Coup D'Etat
August 26, 2006 7:37 PM   Subscribe

American Coup D'Etat. Will the most powerful and well-funded institution on the planet remain under civilian command indefinitely? As the domestic spying saga unfolds and militarism rises, Harper's brought four experts - both academics and brass - to discuss the possibilities.
"To subdue America entirely, the only route remaining would be to seize the machinery of state itself, to steer it toward malign ends—to carry out, that is, a coup d'état."
(See also The Origins of the Military Coup of 2012 [previous])
posted by trinarian (29 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
While I tend to be a pessimist and think mostly dark and eschatological thoughts of the future, I think one of the most poignant quotes came at the beginning:
"You could arrest all the leaders, detain or kill off their families. And you would have accomplished nothing."
posted by trinarian at 7:41 PM on August 26, 2006

The biggest risk it seems is that the new CIA chief, for the first time, is a military guy (although he retired from the military before taking the job).

I think many people in the military, especially the higher-ups really detest bush, though.
posted by delmoi at 7:53 PM on August 26, 2006

Originally from Harper's Magazine, April 2006.

Some dead tree publications are still worth paying for, and Harper's is one of them.
posted by muckster at 7:57 PM on August 26, 2006

Bacevich's The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War is excellent and just came out in paperback. I'm reading it again.
posted by ao4047 at 7:59 PM on August 26, 2006

According to Wikipedia there are different types of Coups. Most likely in the US would be a bloodless coup in which the military forced the civilian leadership to step aside (probably replaced with a new civilian leadership or interim military depending on situation).

The actual history of coups in the 20th century does not support a first world democracy having a coup, much less the largest and "strongest" Democracy in the world. It's a third world phenomenon where the bureaucracy is easy to replace. This sounds like liberal porn from Harper's.
posted by stbalbach at 8:13 PM on August 26, 2006

heh it's fun reading something that so closely parallels one's own views and understandings. This point:
KOHN: But you imply by that statement, Charlie, that the ballot box exists as a kind of pristine, uncontextualized Athenian gathering at the square to vote. In fact, the ballot box in this country is the product of how things are framed by the political parties, by the political leaders. Also, very few of our congressional districts now are really contested, after gerrymandering. Very few of our Senate seats are real contests.

LUTTWAK: It becomes about personalities: you ask an American citizen to choose between Laura Bush and Teresa Heinz Kerry, and they choose Laura Bush...
needed to be said. They also covered the fact that the G.O.P. and the military are largely one and the same right now. I think it goes further, into what the M-I-C is, the shadowy Right think tanks like AEI, AIPAC, the Scaife network, etc. and the levers they have access to.

With $500B/yr the Pentagon is getting what it wants. Should the economic wheels come off and a populist anti-military (is such a thing even possible in this post 9/11 world?) party come into power things might get interesting. cf the events of 1968, specifically that June, in LA.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 8:13 PM on August 26, 2006

The biggest risk it seems is that the new CIA chief, for the first time, is a military guy

Not even remotely true. Sidney Souers, Roscoe Hillenkoetter, William Raborn and Stansfield Turner were all Navy admirals. George H.W. Bush was a Navy officer. Hoyt Vandenberg and Walter Bedell Smith were both Army generals. Robert Gates was in the Air Force. James Woolsey was in the military, but I don't recall which branch.

That's half of them right there.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 8:15 PM on August 26, 2006

The following forum is based on a discussion that took place in January at the Ruth's Chris Steak House in Arlington, Virginia.

A 'forum,' also known as 'dinner.'
posted by spiderwire at 8:24 PM on August 26, 2006


it helps to read the post before commenting on it, friend. I don't think the views expressed inside the article are what you would imagine them to be... though I guess we all kinda hoped for some sweet DNC coed liberal porn, no? Guns 'n boobs, step inside!
posted by trinarian at 8:24 PM on August 26, 2006

it helps to read the post before commenting on it

Oh, come on! Reading is for dorks. Truth comes from the gut, remember?
posted by c13 at 8:29 PM on August 26, 2006

