America has always had two ways of stopping the undesirable course of enemy countries and switching their track: the overt and the covert. Overt means the Pentagon and covert means the C.I.A.
Much has been written about the muting of Obama’s overt actions through the sending of drones in the air instead of boots on the ground. Obama’s silent wars don’t look like wars: they don’t have tanks or troops, they don’t have congressional approval and they don’t provoke public debate or demonstration because they remain below “the collective judgment” and consciousness of the public. But though undeclared, unannounced and unperceived, they are wars. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, at least 320 drone strikes have left between 2,566 and 3,570 people dead in Pakistan. At least 411 to 890 of those were civilians. Though silent, the drones have drowned out the cries of Pakistan’s government to call off the illegal strikes that violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. At least 46-56 drone strikes have left 240-349 people dead in Yemen, while other U.S. actions in that country have killed an additional 148-377. Somalia has suffered three to nine strikes which have left seven to twenty-seven dead in addition to the 47 to 143 people who have been killed by other U.S. actions. These wars are silent wars. They are not named and are not called wars to help history forget them.
What has received less attention is the muting of Obama’s covert actions. Always in the shadows, the current crop of coups has submerged deeper and darker still: so disguised, they are not even recognized as coups. Unlike the covert coups of earlier administrations, in places like Iran, Guatemala and Chile, Obama’s coups are not seen to be coups and involve no tanks or guns. They are silently disguised as domestic current events.
Under Obama, coups have been cloaked in one of two disguises. The coup manifests either as the shuffling of the legal and constitutional workings of a nation’s government or as the expression of the public will through mass democratic expression in the streets. Both manifest themselves as domestic and both manifest themselves as democratic.
The disguise that is most important to reveal at this moment in history is the second one: the cloak of mass democratic movements in the street. This regime change in disguise amplifies the minority in the street into a voice great enough to overturn the majority in the polls.
The first modern experiment in this form of coup was conducted in the streets of Iran in 2009. America has from the inception of the Iranian Revolution accused Iran of being less of a democracy than she claims to be and has used this accusation as a tool for undermining the legitimacy of Iran’s government. The West’s insistence that Iranian elections are not real competitions but mere performances pitting a number of identical candidates preapproved and preselected by the Ayatollah has been unmasked and betrayed by the repeated defeat of the anointed candidate by a completely unexpected victor. The last three Iranian Presidents, spanning the past sixteen years, were completely unexpected victors who took both the Western pundits and the Iranian experts totally by surprise and, thus, proved the genuine competiveness of Iranian elections. The most recent election-by-surprise of President Hassan Rouhani continues the trend of upsets begun by Seyyed Mohammad Khatami and continued by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But using the Iranian democracy against democracy in Iran reached its apex in 2009’s reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: not the track America wanted, or expected, the Iranian train to run down. So the track had to be switched.
The West picked up and amplified the claims of the desired but defeated candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his Green Movement that the election had been fraudulent and stolen out from under them. These claims of electoral fraud and, therefore, of the illegitimacy of the Iranian administration were used to legitimize regime change. After all, the claim goes, the regime was forced on the people against their choice and over their chosen candidate.
Except that it wasn’t. Despite frequent promises to furnish evidence, and despite frequent opportunities to do so, Mousavi never delivered the case for electoral theft. And, as Ayatollah Khamenei himself pointed out, this was no narrow victory where the rigging of a few votes or even a few hundred thousand votes could steal a victory. “How can they rig eleven million votes?” the Ayatollah asked of an election that got about an 85% turnout and saw forty million people cast their ballots.
But it is not just the titanic challenge of moving millions of votes from one side of the electoral ledger to the other. The polls continually showed that the votes were always there. Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett have documented that fourteen methodologically sound polls—run externally by experienced Canadian and American polling organizations, including the University of Maryland and former pollsters for such world leaders as Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela, and internally by the University of Tehran—demonstrated the predictability, reasonableness and legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s 62.5% vote total. On election night, the University of Tehran’s polls showed Ahmadinejad vacuuming up 57% of the vote. In post election polls, between 55% and 66% of voters said they voted for Ahmadinejad.
America’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the popular election of Ahmadinejad and the credence and amplification she gave to the exaggeratedly popular Green Movement provided an umbrella under which Mousavi’s Green Movement could take to the streets and attempt the removal of the regime. Thus, America wielded democracy as a weapon to facilitate regime change. Rather than recognize the legitimate results of a democratic election with a turnout that humiliates her own, she subverted democracy to support a coup carried out by her chosen leader against a leader democratically chosen by his people. If you can’t change the government in the polls, change it in the streets.
This unnoticed attempted coup in disguise exploited one of the potential shortcomings of democracy. It is the nature of democracy that the majority of people, not the unanimity of people, get to select the government. Even if a government wins a convincing 62.5% of the vote, that leaves a sometimes dissatisfied 37.5% of the people to take to the streets. In a large country like Iran, where forty million people voted, that translates into fifteen million people who can take to the streets. When picked up by the media, that can be made to look like a massive social movement that justifies supporting what appears to be a popular demand for a change in regime. The Green Movement never approached anything like those numbers or that kind of representation of the people. But when amplified by the Western media, a democratic social movement is born. And a group who could not change the government through the democratic electoral process appears to make a strong democratic case to change the government through social pressure. A mass minority protesting in the streets produces a cry heard more loudly around the world than a silent majority in a secret and sound proof polling booth.
