Good and Bad Coups

by Norman Berdichevsky (October 2013)

Waller Newell’s September essay, “A Coup Isn’t Always the Enemy of Democracy” (New English Review, September 2013) hits the nail squarely on the head in driving home an obvious point to any student of politics and history who is not a jaded academic or media “pundit.” The only truism that is more accurate is “There is No Such Thing as The World Community” (or a free lunch). Let me expound on the mirage of the so called “international community” and the mythical “red line” nobody drew (except Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu discussing Iran) related to the current civil war in Syria.

I have not read or heard of a single public demonstration to express outrage at the most gruesome, flagrant violations of all international treaties and the norms of the “civilized world” except for a few desultory, scattered small gatherings of Syrians in Paris, whose own friends and family members have been the victims of the unrelenting carnage and barbarism over the past two years.

Suddenly, for the past few weeks, no one can avoid seeing and hearing thoroughly predictable sign carrying robots who have suddenly developed a “conscience” about WAR. The reason is simple and obvious. When and only WHEN it appears that the United States might somehow be remotely involved in threatening to carry out an “unbelievably small strike” (although according to President Obama, the United States does not carry out “pinprick attacks”) as retaliation for the massive use of poison gas against hapless Syrian civilians including hundreds of children.

None of these beautiful souls and their predecessors in 1982 carried a sign or uttered a word when Hafez al-Assad (the Father) leveled the city of Hama with artillery barrages resulting in the deaths of somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 to 20,000 people. Neither then did any spokesperson for the invisible, deaf, dumb and blind so-called international community have a word to say about the matter nor did any Western journalists who were denied access to the city for more than a decade.

Assad's troops pounded Hama with artillery fire for several days and, with the city in ruins, his bulldozers moved in and flattened neighborhoods. The 1982 Hama massacre was regarded as the single bloodiest massacre by an Arab ruler against his own people in modern times. By comparison, Saddam Hussein’s use of poison gas attack in March 1988, in the town of Halabja against Kurdish civilians resulted in the death of “only” 5,000 people (all civilians).

What has transpired in Syria over the past 30 months never qualified as reason enough to express any sentiment over the deaths of many tens of thousands of civilians, the displacement of two million people and the destruction of any order approaching what can be called civil society. The Syrian embassy has not been protected by any special detachment of police or troops, not in Washington, or Buenos Aires or London or Moscow or Copenhagen or Beijing or anywhere else.

Where then are the many millions of protestors still alive today who flocked in their TENS OF MILLIONS complete with marching drums, colorful signs and costumes to demonstrate against American involvement in Vietnam, against the two Gulf Wars, against the Iran-Iraq War, against Israel’s incursion into Lebanon to destroy the PLO infrastructure? Most of them are still alive and would presumably argue that their finely tuned sense of morality is still ultra-sensitive to war, violence, and injustice.

Is anyone still looking for the voice of the “international community”? Was it the view of U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-Moon who labeled the chemical attack in Syria a “war crime,” and accepted a U.N. report that left no doubt from the evidence of the materials collected and the trajectories of the missile attacks delivering the poison gas that it could only have originated from government forces. In spite of Secretary Ban’s remarks that “the report makes for chilling reading” and  the “findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale,” he could not utter the simple words of Emile Zola’s J’accuse in the Dreyfus trial of more than one hundred and fifteen years ago and point his finger at the guilty party, Basher al-Assad.  

As Professor Newell also so cogently demonstrated, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two of the most acidic critics of the Obama administration, who correctly called for an early timely approach to aid the Free Syrian army two years ago when there was a chance to contest the Assad regime on a moral high ground have not only weakened their own case but sown more discord and confusion and weakened all moral arguments about Syria. Their absurd threat to withhold support for the Egyptian military government (an outspoken opponent of the Assad regime today) that enjoys the backing of tens of millions of ordinary Muslims including many of the devoutly religious, but rose up in angry protest to prevent the Morsi regime from leading them down the path of the Muslim Brotherhood. The brotherhood’s unchanging motto since 1928 has been…

Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu akbar!

The murderers of President Anwar Sadat plotted their attack with Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that had been involved throughout the 1980s in planning to launch an Islamic revolution. Aboud El Zomor, the leader of Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya, was convicted of plotting the assassination and spent almost 30 years behind bars before his release in April, 2011 among hundreds of political prisoners detained during President Hosni Mubarak's regime. In the first interview with a U.S. television news organization in October, 2011, El Zomor expressed a strong commitment to the ideals of the organization and the “justified” killing of Sadat.