Heywood: You're right, an issue they don't address is what would happen if there was a sudden and massive reduction in military spending for whatever reason and an easy political target to blame. I think the dynamics for that kind of situation in a contemporary setting would change a lot of variables though. I think it would be more related to world economics than populist backlash.
posted by trinarian at 8:30 PM on August 26, 2006

trinarian, in fact I did read the article before posting. You said "I don't think the views expressed inside the article are what you would imagine them to be" - what do I imagine them to be? It's not the views that are liberal porn, its the premise for an article.
posted by stbalbach at 9:02 PM on August 26, 2006

LUTTWAK: Such a scenario would probably play out through a multi-stage transformation. After all, take any group of nice people on a trip; if five bad things happen to them in a row, they will end up as cannibals. How many adverse events are needed before a political system, arguably the most firmly rooted constitutional system in the history of the world, becomes uprooted? How many September 11ths, on what scale? How much panic, what kind of leadership?

help mom i'm having r. a. wilson flashbacks
posted by RTQP at 9:07 PM on August 26, 2006

I found some excepts from Luttwak's Coup D'Etat: A Practical Handbook here (also the book is available at Amazon). It's very out-of-date (written in 1969) but still fascinating. The guy has been studying this stuff for years.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 9:09 PM on August 26, 2006

No mention by Harper's panel of the 1932 Business Plot, or the conspiratorial accusations made by USMC Major General Smedley Butler?

[More in the 1973 book The Plot to Seize the White House.]
posted by cenoxo at 9:30 PM on August 26, 2006

coups...This sounds like liberal porn from Harper's.
posted by stbalbach at 8:13 PM PST

Please show a dictionary where "Liberals" believe in military overthrow of elected governments.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:16 PM on August 26, 2006

heh, I was going to bring up Butler, but thought the pre-war era is a rather different place & time. But, thinking about it, the Big Money from that time is still kicking around ... the Mellon-Scaife fortune is from Andrew Mellon of Alcoa infamy, which Truman and the (D)s successfully brought to heel in the 1940s and 50s:

"By 1930 the Alcoa/Alcan combination controlled 50% of world production. Alcoa was insulated from accusations of complicity in the cartel largely because Andrew Mellon was Secretary of the Treasurer from 1921 to 1932. When the Attorney-General began to prepare an antitrust case in the 1920s, President Coolidge took care of the problem by appointing him to the Supreme Court!"cite

It's not too controversial to state that there's some nefarious axis of power going on with the Old Money republicans (eg. the Brown Brothers of Prescott Bush), Big Capital/IMF (spreading usury throughout the third world), Big Oil (Iran 1950, Iraq 1990-2003), the egregious "Big Banana" case (United Fruit in Guatemala). Butler railed against being an "enforcer" for the (now) multinational corporations, but this decade the Neocon cabal was relatively successful getting our legions into Iraq fighting 9/11 with the 3-card monte-esque mindfuck PR campaign we all saw in the run-up. With actions of the Bremer Satrapy we got to see the cards as they were being played (liquidation of the Iraqi socialist state, liberal terms for foreign capital to move in (and, more importantly, *out*), such trivial things as trying to kill the European GSM for Qualcom's CDMA, and of course gently restoring Iraqi oil trade in the USD.

I've got friends working for defense contractors, and they love this shit. Food on the family, and all that.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 10:28 PM on August 26, 2006

Insightful piece (and if you're going to 'talk' Ruth's Chris in Arlington shows you have some taste).

"Civilian control of the military is too deeply ingrained in the armed forces"
"The question that arises is whether, in fact, we're not already experiencing what is in essence a creeping coup d'état. But it's not people in uniform who are seizing power. It's militarized civilians, who conceive of the world as such a dangerous place that military power has to predominate, that constitutional constraints on the military need to be loosened."

The way military funding is currently set up it does seem to be a real problem. Ultimately though I think their first instincts were correct. America can't be taken by force no matter how overwhelming. That doesn't mean the situation can't be worsened to intolerable, but a free people aren't going to sit for it. But if you can rig the courts and the currency (as alluded to) you really don't need widespread force. While I believe in a strong defense, at some point by neglecting domestic affairs you start getting negative returns and shrinking your production base. Like using drugs or steroids. Certainly you can work stronger, harder and longer using speed or some such, but at some point you start burning yourself up. The Delian League comes to mind - very stable, but they kept moving the treasury, pissing people off by shifting from an alliance to an empire, etc. etc. Which arguably, hasn't happened (yet) with Iraq (empire in the sense that we keep the local bureaucracies in place and collect from them - but the collusion between business and government there is fairly obvious, so the lines are blurred). But keep sowing deception and you reap strife.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:54 PM on August 26, 2006

I don't think the Army's about to try a modern day Newburgh Coup. Going by what I know of military men, I'd agree with Bacevich in the Harper's article: "The professional ethic within the military is firmly committed to the principle that they don't rule." Besides, right now the military probably couldn't scrounge up enough additional men to subjugate Rhode Island, let alone the other 49 states.

