In Mali, U.S. support created more capable elements of the Malian military, but it was unable to alter the broader patronage system within Mali itself. Despite U.S. efforts, Toure’s considerations for his patronage network overall supported diverting resources away from the military. As Alex Thurston and other analysts have noted, this has had deleterious consequences for the military’s response to the Tuareg rebellion and the overall conditions of mid-ranking officers and soldiers in the field. The political cooption of high-ranking officers by the regime is an important strategy for regime stability, but if it occurs without buying off the parts of the military who ultimately provide the men on the scene with guns, it is an invitation for a junior officer coup, bringing about men with the notional ability to enforce their rule but limited capacity to enact it substantively. Political complexity does not imply nor require sophistication on the part of all the players involved, but when a shock to the system occurs, the modus vivendi that made loathsome interests mutually compatible can rapidly disappear.

Foreign support and the leverage it brings is inherently bounded in its capabilities to effect systemic political change. Arming and training a foreign military force might improve its capabilities on the battlefield and its organizational cohesion, but it only complicates and does not neutralize or affect  its status as a political actor. Rather than buying an effective civil-military system, foreign support tends to exacerbate existing political cleavages within the security sector rather than transcend them. As political scientists Jeffrey Herbst and William Reno have noted, African politics in particular provide strong case studies of how the traditional links between military and state strength can be perverted or severed. Militaries are only useful tools for state formation to the extent they require mass mobilization, resource extraction, and provide genuinely public goods. If they can gain their resources through domestic extortion, foreign institutional or political support, or otherwise avoid an inclusive economic relationship with local territory, they may not function as engines of stabilization.

For example, the Organization for African Unity’s commitment to de jure sovereignty has significantly reduced African regimes’ fears of external conquest, while vast flows of military and non-military foreign aid have reduced incentives to mobilize resources from the construction of strong extractive state institutions. Indeed, combined with pressure to encourage competitive politics, the development of strong state institutions is a particularly risky prospect, and many weak states have moved to develop “shadow states” and prevent the creation of institutions that might use their effective provision of public goods to challenge the authority of present regimes.

In other words, the strengthening of military institutions can undermine the deliberate strategies of weakening or decentralization of violent power. An under-resourced military reduces the potential that a military will  compete with the government as an independent power base and makes officers more dependent on a centralized patronage network. In some cases, enhancing military capabilities can gravely disrupt a regime’s intentional constraints on power. How foreign powers can effectively provide military aid  while simultaneously strengthening state institutions remains an open question. In pure proxy warfare, the goal of strengthening state institutions, encouraging political competition, and enabling the conditions for the provision of public goods are all basically irrelevant or secondary considerations. The goal was to check the power of rival forces, period. Now, however, the goal is to build state institutions, albeit from afar and with a limited footprint.

Defense Cooperation and Unintended Consequences

On the other hand, there are beneficial aspects of engaging with military forces without quashing their prior political roles within or outside of the state, provided expectations are properly limited. In countries with weak or volatile governing institutions, forging relationships with militaries and security services can provide a more enduring avenue of influence with greater longevity and institutional retention than other elements of the regime can provide. But relationships with foreign militaries must be built with awareness of their political incentives.

As the United States enlists foreign states in the suppression of terrorism and subversion, it must recognize the political dimension of those states’ militaries. In post-withdrawal Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki has already been able to manipulate the security institutions the U.S. left behind to create a highly personalized, coup-proofed force operating at his disposal. Meanwhile, in Yemen, U.S. trained counterterrorism forces have frequently been used in service of defending Saleh and his successor regime. American leverage is temporary, but the political institutions and capabilities that this supposedly leveraging cooperation creates will long outlast the U.S. policymakers’ and public’s attention spans.

The U.S. must acknowledge that foreign security forces do not necessarily represent popular or elite sovereignty, but rather constitute political actors in their own right. In many cases, their machinations carry weight in economic, political, and civil arenas U.S. citizens might not recognize as subject to military influence. Building a military is not simply a technocratic endeavor which teleologically results in a capable, apolitical force, but an intervention in a complex political process and the empowerment of political actors. Coups, as the extreme case of an enduring form of political-military behavior in domestic politics, should not be dismissed as anachronisms or relics from a bygone era. Instead, they are reminders that as the U.S. seeks to stand up partners, measured considerations of U.S. priorities and appreciation for the convoluted nature of deep politics remains as important as ever.

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