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AcademicIamA rocket scientist turned law professor who specializes in democratic coups. I wrote a book that made me a public enemy in Turkey, and I ended up on Wikileaks. AMA about rocket science, Wikileaks, Turkish politics, coups, and Trump.

Nov 7th 2017 by ozan_varol • 26 Questions • 1178 Points

Hey reddit, my name is Ozan Varol. I’m a tenured professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and the author of The Democratic Coup d’État. This is my website.

I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, in a family of no English speakers. I moved to the United States at age 17 by myself to attended Cornell University. I served on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers mission. I built stuff that went to Mars and wrote code that snaps photos of the Martian surface.

These days, my academic work has focused on challenging conventional wisdom on constitutional design and democratic revolutions. In my first book, The Democratic Coup d’État, I advance a simple, but contrarian, argument: Sometimes a democracy is established through a military coup.

I was declared a public enemy in Turkey as a result of the arguments now in the book. Turkish President Erdogan lashed out against me in a public speech, which was followed by ad hominem front-page attacks in government-friendly newspapers. I was also targeted by troll armies on social media who lobbed accusations at me ranging from traitor to CIA agent. My name popped up in the "Erdogan emails" leaked to Wikileaks.

I’m really excited to be here and answer any questions you may have. AMA!

My proof: My Twitter and My Website

Hey everyone, I'm taking a break to teach a class, but I'll be back later to answer the remaining questions. Thanks for your participation and thought-provoking questions!

Q:

Do you play Kerbal Space Program?

A:

Never heard of it. Is it good?


Q:

Indeed. It is basically a rocket science simulator with a full planetary system to explore albeit at about 1/4 scale earth. So you can get to orbit at about 76k meters. But you have to build and design your own rockets. There are many many unintentional rapid disassemblies.

But once you manage to get a craft into a decent circular orbit and have fuel left over to come back again it is pretty awesome

A:

Sounds like it's right up my alley. I'll check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.


Q:

Is there any correlation between the exothermic thrust coefficient of a stage 3 booster and Bon Jovi's hair?

A:

If I were giving out awards for the best question of this AMA, you'd win first place (so far).

My answer: There's a correlation, but not causation.

In my experience (having attended several Bon Jovi concerts--a fact I'm embarrassed to admit), Bon Jovi's hair changes are caused by the publicity demanded by each album release. Hence, the new silver look with the upcoming release of his new album.


Q:

Who would be your ideal president for the USA?

A:

Our next President should be a foreign born citizen. Yes, that would require a constitutional amendment, and it's worth it. Those of us born in foreign countries affirmatively chose America over all others; they didn't just happen to be born here. They had to work (in many cases, very hard) to become a citizen of this country.

That's the kind of spirit that a President should embody.


Q:

What is your take on "organic coups" vs. those that are organized, funded, and facilitated by external states? Specifically, what is the prevalence of organic, democratic coups as compared to those with the end goal of installing a leader friendly to the external state covertly organizing the coup?

A:

Great question. It's not always apparent which coups are "organic" vs. organized by external actors. And even in organic coups, there's usually some external influence. For example, the 1974 coup in Portugal, which toppled what was then Western Europe's oldest dictatorship, was staged by a NATO-generation of officers who had been inspired by their training in foreign countries.

In many cases, where a foreign government is more overtly involved, the transition doesn't produce a democracy because the foreign state cares more about installing a friendly leader, as opposed to that leader's democratic proclivities. Augusto Pinochet's 1973 coup in Chile is a good example of that.


Q:

I didn't consider that - what you say about the transition not producing a democracy does seem to ring true. I'm still amazed that so many people accept the "official" narratives and justifications for entering wars and supporting coups that do ultimately result in a friendly dictator or autocrat.

As a follow-up, if I'm allowed, do you see this pattern ending? Will Western powers ever adopt a live-and-let-live policy, or are we destined to ultimately destroy ourselves in this/these forever war/s?

Thank you so much for your answers, participating in this AMA, and doing what you do!

A:

Unfortunately, we tend not to learn our lessons from fighting unwise foreign wars that go horribly wrong. Each intervention, while intent on solving one problem, exacerbates another.

