September 19th, 2006

Uneasy lies the head that wears a turban?: armies, coups, and revolutions

I’m going to talk about Iran and regime change.

But first I’m going to take a detour for some news of the day. The latter may seem totally unrelated to the former, but please bear with me: though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

A military coup is going on in Thailand right now. For most of us who were not especially conversant with politics in Thailand prior to this–and I most definitely count myself among them–it’s catch-up time. Reports indicate that the military has taken over from Thai’s Prime Minister Thaksin, who was widely seen as corrupt. What’s more, there’s been unrest in the country for quite some time now; last April, after demonstrations against Thaksin resulted in a special election, the results of that poll were abrogated by the courts, leaving the country without a functioning legislature.

Now, there are those who might say that the phrase “functioning legislature” is somewhat of an oxymoron. But it does seem as though the situation in Thailand–a country which also faces a violent Moslem insurgency in its south–was ripe for change. The army took charge, as it often has in Thailand; there’s a history of military coups there. Stability is provided by Thailand’s 78-year old monarch Bhumibol, who has limited powers but has in the past used those powers, as well as his personal influence, to force compromise and allow Thailand to continue to function despite its history of coups.

This time the Thais are hoping it will happen again. Bhumibol, by the way, is the world’s longest-reigning monarch, having been king of Thailand for 60 years (little- known piece of trivia: he was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts).

The fact that the military is behind the coup is not surprising. Not only does Thailand have a recent history of military coups, but coups are in general far more common around the world than revolutions coming from what Marxists like to call “the masses.” That’s especially true in countries where the people don’t generally–or are not allowed to–bear arms, and in which the government is willing to gun down the opposition. Since those governments against which people might most want to rebel often have those two characteristics, that leaves those who would revolt (and those who would support them) in a quandary: how can it be successfully done?

Which brings us to Iran and regime change. Those who would like to avoid a repetition of the invasion of Iraq (and I think that includes virtually all of us) and who also consider the mullahs’ fall a consummation devoutly to be wished (ditto), have puzzled over the conundrum of how such a change–which would amount to a revolution, or the undoing of a revolution that many in Iran now regret–could be accomplished.

Not only is it unclear how it might happen, but there’s a sense that we’re running out of time. Michael Ledeen’s refrain “faster, please!” has taken on greater and greater urgency.

I was reading an interview with Ledeen recently. He’s far from a warmonger, although he’s sometimes portrayed as such; Ledeen believes in political change through encouraging the people of Iran to overthrow the regime. Although this may sound naive, he’s no dummy. And as I read the interview, the following passage caught my eye:

How far would the regime go to retain power? Nobody knows. But the regime does not believe the army would kill large numbers of Iranians, and the regime has its doubts about even the Revolutionary Guards, whose leadership changes quite often. Today the regime is shutting down any publication that expresses even the vaguest criticism, which to me suggests the regime is insecure.

Because the military in the US has a tradition of absolute loyalty to whatever “regime” is in office, we often forget that the military constitutes a separate force in many countries, a loose cannon of sorts (in fact, I seem to recall that this was used as an argument against the all-volunteer military when the draft was about to end). Even the most repressive regimes have to keep their militaries in line, because the military represents a potential danger. After all, one thing the military does is to bear arms. And those arms can work against any regime in several ways: either by action, such as supporting a coup (as in Thailand); or by inaction, refusing to enforce the will of the leaders (as in Iran in 1979), or through some combination of the two.

Ledeen’s commentary in the interview rang a bell for me. In one of my recent pieces on the 1979 Iranian revolution that got us into this mess in the first place, I wrote:

But as things escalated, and the Shah eventually lost the support of the army and the police (a turning point), few seemed to be prescient enough to predict what forces would replace his regime.

Hmmm. There’s also this statement from commenter “ForNow” on the SAVAK thread on this blog:

…I had heard from an Iranian whom I knew back during Carter’s presidency when the Shah was still in power…Back then, this Iranian said he was son of one of the Shah’s generals, a claim which I was able by chance to corroborate…He said that all sectors of Iranian society hated the Shah and his secret police, and that his own father — a general under the Shah — hated the Shah…

When hatred of a ruler or rulers is so widespread that it has become rampant among those who would protect those rulers or enforce their edicts, then those rulers may be in big trouble, no matter how repressive and brutal they are willing to be to suppress dissent. Because they cannot do it alone; they must have a cooperative armed apparatus in place to enforce their will.