These “ideals” that engineered the assassination of Anwar Sadat, were matched by Morsi’s equivocations about the Peace Treaty with Israel, support for Hamas (until he could not control them), the total lack of concern about the cause of equal citizenship for the Coptic Christian minority and women, total lack of concern over skyrocketing violent crime and the frequent statements of a future ideal “caliphate” that would dismantle the pre-Islamic remnants of Egyptian nationhood (The Pharoahs, pyramids, hieroglyphics and all that stuff from the “Age of Darkness” before Islam).

Did this gave pause to the distinguished Senators or media pundits who continue to preach that Morsi was “democratically elected” and that a coup “can never be justified”?

As Professor Newell so ably demonstrated, the notion that no government that comes to power through a coup could ever be anything but hostile or antithetical to democracy — and that, conversely, democracy can only be sustained by a government that is democratically elected, is patently FALSE. The most striking example is the “democratically elected” Hitler (who won a bare plurality in the 1932 elections) and the German General Staff’s hope to unseat him by a coup at the time of the Rhineland Crisis in 1935.

Much more recent and even more dramatically a case in question is the example of Argentinian leader Juan Peron, when he won not just by a bare plurality (the vaunted and worshipped 50.01%) but an absolute majority in three decisive and overwhelming majorities. All three elections 1946, 1953, 1973 were undoubtedly fair and free and yet he was ousted in a coup with the support of not only moderate centrists, liberal and conservative opinion and the press, the Catholic Church but the Navy and Airforce as well in 1955. Only the Army hesitated.

He returned from exile in Spain after 18 years by “popular demand.” Following his death in August, 1974, he was “legally succeeded” by his wife, then Vice-President, Isabel who, herself, was overturned in an “illegal coup” by the military. She was interested in the occult and astrology as well as witchcraft, reportedly relying on all three to determine national policy). Even the Army, his traditional bastion of support who had “invited him back from Spain,” was disgusted with the instability and economic chaos his second regime produced and ousted his unstable wife in 1976. 

Peron had not executed anyone, or launched an invasion against another country or used poison gas against demonstrators. In spite of many reactionary policies that included pro-Axis sympathies in World War II until the closing weeks of the conflict, the Peronist philosophy known as “Justicialismo” (Social Justice) that kept him in power exalted the working class and attracted much sympathy from leftwing opinion all over the world – the removal of religious instruction from schools, granting legitimacy to children born out of wedlock, legalized prostitution, casting Argentina in the role of the chief anti-American power in Latin America, nationalization of many industries and the railroads, excessive wage hikes, generous welfare benefits and paid vacations for workers. Today a government is in power that still calls itself Peronist.

The Army that ousted the last Peronist government turned out to be much worse (you never know – do you?) and its military junta went on to commit atrocious crimes causing the “disappearance” of approximately 15,000 citizens including many students, journalists, trade unionists and opponents suspected of disloyalty. The junta followed a policy of state supported terrorism against political dissidents, and those suspected of left wing activism.

The junta stayed in power by appealing to the patriotism of a majority of Argentines including many critics who were swayed by nationalist sentiment over the campaign to “Recover the Malvinas” (invade and take possession of the British Falkland islands). It created an atmosphere of hysteria so that even the mothers of the murdered and missing citizens killed by the junta who demonstrated against it (the Madres de Plaza de Mayo) during the brief war were exposed to death threats from ordinary people.

After the disastrous war, many ordinary Argentinians were ready to admit that the patriotic fervor of the “majority” was misplaced. Only now is it obvious to them that the ending of the junta and restoration of democracy would have been well worth a coup to throw out the corrupt junta, avoid the war and restore democracy. A populist and a nationalist, Juan Perón, during his lifetime, was popular from the far-left to the far-right, and during his exile, Perón himself had supported both opposing wings (see my book The Left is Seldom Right, Chapter 20, Peronism). His second wife, Eva remains a mythical heroine of the masses and her portrait now graces the Argentine 100 Peso banknote.

The moral of the story (Take note Senators McCain and Graham): There are both good and bad coups.


Norman Berdichevsky's latest book is The Left is Seldom Right.


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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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