The first experiment fell short. The laboratory moved, and this pattern of silent coup reemerged in the streets of Venezuela four years later: another enemy nation, another leader not on the U.S. track that the people keep continuing to ride.
With the death of Hugo Chavez, who had, to the dismay of America, been elected and reelected since 1998, the question of the continuation of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, complete with its foreign policy orientation towards autonomy from the United States, was put back to the people.
The victor, by a surprisingly narrow margin of 50.78% to 48.95%, was Chavez’ successor, Nicolás Maduro. His opponent, and America’s choice, Henrique Capriles, demanded an audit, not only of the automatically audited 54% of voting machines (an audit that found no problems), but of all of them. Even though Maduro said that he was open to the 100% audit, Capriles called on his supporters to take to the streets. The Western media focused its lenses, not on the reelection of Maduro and of Chavez’ party or on every country in the world recognizing the election’s result except the United States, but, as with Iran’s Green Movement, on the opposition’s claims of fraud and on the social movement in the streets.
The U.S. State Department continued not to recognize Maduro and continued to call for a recount and review of the alleged irregularities even though, despite his call to the streets, Capriles never actually filed his legal challenge. 150 electoral monitors from around the world monitored Venezuela’s election, including delegations from the Union of South American Nations and the Carter Centre. And, just as Jimmy Carter had said in the past that "of the ninety-two elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world," so current monitors testified to the elections fairness. Mark Weisbrot quotes a U.S. human rights lawyer and election observer as saying that “What we found was a transparent, reliable, well-run and thoroughly audited electoral system.”
Not only was the election fair, but Weisbrot reports that a statistical analysis shows that the probability of an audit of the remaining 46% of voting machines swinging the election to Capriles is about one in 25 thousand trillion. Despite the insanity of the request, the Election Council agreed to audit the rest of the machines. Capriles then called off his protest.
As in Iran, America’s refusal to recognize the elected government and her legitimization of the protest in the streets provided cover to the opposition while it attempted to overturn the election results and overthrow the elected government. America’s cooperation with Capriles amounted to America’s cooperation with another Venezuelan coup attempt. When an opposition that for fourteen years had failed at the polls to change the government failed at the polls again, it created the appearance of a massive social movement in the streets to give credibility to calls to change that government through social pressure. And, once again, democracy is wielded as a weapon, by taking advantage of the discontented minority left by that system of government to bring about a regime change in the streets that could not be accomplished in the polls.
The importance of recognizing this method of disguising a coup at this moment in history becomes apparent when reading the headlines from Egypt. The importance of at least considering that this kind of guiding force has been active, hidden behind, and hidden from, the protesting crowds in the street becomes apparent when the patterns are compared. For in Egypt too, a massive social movement took out the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi. Whether or not Morsi deserved to be removed from office, it is significant that, unlike Mubarak and the other dictators of the Arab Spring, Morsi was democratically elected, but was removed, not by the instruments of democracy, but by a social movement and a military coup. Taking down an undemocratically elected dictator through a social movement is a triumphant application of democracy, but taking down an elected leader through nondemocratic means is, it would seem, an abdication of democracy.
Recent events in Egypt look, in some ways, like a page out of the playbook used by the C.I.A. in the first half of its history. In many C.I.A. coups and coup attempts, the game plan followed, amongst others, five steps to change a regime. First create propaganda to create the image of a government in crisis; then encourage, or even hire, small crowds to protest in the streets; use the media to magnify those crowds into what looks like a mass popular expression for regime change; find a third party who constitute an acceptable replacement government; and then hope, or encourage, elements in the military to switch to the civilian side and overthrow the government.
The creative recognition in the Egyptian case was that the discontent and protests in the street did not have to be counterfeited and created. Because Egypt was not a pure coup, but a hybrid of coup and a genuine popular revolt, it was not necessary to encourage or hire street protestors: they were there in massive numbers. Although, according to Aljazeera, U.S. federal government documents do reveal that the Americans have been funding senior opposition figures in Egypt. The existing legitimate democratic revolution in the streets was appropriated and transformed into an undemocratic military coup disguised as a democratic social revolution. What could not be satisfactorily accomplished in the polls by the Egyptian military and its American patron was satisfactorily accomplished in the streets. The experiment in disguising a coup as the legitimate expression of the public will through mass democratic expression in the streets succeeded in Egypt where it failed in Iran and Venezuela because the expression in the street was sincere: it merely woke up to find that it didn’t get what it expressed in the manner it thought it would get it. And it may find yet that the manner it got it in cancels out what it was expressing the desire for.
