Today, the Ukrainian Armed Forces reiterated its commitment to neutrality. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel commended the move, and his support is well founded. A comparative analysis of recent protest movements shows the determinative role Armed Forces play in domestic political conflicts:
Egypt: In modern Egyptian history, the Army has been the strongest and least unaccountable force in domestic politics. It is therefore unsurprising those in control of the Army are determined to ensure their spot at the top of the pyramid (no pun intended) is preserved. The Egyptian military has a vested interest in a protracted civil conflict; by creating an adversary in the Muslim Brotherhood, it has secured an important role in Egyptian life and public support. Indeed, military supremacy was enshrined in a recently passed constitutional referendum.
The Egyptian military determined the outcome of Egyptian politics by removing democratically elected President Morsi by a coup (as opposed to allowing a political process of impeachment and new elections to decide who leads). The army has restricted media independence and cracked-down on all dissenters (including many who were instrumental in removing previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and the ineffectual President Morsi). Now General Sisi–the very man who organized the coup–is poised to take over as Egypt’s next “democratically elected” president.
Syria: In Syria’s dynastic authoritarian regime, the armed forces are controlled exclusively by President Assad; the military cannot be expected to support the will of the people. Assad ordered a military response to peaceful protests, resulting in a protracted civil war with no end in sight.
Thailand: The Thai army is committed to remaining neutral in anti-government protests (which was not a given; Thailand has a long history of military intervention in politics), allowing the political process to play itself out (the army has positioned itself near protest sight for security purposes, but hasn’t taken a side).
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has proposed early elections; her opposition wants an appointed caretaker government to implement reforms before elections are held. In a recent development, Yingluck has been called in to answer for corruption charges related to a rice subsidy (a policy symbolic of her Pheu Parties popularity with Thailand’s poor), which could result in her impeachment.
Venezuela: Paratroopers we’re called in to “maintain the peace”, which is allegedly a cover for a brutal crackdown of the anti-Maduro opposition. The future remains uncertain in Venezuela; if reports of a bloody crackdown are true, a protracted civil conflict is likely.
When it comes to regime change, the means are just as important as the ends. The extent to which Armed Forces remain neutral / indiscriminately uphold security (in order to give the political process time to run it’s course) is a good indication of both how “ugly” protests will become, and the direction a country will move ex post facto.
In Egypt the military could have remained neutral, allowing the Egyptian people to impeach Morsi and setup elections. Instead, the military decided to intervene, securing it’s own interests. Morsi had to go, but the way he was removed has set the country on a path divergent from pluralistic democracy. In a similar vein, Sisi may indeed be the President Egyptians want. If so, why the need to crackdown on dissenters?
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck may indeed be a corrupt ruler unworthy of her office. If this is the case, allow the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to conduct an impartial investigation. If she is found guilty, there may be grounds for impeachment. If not, the vocal minority opposition will have to rethink it’s position.
Notably, the Thai Military is allowing the political process to determine the countries political future (as in Ukraine), increasing the likelihood that a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Thailand can emerge from this current bout of unrest (Unlike Egypt, Syria, and likely Venezuela).
If a countries Armed Forces are committed to the goal of pluralistic democracy, the best thing they can do is remain neutral and allow domestic political conflicts to be resolved politically. Democratic governance is derived from “soft power“–inclusive politics, non-violent protest, self-determination. The need to resort to force against non-violent protests is proof in and of itself that human rights rhetoric is being used to human rights violations.
When the global champions of human rights (U.S., E.U., U.N. etc) urge deescalation and dialogue, these are not empty words (as Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay has urged in Venezuela). Over the past few decades, “soft power” has played an increasingly important role in both domestic and international affairs. Governments that embrace this shift will ultimately be the most successful.