Argument

If at First You Don't Succeed…

The Palestinians are having another go at the United Nations. Will this time be as disastrous as the last?

The Palestinians may appeal to the United Nations for statehood. Again.

That was the message out of Ramallah on Sunday, June 24, when Fatah, the dominant Palestinian faction in the West Bank, concluded a meeting of its congress.

If you listened closely, you might have heard a collective head slap halfway around the world at Foggy Bottom. The U.S. State Department fought hard last year to derail this very process at the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting in Manhattan. The Palestinians delivered their request, but failed to garner enough support in the Security Council, thanks to heavy U.S. and Canadian lobbying. U.S. diplomats then prevailed upon the Palestinians to shelve their application for nonmember observer status, which would have granted them some of the rights afforded to sovereign states, including the ability to sue the Israelis for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The Palestinians backed down last year. This year, they may not take no for an answer.

Although deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak once single-handedly reined in Palestinian adventurism and prodded Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table, his successor, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, may not follow suit. To put it mildly, encouraging diplomacy with the Israelis has never been part of the Brotherhood's platform.

Even if the military retains full control of foreign policy in Egypt (a likely scenario for the foreseeable future), it is still doubtful that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will stand in the way of the Palestinian statehood campaign. Indeed, it's doubtful that any Arab state will. With the Arab Spring in full bloom, regional supporters of Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy have long since scurried for cover.

Abbas now cites Israeli settlement activity as the reason he refuses to negotiate. It was never a red line for him in the past, but it's now a convenient formula for him that can't lose. Palestinians support it. And you hear no complaints from the region, where anti-Israel rhetoric is growing increasingly strident.

According to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the PLO, which is leading the charge to Turtle Bay, is now following the lead of a different regional player: Qatar. In late March, Erekat announced that the Palestinian leadership had reached an agreement with Doha to try again at the U.N. Other Palestinian insiders confirm that the Qataris are leading the charge, and one former official says they're even funding the legal effort for the PLO, producing analysis on the costs and benefits of the statehood initiative.

Throughout the spring, in one way or another, Palestinian officials affirmed this new, yet familiar strategy. For example, Abbas told Tunisian representatives as much in late April, and an unnamed Palestinian official echoed the same sentiments to Xinhua in May. Citing this anonymous source, the Chinese news agency reported that Abbas was "drumming up support for another battle in the United Nations to get a recognition of an independent Palestinian state."

Behind the scenes, the Palestinians have even tried to lay a foundation for the coming showdown in September. Hillary Zaken of the Times of Israel first reported that Abbas was angling to use the U.N.'s Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, held June 20 to 22 in Brazil, "to advance the PA's status in the eyes of the international community." Indeed, Abbas wanted Palestine to be identified as nothing less than a state at the conference, despite the fact that the U.N. had not yet done so. The Palestinian ambassador to Brazil, Ibrahim Alzeben, later admitted that he was angling for "full-status participation," while Israel, the United States, and Canada were reportedly fighting this on the sidelines, and apparently prevailed.

Similarly, in early June, the same three countries cried foul when Palestinian U.N. observer Riyad Mansour was treated as a representative of a state during a meeting of signatories to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. As the U.N.'s online summary account notes, the Canadian delegation protested where the Palestinian observer was seated, noting that it "did not recognize a Palestinian State" and that the seating arrangement "might create a 'misleading impression.'"

The Palestinians, notwithstanding such resistance from the Great White North, actually have broad international support for their initiative. The PLO's Negotiations Affairs Department claims that 128 countries back the notion of a Palestinian state, and the number could be as high as 140. Either way, this is enough support at the General Assembly, in the words of Abbas during a recent trip to Paris, "to obtain the status of nonmember state, as is the case for the Vatican."

But Abbas will need to weigh this international support against the wall of resistance he's getting from Washington. In an interview with the Saudi Okaz newspaper, Erekat said that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration was threatening to suspend aid and close down the PLO mission in Washington if the Palestinians returned to the U.N.

Obama cannot afford to stand back and watch the Palestinians play for statehood as he campaigns for his reelection. If the Palestinians make it across the finish line at the General Assembly, Obama's domestic critics will charge that he threw Israel under the bus.

