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Political Science

A little understood role

Unicamp project looks into the weak participation by Congress in the future of the Armed Forces

More than 15 years of democracy have not yet been enough to get the National Congress interested in and influencing a crucial issue for the country’s future: the role of the Armed Forces. There are few senators and federal congressional representatives properly informed about military matters and many congressional representatives, when talking about military affairs, confuse the issues of nation defense (protecting Brazilian territory against foreign threats) and public security (combating violence, crime and drug trafficking). To make this picture of apathy over military matters in the Federal Legislature worse, the Executive power today centralizes all important decisions on guidelines and activities to be undertaken by the Army, Navy, and Air Force. “National policy in the military field is established in isolation by the president.

The Legislative Power is not called on to express an opinion during its preparation. In practice, it just ratifies the Executive’s proposals”, explains political scientist Eliézer Rizzo de Oliveira, coordinator of the Strategic Studies Nucleus of the Campinas State University (Unicamp), and the originator of the conclusions described above. “I am not in favor of dual command of troops, but the Executive should make an effort to make Congress jointly responsible for National Defense policy”.

Having studied military matters for more than two decades, Oliveira has just completed a thematic project, financed by FAPESP, that examined Congress’s participation in the destiny of the Armed Forces since the restoration of democracy to this country (José Sarney’s presidency in 1985) up to Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s second term. According to his account, among the 512 federal congressional representatives and 81 senators, there are ten – 20 at most – representatives with a good knowledge of military life.

Ideological leanings
On the short list of Congressional representatives with a deeper view of the Armed Forces, Oliveira includes representatives of all ideological leanings. On the right, with an especially corporatist standpoint, Jair Bolsonaro (PPB-RJ), a reserve army officer, stands out. On the center-right, another representative mentioned is the businessman Luciano Pizzatto (PFL-PR). On the left, the figures that stand out are José Genoíno (PT-SP), who took part in the Araguaia guerrilla war, a movement that the military dictatorship fought and defeated in the 70s, and Aldo Rebelo (PC do B), a long-standing communist. Among center-left politicians, the research mentions Yeda Crusius(PSDB-RS), Antonio Carlos Pannunzio (PSDB-SP) and José Anibal (federal congressman representing São Paulo and currently the national president of the PSDB).

In Oliveira’s view, many congressional representatives and senators mix up two essential concepts when they speak of the roles of the Armed Forces. “They have a narrow perception of what national defense is and a broad perception of what public safety is”, says the researcher. In other words, they think that the Armed Forces should be more concerned with fighting crime (whether organized or not) and drug trafficking, and protect “law and order” than defending the country from a foreign enemy. It is no wonder, therefore, that calling on the Armed Forces to police towns in given situations – such as during the Earth Summit in 1992, the mega-conference involving dozens of heads of State in Rio de Janeiro – is rarely the target of harsh criticism in Congress.

“This view by our representatives is wrong. The military should not be involved in public security. At most, the Armed Forces should lend a hand in this”, says Oliveira. An occasional hand, as in the case of calling on the Army, at the end of May, to put down the strike-mutiny of Military Police soldiers in the State of Toccantins. At the request of the local governor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso authorized the dispatch of troops to contain the movement.

Currently, the constitutional option of calling on military troops to handle internal matters is a decision resting solely with the President of the Republic, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. Congress does not need to be consulted on the subject. “In my opinion, the Constitution should involve the Legislature in this process. The president should send a request for authorization to Congress, as he would if he wished to impose a state of siege or declare war”, says Oliveira. “And, once the intervention is over, he should be accountable to the congressional representatives and senators”.

Legal loophole
If the situation, at present, does not seem ideal, the researcher recalls that, during the first few years of the present Constitution, it became dangerously easy and commonplace to turn to the military to handle public security. Between October 1988 and July 1991, during which time the Constitution was established and the first complementary law regulating military affairs was passed, a legal loophole gave complete independence for any member of the Three Powers, at the municipal, state or federal level, to call out the troops to handle “law and order”.

