We know that a revolution’s success largely depends on the army’s response to it. But can we predict the military’s reaction to an uprising? How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why argues that it is possible to make a highly educated guess—and in some cases even a confident prediction. Zoltan Barany recently took time to answer some questions about his book.
What prompted you to write this book? What gap in the literature were you trying to fill?
ZB: The book’s original motivation came from President Barack Obama. He publicly criticized the intelligence community for its inability to foresee the collapse of Tunisia’s authoritarian regime and the army’s refusal to prop it up in early 2011. I started to think about armies and revolutions in general and then read everything I could find on the Tunisian military. I came to the conclusion that the President was right, the Tunisian army’s behavior – supporting the demonstrators rather than a repressive regime that marginalized it for decades – did not seem all that difficult to anticipate.
I began to research the topic of military responses to revolutions and I realized that there was very little up-to-date work that would be useful for intelligence and policy analysts. Aside from two important books written in 1943 and 1974 – both very insightful but neither systematic analyses into the factors that military elites consider as they decide how to react to uprisings – there was no major study on this subject. I thought it was important enough to take another stab at it.
What was your objective as you were researching and writing this book? Who was the audience that you had in mind?
ZB: The purpose of this book is to present an analytical framework that helps analysts, policy-makers, scholars, students, and the interested public in analyzing, explaining, and ultimately anticipating the way in which generals react to domestic uprisings. No revolution can win without the support of the old regime’s armed forces. Therefore, I believe that once you can anticipate which side the generals will back, you can also make a “highly educated guess” regarding the revolution’s outcome.
My goal was to offer an analytical tool that is easy to use and can assist people whose job is to think about foreign affairs generally and conflicts more particularly. In other words, my aim could not be more practical: to offer a concise, policy-relevant book devoid of social science jargon that asks simple but fundamental questions and advances a straightforward argument illustrated by a manageable number of targeted case studies.
What is required to confidently anticipate the army’s behavior? What are the main components of your framework?
ZB: Most importantly, the analytical framework does assume a relatively high level of knowledge about the given state and its military. Unfortunately there is no shortcut, no substitute for having an in-depth knowledge of the individual case. The analyst who wants to anticipate a military’s behavior must be familiar with that institution and the context in which it operates.
The framework is divided into four spheres of information the generals take into account as they reach their decision. The first and most important source of information is the armed forces itself. Is it cohesive? If not, what are the sources of divisions within the military? Is the army made up of conscripted soldiers or volunteers? Do the generals consider the regime legitimate?
The second group of relevant factors pertains to the regime. How has the regime treated the military – its officers and the army as an institution? How much decision-making authority has the regime bestowed on the generals? Has the regime forced the military into unpopular and unwise missions? During the uprising do regime leaders give clear instructions to the generals?
The third sphere of variables has to do with society or, more precisely, the challenge the military faces. The generals must know the size, composition, and nature of the demonstrations. Are the protesters mainly radical and violent young men or peaceful demonstrators whose ranks include women, children, and old people? Is there fraternization between the protesters and ordinary soldiers? Is the uprising popular?
Finally, the external environment also influences the army’s decision regarding its intervention. Are the generals expecting foreign involvement in the revolution? If so, will foreign forces support the regime or the demonstrators? Will the army’s suppression of an uprising jeopardize the continuation of military aid from foreign powers? In addition, revolutionary diffusion – the quick spreading of the revolutionary ‘virus’ from one often neighboring country to another – might well shape the generals’ decision.
What are some of the factors that are overlooked in the few existing accounts of the army’s behavior in domestic conflicts?
ZB: There are several potentially significant variables that tend to be overlooked or trivialized. Let me mention just three. Perhaps the most important of these has to do with ordinary soldiers. First of all, analysts often focus exclusively on the top generals and occasionally on the officer corps as well while neglecting to study the men they are supposed to motivate to shoot demonstrators. When looking at the soldiers, the conscripts-volunteer dichotomy is key but one must also think about the backgrounds, experiences, and attitudes of these soldiers when trying to anticipate whether they would be willing to use their guns against demonstrators.
The fact that regime leaders often give the military no clear instructions or contradictory instructions is another issue often ignored by analysts. The period of uprisings usually is marked by great political instability and often debates and disagreements between top regime leaders. The notion that they issue conflicting orders or, in the rare case, they are paralyzed and give no clear instructions at all, is a possibility careful analysts must consider. Finally, most analysts tend to discount the importance of the external environment. The sensitivity of generals to the reaction of foreign governments to their response to uprisings is seldom taken into account.
Are there factors that are consistently more useful than others in explaining the military’s response to uprisings?
ZB: Yes. The framework rank-orders factors in terms of expected utility. Generally speaking, the two most important variables are the composite factors of the military’s cohesion and the regime’s treatment of the armed forces.
One wishes, of course, that a clever model could be devised into which one “plugs in” all the pertinent variables and it would “spit out,” as it were, the correct answer. But individual context matters a great deal that’s why it is so important to know the cases well. Some variables that are decisive in one setting may be trivial or entirely irrelevant in another.
So, did your framework pass the test? How useful is it in explaining past uprisings?
ZB: The framework explains the reasons why military elites settled on the course of action they did very well. Having said that, it is important to realize that some cases are easier explained than others. I actually rate the relative difficulty of explaining cases from ‘no brainer’ (such as Bahrain in 2011) to ‘difficult’ (e.g., Iran, 1979). Of course the timing of one’s prediction also makes a big difference: the longer an uprising lasts, the easier it gets to make an accurate prediction. Therefore, the framework includes a section that evaluates how challenging it is to anticipate the correct outcome at three different times: three months before the first mobilizational event of the uprising; one week after the first important demonstration; and three weeks into the crisis.
I am quite confident that my analytical framework can successfully anticipate the army’s behavior in future uprisings. In fact, in the book I used two hypothetical cases – Thailand and North Korea – and explain how one could examine them using my framework.
Why did you select these cases?
ZB: My guiding principle in choosing these cases – uprisings/revolutions in Iran, 1979, Burma 1988 and 2007, Romania and China in 1989, and six Arab states in 2011 – was to be able to say something directly relevant to contemporary audiences and to construct a tool for those who wish to conjecture about the military’s likely reaction to uprisings in the future. I wanted to select both revolutions that succeeded and failed. Another goal was to look at uprisings that took place in different world regions. Finally, to show that from the perspective of this framework it makes no difference what kind of regime follows a successful revolution, I included uprisings followed by sectarian dictatorship (Iran), emerging democracy (Romania, Tunisia), and various hues of authoritarianism (Egypt) or, indeed, state failure (Libya, Yemen).
Zoltan Barany is the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas. His books include The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas and Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military (both Princeton). His most recent book is How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why.