There's a great book by Andrew Bacevich, called America's War for the Greater Middle East. I think you would enjoy it. I have a summary of it on my blog:

https://ozanvarol.com/contrarian-guide-americas-conflict-middle-east/


Q:

How strong of an effect do you believe Erdogan / Trump will have on Europe in the near future?

I ask this because in my country (The Netherlands) Erdogan tends to show up on the news quite a bit, and there is quite a large population of Turkish people here.

Trump obviously never even leaves the news, and I wonder if some shit will hit the fan in America so hard some time soon pieces of it will hit us here across the ocean.

A:

It's cliche, but we live in a global world. If the shit hits the fan in America, some of it will inevitably end up across the globe.

Politicians learn from each other. It's no wonder that, in many countries (including your own), politicians with authoritarian impulses simultaneously moved from the fringes to the mainstream.


Q:

What was it like working for team rocket? Did they have any genuine scientific research projects or was it all just gambling/plagiarism of silph co.?

A:

The first rule of Team Rocket is you don't talk about Team Rocket.


Q:

Aloha! if i have personally have an impulse control problem, but it's specific, do i have any DeltaV?

Also. can you execute a coup in a failed state simply by getting enough people on the same page, in spite of the existing system?

A:

Coups can happen in failing states, precisely because they are failing states. There's a huge power vacuum, and the domestic military (if they are stable) can step in to fill the vacuum by staging a coup.


Q:

Have you an opinion about the Kurds. Should Turkey be in NATO?

A:

Yes, Turkey should be in NATO. The military alliance has been a progressive force for Turkey. It anchors Turkey to the West, which is a good thing.

Is there something more specific you'd like to know about the Kurds?


Q:

What's your thoughts on Spacex's colonization plans for Mars? Do you see any major problems with ISRU for methane production and fuel storage? And where do you see immediate growth in human presence in space the next 15 years.

Also, do you believe that if the Mueller investigation uncovers serious misconduct by the Trump campaign and given his praise of Putin and Erdogan, that an attempt to bring him to justice in light of proof of wrongdoing that violence is a probable outcome?

A:

I'm impressed with what SpaceX has done. NASA, unfortunately, has been a bloated bureaucracy for some time now, and I'm hopeful about the impact that SpaceX (and others) will make. It's pretty amazing that SpaceX can send a rocket at the same cost as a NASA Christmas party. That said, SpaceX's plans are quite ambitious. I'm not sure how Elon Musk comes up with the dates (2022 is the current data for the colonization of Mars), but I doubt that it will happen by then. I hope he can prove me wrong.

As for your other question, violence by whom? By Trump's domestic proponents? Or by Turkey or Russia?


Q:

Violence domestically. By either end of the spectrum. i can foresee a scenario where if Trump is impeached/forced out of office that his supporters react violently. I can also see if he refuses to cooperate and attempts to retain power in contempt of legal process that anti-Trump factions may react violently.

A:

Agreed. Violence is possible in both scenarios.


Q:

With the gains and progress AKP has made in Turkey over the last decade and a half, do to believe Kemalism is still relevant? And perhaps further, do you believe Ataturk's legacy and values will still play an important role in Turkey in a generation?

A:

Kemalism still remains relevant, but to a rapidly diminishing portion of the population. AKP has made strides to erase Ataturk's legacy both in the educational and cultural realms (most recently, AKP decided to demolish the historical Ataturk Cultural Center in Taksim). These moves have paid off, to some extent.

That said, there remains a minority still strongly dedicated to his legacy and values. They're intent on passing on those values to future generations, even if they happen to be in the minority.


Q:

I know your work is mostly about how democracies can be established through a coup, what about situations where the norms in a democracy had decayed? Can a coup be used to reestablish a democracy or democratic? I am thinking about Trump and the generals surrounding him, obviously but could take something less controversial, like Huey Long in Louisiana in the mid 20th century.

A:

Certainly. Portugal is a good example of this: It was a democracy before the Estado Novo dictatorship came to power in the early 20th century. A military coup in 1974 toppled the regime and transitioned the country to democratic rule.

When democratic decay happens and a country becomes authoritarian--we're seeing another example of this phenomenon in Venezuela--a military coup can be used to re-orient the country back toward democracy.