The 1979 revolution had a course that was not only difficult to predict, it also occurred rather swiftly once the Shah lost the support of those bearing arms. Could this happen now, with the mullahs? Faster, please.

[ADDENDUM: This is Thailand’s 20th coup since 1932, when it established democracy over a previously absolute monarch. That’s a lot of coups. And I seem to recall something about that absolute monarchy in Thailand (originally Siam); wasn’t it the topic of the musical “The King and I?” This is not a joke, although it sounds like one; the lyrics to the song “Is a Puzzlement” contain a fairly serious discussion of the burdens and decisions an absolute monarch faces in times of cultural transition.]

13 Responses to “Uneasy lies the head that wears a turban?: armies, coups, and revolutions”

  1. grackle Says:

    We need to notice that the coup is yet another piece of intelligence unknown to the hapless, politics-ridden CIA, who, instead of doing their job in these dangerous times, only seem to want to devote their main energies to all but overt attempts to sabotage the Whitehouse.

    I saw Hitchens somewhere recently point out the CIA apparently could not plant ANY sources inside the Taliban pre-9/11 yet a Californian, John Walker, easily JOINED the Taliban as a fighter. Get it? For all the Taliban knew, Walker could have been an American spy! Infiltration of the Taliban would have been EASY for the CIA – had it bothered to try. It’s not that difficult to fake conversion – a level of deception the average person could put over.

    The only explanations that seem plausible to me is that the CIA is willfully committing treason, or the CIA is incompetent, or perhaps a combination of the two.

  2. Tatterdemalian Says:

    Nobody understands how to build a democracy any more. Japan will probably be the last successful one.

    The most critical structure in a new democracy is a census that meets accounting standards of transparency and accuracy. Without that, votes are decided by who can pay the highest bribes.

  3. sesto Says:

    I believe it will happen, but I think the worst possible thing we can do is to be actively involved. We should sit on the sidelines, keep ourselves safe.

    Right now, the two forces the people of Iran hate the most are likely the mullahs and the US. Our actions might help tip the scales but the reverse is also true.

  4. reddog Says:

    Siam and Persia are very different societies. Siam is an oligarchy, where a few people control most of the wealth. These few people are also the ranking members of the military. Important military rank is awarded in a different way there and doesn’t require a lot of participation.

    Whenever a political party becomes too popular with the masses or threatens serious social or economic reform, the military snuffs them out. It’s a lot like Argentina in this way.

    Iran functions as a socialist theocracy. The people get a lot of free stuff and subsidized jobs. A change in government would disrupt, at least temporarily, the flow of gimmes, something that most people want to avoid. Makes for a very stable government.

    One can always hope though.

  5. Sergey Says:

    Michael Leeden sounds too idealistic and too optimistic to me. He obviously believes that all people WANT be free and that think otherwise is racism. Both assumpsions are patently false. They seem natural to western people, but from my life-long experience with reality of Russian society, most of Soviet people belived that they ARE free, and only tiny fraction of population understand what they were denied. This was an extreme case of Oslo syndrome, which engulfed the whole nation. And Iran seems to me a very good match to Soviet Union. Historical and psychological parallels are abundant and persuasive. Only after economic marasmus and evident incompetence of rulers this delusion of Russian people come to end. Is Iran really in comparable position now? I do not know. Nobody knows. And time is running out.

  6. Tatterdemalian Says:

    Some nations are dominated by people with an authoritarian mindset. In such nations, even the most oppressed starving peasant will fight, kill, and even die to remain starving and oppressed, simply because they see it as a necessary function their authorities have assigned to them.

    The US’s greatest crime has been to prove how powerful a nation that rejects authoritarianism can become. The failure of authoritarianism is made clear because no authoritarian government can suppress it, more due to our military might than the technological or economic might we also demonstrate.

    All the authoitarian people of the world can do is try to convince the US to abandon the power of libertarianism for the safety, stability, and stasis of authoritarisnism.

    Be warned that, if they succeed, it will not be enough for the US to abase ourselves even more than the most oppressed, starving peasant. The authoritarians will destroy the US as thoroughly as Rome destroyed Carthage, just to make sure our horrible, horrible freedoms never exist outside of the realm of fantasy ever again.