According to Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, the Obama administration has instructed the Palestinians to sit tight until after the presidential election. Abbas has since expressed unease about going back to the U.N. before November. But he also has his own considerations at home, where he's under fire on a few fronts.

For one, his spat with the rival Hamas faction is deeply unpopular. While Abbas continues to pay lip service to reconciliation with the Islamist group that overran Gaza in 2007, most Palestinians realize that the likelihood of a unity government is next to nil. With the Muslim Brotherhood having won the Egyptian presidency, Hamas (a Brotherhood splinter) believes it has gained more leverage, and it is therefore even less likely to compromise with Abbas on the terms of a unity government.

No less important a factor is Abbas's witch hunt for his political foes. In the past few months, he has gone after longtime allies of former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, including Mohammad Dahlan and Mohammed Rashid, charging them with corruption. Abbas's enemies have fired back, alleging that Abbas is himself guilty of wrongdoing, ranging from maintaining illicit slush funds in Jordan to illegally influencing the Palestinian judiciary. With accusations flying on a daily basis, Abbas has found himself knee-deep in muck of his own creation.

It may be months before things quiet down. In the meantime, Abbas knows he has to do something to shore up his leadership. Even if he escapes judgment on corruption, he is now -- in the midst of the Arab Spring -- already long past his legitimate presidential term, which officially expired in January 2009. He knows that Arab populations continue to challenge their leaders over political and economic stagnation. He can always blame Israel for the woes of the Palestinian people, but the argument only goes so far.

Abbas, now 77, smokes more than a pack of cigarettes a day, and he is keenly aware of the passing of time. He has failed to deliver peace. He has failed to deliver unity. Statehood may be his last opportunity to leave any meaningful legacy.

September may be his moment. Again. But it may also be the moment where Washington blocks him. Again.

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Coups Ain't What They Used to Be

Want to take over the state? You don't need to put tanks in the street anymore.

There are no tanks in the streets. Military marches aren't blaring from the radio. But talk of coups seems to be everywhere. The Egyptian military government's on June 14 -- just prior to the announcement of presidential election results -- has been widely described as a "slow-motion coup." The Pakistani Supreme Court's dismissal of two prime ministers in less than a week has been called a "judicial coup." Former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo has called his rapid impeachment last week a "parliamentary coup." The Atlantic's James Fallows even responded to the U.S. Supreme Court's possible ruling against President Barack Obama's individual health-care mandate with a blog post titled, "5 Signs the United States is Undergoing a Coup."

In each of these cases, there has been a lively debate over whether the use of the word "coup" is warranted (except perhaps in the case of Fallows, who decided to tone down his own headline later in the day). The term coup d'état (literally "strike of state") has been in use since French King Louis XIII took power by exiling his own mother in 1617, though the basic concept is much older. The United States aside, the real question today should be not whether these are coups, but what kind they are. The modern coup d'état can be divided into three -- possibly four -- somewhat overlapping types.

First, there's the classic military coup that was prevalent in Africa and Latin America during the Cold War. The definition here is fairly narrow. "One, it's an abrupt event, not a gradual changing of laws," says political scientist and forecaster Jay Ulfelder. "Second, there's some aspect of illegality. Third, there's the use or threat of force. All of that defines what just happened in Egypt or Paraguay out of the picture, but it's not what many people mean when they say 'coup.'"

The most recent example of an old-school coup was the Malian government's overthrow by the military on March 21. The governments of Fiji, Mauritania, Madagascar, Niger, and Guinea-Bissau have also been overthrown by relatively by-the-book coups since 2006. Despite these examples, classic military coups are still fairly rare these days compared with the height of the Cold War (1964 alone saw 12 military coups).

So where have all the coups gone? In a widely cited 2011 paper, political scientists Hein Goemans and Nikolay Marinov attribute the decline of military coups to the end of Cold War superpower competition. Whereas military juntas could once count on the support of either the Soviet Union or the United States depending on their ideological orientation, in the post-Cold War world, political stability is more valued and coups are frowned upon. Goemans and Marinov also argue that coup governments are now more likely to revert to at least semi-democracy in a short period of time (this has already happened in Niger) rather than face international isolation and sanctions.