When the Egyptian revolution first began, America got caught by surprise and was forced to play catch up. As is her historical pattern, the U.S. tried to catch up by first backing the pro-American dictator, then encouraging him to reform in order to survive the revolution and then finally embracing his inevitable defeat and looking for the next best, most similar leader. In the Egyptian case, the third step got away from the Americans. The U.S. backed a number of leaders more palatable to her interests before narrowly losing at the poles to an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government.
The continuation of the Egyptian revolution might be seen as a correction to that course. Franklin Lamb has recently suggested that the Americans are backing Mohammad ElBaredei to replace Mohamed Morsi. Though no great friend to American foreign policy in the past, ElBaredei would at least navigate Egypt’s course back onto a secular path and off the Islamic political path that America fears in the wake of the Arab uprisings.
Beyond Egypt’s borders, recognizing, and at least considering, this method of disguising a coup at this moment in history becomes important and interesting when applied to Turkey and Brazil where social movements are pressuring long serving governments who have been repeatedly and popularly elected. As in Iran and Venezuela, opponents to these governments have been unable to unseat them democratically at the polls. In Brazil, Lula da Silva won 61.3% of the vote in 2002 and 60.83% in 2006. In the most recent election, in 2010, Lulu’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, won a majority 56.05% of the vote. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, far from declining in popularity, has seen his government’s actions rewarded with increasing voter support: 34% in 2002, 46.66% in 2007 and 49.83% most recently in 2011. Whether these movements, like Iran and Venezuela, are silent coups attempting to accomplish in the streets what could not be accomplished in the polls will be determined, in part, by whether they evolve clearly into movements demanding change from government or of government.
In the past four years, all of Iran, Venezuela, Egypt and, possibly, Turkey and Brazil fit a possible pattern of coups, or attempted coups, that are not recognized to have been coups. They are coups without tanks or guns. They are coups silently disguised beneath the cloak of democracy and the legitimate calls of mass social movements for change.
The second disguise donned by the Obama administration is the shuffling of the legal and constitutional workings of a nation’s government. This disguise, like the first, makes the coup look both domestic and democratic. This disguise makes a coup look like a legal, constitutional change.
In Honduras, democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya was whisked out of Honduras, and the kidnapping at gunpoint was dressed up as a constitutional obligation. After Zelaya announced a plebiscite to determine whether Hondurans wanted to draft a new constitution, the hostile political establishment falsely translated his announcement into an unconstitutional intention to seek reelection. The ability to stand for a second term would be considered in the constitutional discussions, but was never announced as an intention by Zelaya. The Supreme Court declared the President’s plebiscite unconstitutional, the military kidnapped Zelaya, and the Supreme Court charged Zelaya with treason and declared a new president: a coup in constitutional disguise.
The Americans knew the transition in power was an illegal coup cloaked as a constitutional act. Her own diplomatic cables from the embassy in Honduras say “There is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup . . . .” And yet, as in Egypt, Obama has never used the word “coup”. Over the objections of the Organization of American States, Latin America’s Mercosur and the twenty-three Latin American and Caribbean countries that made up the Rio group, the U.S. recognized the coup government. A silent coup not recognized as a coup through the disguise of a domestic and democratic constitutional act.
The same pattern was evident in Paraguay when the right wing Frederico Franco took the presidency from democratically elected, left leaning Fernando Lugo in what has been characterized as a parliamentary coup. As in Honduras, a coup was made to look like a constitutional transition. The right wing opposition opportunistically capitalized on a skirmish over disputed land that left at least eleven people dead to unfairly blame the deaths on President Lugo. It then impeached him after giving him only twenty-four hours to prepare his defense and only two hours to deliver it. The Latin American organizations Unasur and Mercosur suspended the new Paraguayan government. The U.S. spent coup day negotiating a new military base in Paraguay. The word "coup" has never been uttered: a coup disguised as a legal, constitutional parliamentary shuffle.
And, again, the U.S. was not caught by surprise by the coup in disguise. As early as 2009, her own embassy cables say that Lugo’s political opposition has as its goal to “Capitalize on any Lugo mis-steps” and “impeach Lugo and assure their own political supremacy”. The cable notes that to achieve their goal, they are willing to “legally” impeach Lugo “even if on spurious grounds”. Obama’s administration was waiting for the illegal coup disguised as a constitutional procedure to occur. And it let it occur without, as in Egypt and Honduras, ever calling it the coup it knew it to be, permitting a coup that doesn’t look like a coup, disguised as a domestic and democratic parliamentary act.
A similar pattern may have been evident in the Maldives and, possibly, Bolivia. And a not dissimilar pattern may have also been followed in Haiti where the U.S. recognized a new government despite illegitimate elections and the banning of the most popular party in Haiti. Honduras and Paraguay looked like constitutional procedures, but weren’t; Haiti looked like a legitimate election, but wasn’t. In both cases, the U.S. recognized the government.
Silent coups are not new. But in the Obama years, silent coups have been disguised as domestic and democratic transitions in government that are never recognized or acknowledged as coups because they are deeply disguised as domestic, democratic events involving the shuffling of the legal and constitutional workings of a nation’s government or the expression of public will through mass democratic expression in the streets. Obama’s coups use democracy to undermine democracy.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in U.S. foreign policy and history.