Category Archives: International

Autocrats Fall When Military Support Disappears

New Orleans     All around the world this is a familiar story, often marking the beginning of the end for dictators, autocrats, and even elected leaders that have outstayed their peoples’ welcome.  There’s a direct correlation, approaching an iron law, in so many countries that when popular support disappears, such leaders depend on the support of the military to maintain power.  When it disappears, then time’s up.

President Bolsanaro of Brazil whose support has imploded over his handling of fires in the Amazon, the coronavirus, and many other issues, is now raising the specter of a coup by the military to fan the flames.

Evo Morales, the elected president of Bolivia, was re-elected in a controversial election marked by accusations, for a fourth term, but left within weeks when the military indicated that their support was gone.

Repeat this story in Libya, Pakistan, absolutely North Korea, the Philippines, not infrequently in African countries in the past.  We may not know the full story in China, Iran, and Russia, but there are few doubts that control of the military is central in the current status quo within these regimes.

Now, we see this unfolding in another failed state, the United States.

The scandalous military action to clear Lafayette Park across from the White House so that President Trump could have a ridiculous photo-op in front of the nearby church with a bible in his hands has divided his evangelical base, but it has shaken the military from top to bottom.  Add that to his hiding in a bunker, fearful of protests in front of the White House, his new fence around the White House perimeter, and, especially his attempt to mobilize troops around the country to stop the protests, and there is no way to not conclude that this is one wannabe autocrat scared to his toes and running for cover with only Twitter to protect him.

The Secretary of Defense publicly opposed mobilizing troops against civilians with the right to protest.  Former generals and defense officials have publicly condemned Trump’s actions this time.  The military is conducting an assessment of the DC National Guard’s activities in an exercise common in after-battle assessments in our wars.  The helicopter pilots who buzzed the crowd are likely facing discipline.  The New York Times reports that everyone was scrambling behind the scenes to shore up the DC National Guard, normally used in disaster recovery and relief operations, and 60% black, with recruits from other cities, often unhelpfully gung-ho Republican governors looking for a fight as well.  The reports include demoralized soldiers having to face friends, neighbors, and relatives protesting.  The National Guard lieutenant reportedly countermanded the top dogs by insisting that his charges not “dominate” the area as others were ordering.

President Trump needs to learn what other autocrats know by heart.  When you lose the military, it’s time to pack your “go” bag.  The writing is on the wall, and just keeping the names of Confederate generals on ten Army bases will not be enough to win the military back after you have tried to use our soldiers against civilians.

Even the military is drawing a line that the president cannot cross.

Anthony Kwan | Getty Images

Are Hong Kong Protestors Caught in a Box Canyon?

Ponce   The Hong Kong protests continue unabated as the year ends, having begun on March 15, 2019, and definitely serving as a benchmark for the year.  Over Christmas, the protests moved once again into the neighborhoods.  Although the numbers have waxed and waned over the nine months, the protests still have the ability to pull out hundreds of thousands on some weekends.  Another mark of their staying power was the sweep of 80% of the allotted seats in the city council election by the pro-democracy forces.  Although the police have been brutal at times and the threat of surveillance and arrests are ever present, the protests have been unabated.

During this period, I’ve shared the tactical and technological lessons the Hong Kong protestors have taught us all, and they have been impressive.  Their ability to persist as a movement that mobilizes with an opaque structure and no externally observable leaders has been widely reported as an asset, allowing them to continue as they dodge potential oppression by the more powerful Chinese state.  One of their organizing principles worth remembering has been to “be like water,” meaning able to move to find its own level and to be porous and fill the gaps with protests.

A historian of the protests, Antony Dapiran, a lawyer interviewed in the New Yorker, noted the “phases” of the regular protests that would begin as peaceful marches and demonstrates and then evolve into more violent confrontations with a harder core as the numbers decline.  An estimated 1.7 million have participated in protests at one time or another constituting about 20% of the Hong Kong population.  One activist interviewed by the New Yorker “…estimated that there were about ten thousand who could be considered frontliners.  Of those, perhaps eight thousand had set up roadblocks, painted graffiti, or neutralized tear-gas cannisters with traffic cones [with] the hard core – some two thousand ‘proactive’ protestors who were willing to escalate confrontations with the police and to engage in activities, such as throwing Molotov cocktails or sabotaging surveillance cameras, that could result in serious prison sentences.”

There cannot be any question about the consistency or courage of the protestors, but any organizer would ask two questions.  The first would be “How long can they continue?”  The second would be “Where can they get a win?”  The first level victory was a withdrawal of the bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be taken to mainland China for trials.  The problem is that the government has lost any credibility and protestors don’t believe that if they stop, the government will not look for a time to reintroduce the measure.   Organizers also know that there is a point where protestors will tire without victories, the economic impact will turn those at the bottom against the action, and that the middle will oppose the violence.

Worse, the strategy beyond the protests and their deep public support is unclear.  There seem to be no obvious parties to negotiate anything seen as fair by all parties.  From thousands of miles away with limited information, it is hard to not worry that this may be yet another situation where the tactics could devour whatever is left of the strategy.