Trump is a democratically elected leader, so a coup against him (currently) wouldn't fit the framework I cover in the book. If he were to refuse to give up power upon an impeachment or an electoral loss, the military may be forced to act to stem the authoritarian tide.

There've been signs of brewing discontent with President Trump among members of the armed forces. In an address late August to troops stationed abroad, former Marine Corps General and Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued a stern warning. He noted that America has "problems we don't have in the military" and instructed the troops to "hold the line" until a solution to domestic problems can be devised. It was unusually strong language for a former general who prides himself on remaining above partisan politics, and even stronger for someone who currently occupies a spot in the cabinet. Mattis added, "We’ve got the power of intimidation, and that’s you, if someone wants to screw with our families, our country and our allies.”

Mattis’s comments were a not-so-thinly veiled rebuke of Donald Trump—and he isn’t the only military leader expressing frustration with the Commander-in-Chief. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, the five armed service chiefs issued statements condemning neo-Nazis—without the “on many sides” equivocation that President Trump used. Trump's ban on transgender people from serving in the military also provoked a strong reaction from the military's top brass. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, declared that transgender troops would continue to serve until a detailed policy plan was issued and that the military would “continue to treat all of its personnel with respect." In other countries, similar sentiments have served as early indicators of the military's insubordination.


Q:

Did Russia work with Erdogan to stage the coup? I don't doubt that the coup was real, but I can't help sense that the Turkish brass knew the details, allowed or encouraged it through Russian provocateurs, and, as we can all see, used the coup to persecute his political opponents.

A:

I agree that the July 15 coup attempt was real. I don't know if Russia was involved (they can't have their hand in everything).

If I can speculate, I would guess that Erdogan knew about the impending coup, but let it happen knowing that it was bound to fail. Erdogan is a firm believer in the adage that a good crisis should never go to waste. As you note, he used the coup to institute a state of emergency and authorized an immediate crackdown on dissidents.


Q:

Have you ever found that a coup is all about those who follow the rules (pretty much) and those who don't?

A:

A coup, by definition, is an extra-legal action. People who plot and stage coups are breaking all sort of rules. They come to power by violence or threat of violence.

But as I argue in my book, paradoxically, an event as illegal and undemocratic as a military coup can produce a democratic outcome (in some cases) by transitioning the country from dictatorship to democracy.


Q:

How do you handle the world of politics and everyone having an opinion? Do you have advice for people who want to be as educated as possible about a topic? How do we have civil conversations without talking out of our asses, basically?

A:

I think we need to raise threshold required to have an opinion on something. I often tell my law students that the best lawyers know their opponent's argument better than their opponent does. But most of us tend to form an opinion without considering the arguments on the other side.

Empathy would also help. Humans operate on different frequencies. If someone disagrees with you, it’s not because they’re wrong, and you’re right. It’s because they believe something that you don’t believe. They're seeing something that you're not seeing.

You can read more about my thoughts on that very question at this link:

https://heleo.com/facts-dont-change-peoples-minds-heres/16242/


Q:

I once had a professor make the assertion that the reason democracies did not truly take hold in Middle Eastern and Asian countries is that they lack a long tradition of non-partisan bureaucratic institutions, which are the backbone of a strong democracy. Would you argue this is true, partly true, or not at all the case?

A:

First, I would dispute the premise of your professor's assertion that democracies didn't take hold in Asia and the Middle East. There are plenty examples to the contrary (see, for example, Japan).

But to answer your question, it's often misleading to identify a single cause for a complex problem. Problems tend to have multiple causes, and the lack of stable, competent bureaucratic institution can certainly be one reason why a country doesn't develop a democratic system, but there are many others as well.


Q:

Is Erdoğan 's support base mostly religious fanatics? Do you think it is possible that Turkey might become socially regressive after his stints in power?

A:

I don't think "religious fanatics" is the right phrase. There are certainly extremists within Erdogan's base, but most of his base consists of a pious middle class that's been marginalized by secular governments of the past.

And yes, it's certainly possible for Turkey to become socially regressive. We're already seeing some signs of this (in the form of increasing restrictions on alcohol use, to cite one example).

The country is regressing democratically as well. Erdogan has consolidated power in his presidential seat and curbed the independence of virtually all institutions designed to check abuse of power.