Still, the current of militarism running through this nation is damn worrying. No, the public isn't being told to follow the military's orders, but they are being told (by Bush, by Fox News, by the clamoring chorus of conservative radio screamers) never to question the military's actions. In some circumstances, the latter can be almost as bad as the former.
posted by Iridic at 11:03 PM on August 26, 2006

What about the military leaders refusing to go along with something crazy - that would be a mutiny I guess, not exactly a coup, but may be more relevant in the immediate future. Some journalist, Seymour Hersh I think, claimed that this happened in the past couple of years and averted an attack on Iran. This issue is still alive. The Bush administration is said to be seriously considering using nuclear weapons now, and I really hope the military chiefs are saner and unwilling.

If the 2008 election is as rigged as the last two, it will be time for a coup in the more traditional sense, or a revolution or something.
posted by jam_pony at 11:09 PM on August 26, 2006

Butler on interventionism, 1933:
There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its "finger men" to point out enemies, its "muscle men" to destroy enemies, its "brain men" to plan war preparations, and a "Big Boss" Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.

It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.
I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
More of the same in the chapter Who Makes the Profits? of his 1935 book, War is a Racket.
posted by cenoxo at 11:13 PM on August 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Wow, fascinating, thanks so much for finding and posting this. I don't know why but I imagined this conversation as resembling "My Dinner with Andre". (Makes me wish my dinner conversations were as engaging).
I too had RA Wilson Illuminatus flashbacks, I can't believe Luttwak is still at it, working on Coup theory, as it were.

This comment stuck out:
But there is a more subtle danger too. The civilian leadership knows that in dealing with the military, they are dealing with an institution whose behavior is not purely defined by adherence to the military professional ethic, disinterested service, civilian subordination. Instead, the politicians know that they're dealing with an institution that to some degree has its own agenda.

I guess the military is kind of like the gorillas from Planet of the Apes. They are necessary for the function of the republic, but they will eventually cause the collapse of the empire. Witness the fall of Rome ladies and gentlemen, the fall of Rome!
posted by archae at 11:13 PM on August 26, 2006

My favorite comment from a related thread.
posted by hortense at 11:26 PM on August 26, 2006

While I believe in a strong defense, at some point by neglecting domestic affairs you start getting negative returns and shrinking your production base. Like using drugs or steroids. Certainly you can work stronger, harder and longer using speed or some such, but at some point you start burning yourself up.

Indeed. But, y'see, it's you guys who are gonna get burned, not the mega-wealthy. You can be damn sure the Bush family has the resources to up and move to Dubai when the USA is flushed down the crapper. Bill Gates' kids aren't gonn ago to bed hungry. Ignoring domestic affairs costs the mega-wealthy nothing: they're so transnational that the fate of any one nation isn't really all that important.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:47 PM on August 26, 2006

God's rhetorical question to Job: "Can'st thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?" is answered by Ahab's: "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me!

And you guys and gals wonder why I suffer from or am subject to hysteria in my postings, mad and as wreckless as my contributions may be, they are no more than what is before us...

Thus, the ROTS.
posted by Unregistered User at 5:34 AM on August 27, 2006

Are millionaires the same thing as civilians?
posted by Artw at 6:53 AM on August 27, 2006

Are millionaires the same thing as civilians?
posted by Artw at 6:53 AM PST

posted by rough ashlar at 8:42 AM on August 27, 2006

rough ashlar: Please show a dictionary where "Liberals" believe in military overthrow of elected governments.

for clarification, I think what was meant by that is that Harper's has a tendency to come up with frightening premises about right wing plots that make liberal academics get all moist and sweaty in their tweed jackets.
posted by dubold at 2:49 PM on August 28, 2006

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