The second type is the self-coup -- known in Spanish as an autogolpe -- in which a government that came to power through democratic means gradually erodes a country's democratic institutions to keep itself in power permanently. The Peruvian autogolpe of 1992, in which President Alberto Fujimori dissolved Congress with the help of the military, is a classic example. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Russia's Boris Yeltsin have also been accused of instituting slow-motion self-coups. The "deep state" operated by the Pakistani military and security apparatus is arguably a type of perpetual self-coup as well.

Some have termed the recent actions of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) an autogolpe, but the label doesn't completely fit because the SCAF was never democratically elected to begin with. Steven A. Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that a better precedent for Egypt may be Turkey's 1997 "post-modern coup," in which the military brought down an Islamist government through behind-the-scenes pressure and leaks to the media rather than through an overt military show of force. "The defining characteristic of a post-modern coup is not putting troops on the streets," Cook said in an interview with Foreign Policy. "Instead, you have the informal institutions of the state and past patterns of civil-military relations at work. It's a more subtle kind of way to get what they want." Indeed, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, leader of the SCAF, reportedly requested a translated copy of Turkey's 1982 Constitution, which gives the military wide oversight powers, shortly after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

Cook argues that "post-modern coups" demonstrate the frailty of a military regime. "The Turkish military is actually pretty weak because it's always had to intervene to keep the political system along the lines that it wants," he says. Cook predicts that because of popular pressure, Egypt's military authorities will have an even more difficult time than their Turkish counterparts in maintaining control over political developments.

Finally, there seems to be an emerging form of hybrid coup, in which the military takes power through use of force but provides at least a fig leaf of legal justification for its actions. The textbook example may be the 2009 Honduran constitutional crisis, which saw the removal of leftist President Manuel Zelaya from power. On the one hand, Zelaya's residence was stormed by the military, which forced him onto a plane out of the country in an echo of Latin American coups of old. On the other hand, the country's Supreme Court had, a day earlier, found him answerable to charges of treason and abuse of authority. Further complicating matters, Zelaya was accused by his opponents of instituting a kind of autogolpe by pushing for a referendum to eliminate presidential term limits.

The Paraguayan Senate's unprecedented move to impeach Lugo over the course of only a few hours without any chance to mount a defense -- termed a "golpeachment" by some -- over the killing of 17 landless peasants in clashes with the police, also falls into the hybrid category. The conservative political establishment that has long opposed the leftist Lugo, who has exhibited some autocratic tendencies, seems to have found a convenient way to push him out. It may not have been technically illegal, but it wasn't particularly democratic either. Brazil and Argentina have withdrawn their ambassadors from the country to protest Lugo's removal.

Hybrid coups are extremely difficult to judge from the outside. After the ouster of Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed in February, the United States initially recognized what seemed like a legitimate and lawful transfer of power following months of conflict between the president and his security forces, before it became clear that Nasheed had been forced to relinquish his position at gunpoint. Nasheed was also accused by opponents of undermining democracy by interfering with the country's judiciary. And in the case of Honduras, many conservative commentators in the United States continue to maintain the legitimacy of Zelaya's ouster.

Ulfelder says that in Latin America, the ongoing ideological dispute between leftist governments led by Chávez and his allies and their conservative opponents makes it hard to find objective views on whether a transfer of power is legitimate or not. "The leftist view is that it's democracy versus nefarious elite forces on the right and that these things are coups for sure," he notes. "Those on the right say the real issue is Chavismo as a regional threat comparable to communism and that these are legitimate efforts to reinstate democracy." In other words, whether you see these actions as coups or reinstatements of democracy likely depends on your own political sympathies.

The end of the Cold War has indeed made traditional coups more difficult to carry out -- a welcome development no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on. But recent events show that anti-democratic leaders have more subtle ways of increasing their power, and their opponents are often willing to stage power grabs of their own in the name of defending democracy. No one's hoping for a return to tanks on the streets, but it is often much harder these days to figure out who the bad guys are.

PABLO PORCIUNCULA/AFP/GettyImages