Without having to ask for authorization from the President of the Republic or being accountable to anyone, any mayor, alderman, congressman or judge could call out the federal troops to suppress conflicts. This was possible because the original wording of article 142 of the Constitution, referring to the military, was silent on the matter and there was no regulation. All that existed in writing was that one of the constitutional powers could call out the federal troops to ensure “law and order”. Nothing more.

Working within the legal loophole, a judge requested Army troops in November 1988 to put down a strike at the Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional, inVolta Redonda (RJ). The result was a sad page in Brazilian history: three dead during the intervention. This legal loophole was closed in July 1991 by passing a complementary law. According to this law, only the President of the Republic has the power to decide on employing the Armed Forces, on his own initiative or in response to a request sent by the presidents of the Federal Supreme Court, the Senate, or the Chamber of Deputies.

Would the lack of interest and absence of knowledge by members of the Legislature regarding military matters not be a natural consequence of a power that was silenced by the Armed Forces during the military dictatorship? Oliveira is not satisfied with this kind of explanation. “In Brazil, there is no sense of strategic outlook by civilian authorities”, he declares. The target of the criticism is not just the Congress but the Executive branch too. Presidents under the democratic system have not attached much importance to the preparation of a more detailed military policy. In contacts with officers and executives in Southern Cone countries, the researcher came away with the impression that the Brazilian Armed Forces showed considerable timidity in foreign affairs.

“Our neighbors think that the Brazilian military could exert more influence internationally. The circumspect participation abroad by Brazilian soldiers in peace missions under the umbrella of the United Nations Organization (UNO) is a symptom of this timid policy. Amid criticism of the performance of the Executive in the conduct of the Armed Forces, the researcher quotes one encouraging action: the creation, two years ago, of the Ministry of Defense, headed by a civilian. With the new portfolio, the commanders of the Armed Forces (the Army, Navy, and Air Force) have lost the status of minister and now report to the head of the Defense Ministry – and no longer directly to the President of the Republic. This is more fitting in a democracy.

Not worried about being the world’s police

If Brazil does not yet know the role of its Armed Forces, the United States knows and says, loud and clear, what it expects from its soldiers and officers, regarding its military structure as a sort of world policeman. It is ready to defend, it is true, US territory, and the safety of its citizens, but above all, it is in a state of alert to defend the enormous range of Washington’s interests. The White House, for example, has granted itself the right to make or promote wars solely in order to guarantee consumer markets for its products and to gain access to sources of wealth and natural resources. “Freedom to trade is part of the United States’ defense policy”, says the researcher Eliézer Rizzo de Oliveira.

All this can be seen in the United States’ Defense Department’s website. The reports on the workings of the country’s Armed Forces explain the role of the military machine of the largest power on earth. The 2000 version contains the following section: “When the interests at stake are vital – that is to say, they are of great and preponderant importance to the survival, security and vitality of the nation – the United States will do what is necessary to defend them, including, where necessary, the unilateral use of military force”.

Vital national interests include: protecting the sovereignty, the territory and the people of the United States; avoiding the emergence of hostile regional or hegemonic coalitions: ensuring unlimited access to key markets, energy sources and strategic resources; deterring and, if possible, defeating aggression against allies and friends of the United States; guaranteeing freedom of the seas, the sky and space, and the security of vital communication lines.

In the 2001 report, the right to go to war for economic interests was toned down. The threatening tone of the fourth vital interest – access to markets and strategic resources – was changed and gave way to a more politically correct construction: “To protect the economic well-being of the United States society”. Even so, the new wording does not change the essential character of what was previously said: the Americans place their Armed Forces at the disposal of commercial wars. The man with the word is the new president of the world’s only superpower, the conservative republican George W. Bush.

The project
Armed Forces and Democracy: the role of Legislative Power (nº 96/07499-3); Type Thematic Project; Coordinator Eliézer Rizzo de Oliveira – Unicamp; Investment R$ 25.920.40