Q:

[deleted]

A:

Kurds are a long-disenfranchised minority in Turkey. They've been treated as second-class citizens for a long time now--assigned the duties of citizenship, but denied many of the benefits, including the right to speak in their mother tongue. This led to an on-again-off-again conflict with the Turkish state.

The current Turkish government has no interest in normalizing relations. The leaders of the Kurdish party in Parliament (HDP) have been jailed for supporting terrorist activist against the Turkish state. The coup attempt on July 15, 2016, provided further fodder to President Erdogan to conduct massive purges against his political opponents, including deputies from HDP.

Progress requires consensus, and consensus requires compromise and some level of trust between negotiating parties. These elements are absent from the current political discourse.


Q:

How does being a rocket scientist and law professor qualify you to talk about Donald Trump? (this is not a passive aggressive question I'm just curious)

A:

I don't have any particular expertise for speaking about Trump (other than being an informed citizen). I don't view myself as an "expert" on anything--even on matters that other people would call me an expert on. Whenever someone asks me to express an “expert opinion,” I instinctively look behind me to see if they’re speaking to someone else.

I’m constantly learning. I’m continuously revising my opinions. Once I declare myself to be the expert on anything, I fear that my learning will stop.

I've written more about this issue at this link.


Q:

Would you call President Trumps rise through a bought DNC, a cheating Hillary, entirely slanted media and bought and paid for social media platform a successful coup vs the corrupt government/media or is this squarely on the US voters finally wanting to make an actual change that was promised previously, but never once delivered? How would you categorize his meteoric rise through the garbage that is and hopefully "was" the US political landscape?

Does Turkey have any great stories of success in politics (large scale or small) like we do with President Trump?

A:

Erdogan's rise to power is a story of monumental success in politics. He started out as Mayor of Istanbul, he was jailed for reciting a poem that a Turkish court interpreted as a call to violence, he got out, formed his political party, and then became Prime Minister and now President.

His rise to power occurred through populist appeals to a suffering middle class (not unlike Trump). The pious middle class in Turkey had been languishing under fragile, secular coalition governments. Erdogan emerged as their savior.


Q:

What's the historical precedence for democratically elected leaders being overthrown via a coup? How much of a possibility is there that Trump will be impeached, and if he is impeached is it possible that we'll see an increase in right wing insurgency and/or civil war?

A:

Coups usually overthrow democratically elected leaders. The phenomenon I describe in my book, where the military deposes a dictator and installs democracy, is the exception, not the norm. Though it's not an outlier: According to an empirical study, in the post–cold war era, 72 percent of coups (31 out of 43) were followed by democratic elections within five years.

Trump's impeachment is certainly possible, depending on what Mueller's investigation reveals. If he is impeached, you can certainly expect significant pushback from his supporters. After all, Trump remains popular among GOP voters (with approval ratings in the 70s), many of whom would not take kindly to his ouster.


Q:

What is your IQ? And why have you decided to switch from rocket science to law?

A:

I've never tested my IQ. I grew up in a culture where standardized tests determined every path you took in life, so I tend to be wary of them.

As for your second question, here's my answer from another thread above:

I loved worked in rocket science, particularly on the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project. I wouldn't trade that experience. But for me, my education in astrophysics felt disconnected from reality. I wanted to make an impact, and losing myself in quantum mechanics wasn't doing it for me. I took a law class in undergrad to see if it might be a fit. I remember reading a case for the first day of class about a botched nose job. This was a real dispute between a patient and her doctor, and it felt like a breath of fresh air to me. That's when I transitioned into law.

But the analytical skills I picked up in rocket science have come in handy in law. And some of the best students I've had as a law professor have been engineers and scientists with sharply tuned critical thinking skills.


Q:

Do you think you could get in rocket science because you're much smarter than the average human? Or could an average person do what you did with hard work?

I really hope you will answer this :-)

A:

It's certainly possible with hard work. We have a tendency to rely too heavily on this notion of the natural talent--whether in rocket science, athletics, or business. But if you dig deeper, with rare exceptions, the successful people got to where they are through hard work, a focus on perfecting their processes, focusing on the long-term instead of the short-term, and persisting where others would have quit.