  7. Tatterdemalian Says:

    “For all the Taliban knew, Walker could have been an American spy!”

    I don’t think it’s as easy as that. I’m pretty sure the Taliban has brainwashing techniques that make the SLA look like mere posers.

    Not the least of which are the very real promises made by Islam itself.

  8. goesh Says:

    Grackle, Walker was nothing but a common soldier. You can rest assured he was never given any access to any kind of vital information at any time, despite screening him and believing he was a muslim and committed to their cause. He was posted somewhere and given an AK and somebody monitored him at all times. What taliban commander in his right mind would trust an American convert? Blue eyed Westerners with white skin and crisp midwest accents have trouble infilitrating islamic fundamentalist groups (thank God for the Mossad) – they can’t even buy information or bribe anyone. What would you bribe a taliban leader with – a new quran? Our pleasures and perks and temptations mean as much to them as their quran does to us. Closed societies founded on religion are about impossible to penetrate but they are vulnerable to military disruption and disintegration.

    Muslim tyrants base their securtiy apparatus’ on the old KGB and SS models. The first layer closest to the leader is absolutely fanatical and loyal to the Prez and their commander. They would kill one of their own children without hesitation if ordered to do so. They are the enforcers for the 2cd, 3rd and 4th layers. They settle suspicion with gunfire and doubts with brutal interrogation. They monitor and polygraph themselves, abruptly change duties and duty stations – they’ll suspend someone for a day or so simply to see how he reacts, their homes and phones are tapped and even the bathrooms they use. They get better pay and perks than others and that is the sole vulnerability of muslim tyrants with money. Disrupt the paychecks and conveniences and privliges and the loyalty disappears on the spot. They are fanatical out of fear and privlige and pay, not love. There will be no coup in Iran, but the Prez is in a hard spot. If he backs down with the nukes, he loses serious face with the hard corps mullahs. If he persists and his nukes get taken out, he still loses some face and increases the chances of general insurrection. If his nukes are taken out and he fights back, he will lose his power because his infrastructure will be crippled and the chance of insurrection will significantly increase.

  9. Sergey Says:

    A very informative article on the subject by Tony Blankly:

  10. McCain Says:

    Nice post. I wasn’t able to get trackbacks to save, so I’ll try leaving it here.

    Democracy and Thailand

  11. grackle Says:

    Grackle, Walker was nothing but a common soldier.

    I thank the commentator for trying to point me into what he believes is the right direction but I disagree with what I take to be the implication – which is all spying has to be done at the highest levels. I believe a spy who has been trained well can pick up a lot even though they are not in a high level position. In fact, since they do, as you have pointed out, have strict security at the higher levels, it might actually be more productive in the long run to run your operatives at a lower level – below the radar, so to speak. Spies have operated effectively as janitors, doormen, trash collectors, maintenance, security guards – you name the lowly, menial position and spies have probably played the part. I think most intelligence comes from inference – not direct knowledge.

    And no, I would not have picked a blue-eyed Californian as an operative – Walker is only illustrative of how easy it would have been – re: If someone as conspicuous as Walker could actually join the Taliban it should not have been that difficult to insinuate an appropriately ethnic-looking Afghan agent into the frontline units. That’s the sort of thing the CIA SHOULD have been doing long before 9/11. It also occurs to me that the break-out of Taliban prisoners that Walker was a part of, that resulted in Coalition deaths, could have been prevented if only a spy had been in that bunch playing the lowly part of a “common soldier.”

  12. goesh Says:

    The Northern Alliance under Massoud was doing just that, Grackle. The talibajn got Massoud because of his vanity. They sent a homicide bomber posing as a journalist to interview him. Massoud liked publicity. Strategic intelligence for military purposes was easily obtained and that’s why the taliban was routed in very short order. High altitude recon gave us all we needed. Fixed assets are always monitored, i.e. when a command center starts showing heavy vehicular traffic and the air waves light up, something is afoot. Guerilla actions are often spontaneous, spur of the moment things. They are not coordinated like conventional forces. A taliban leader across the border in the Paki frontier will wake up one morning and decide to send some of his lads across to do some raiding and sniping.

  13. grackle Says:

    Still, it seems to me that it would’ve been nice to have had advance warning that the break-out attempt was coming. Some Coalition lives could have been spared. A spy, ethnic-looking and posing as a common soldier could have given that warning.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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