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Rejecting Regime Change for Good

A new book by a former Obama official condemns the war in Libya and takes the fight to the interventionists.

Opponents of the NATO bombing campaign against Libya hold signs in front of the White House in Washington on July 9, 2011 during opposed demonstrations against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi and against the NATO bombing of Libya. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Regime change leads to long-term costly failure even when it initially “works” at bringing down another government. Toppling a foreign government always causes more instability and costs more than its advocates expect. Both the U.S. and the affected country end up being worse off than if the old government had been left in place, and any ephemeral benefits that might come from overthrowing the government are soon far outweighed by the losses that follow. That is the main argument of Philip Gordon’s engaging Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East. Gordon’s thesis echoes many familiar non-interventionist and realist criticisms of regime change policies. TAC readers will find themselves nodding in agreement with many of his observations and conclusions.

The book is a useful survey of the U.S. record of regime change policies in the Middle East spanning from the 1953 U.S./U.K.-backed coup in Iran to the most recent unsuccessful effort to remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. Because Gordon’s focus is on the impracticality of regime change, it leaves a few blind spots in his treatment of these policies. The illegality of these operations is never seriously discussed, nor is there an explicit acknowledgement that the U.S. has no right to decide the political futures of other countries. The audience Gordon wants to persuade are would-be regime changers by showing them that they cannot get what they want from toppling foreign leaders. Sometimes that leads him to concede too much.

Gordon devotes one chapter to each major U.S. regime change policy in the “greater” Middle East, including two chapters on efforts in Afghanistan in the 1980s and then the war that began after 9/11. The book proceeds in chronological order, and Gordon recounts how each policy was formulated, debated, and then carried out. There is also a chapter on Egypt in 2011 on Mubarak’s removal from power, which fits oddly with the rest because the Obama administration never really sought the end of the Egyptian military regime as a whole. However, the Egyptian example does illustrate the limitations of shaping political developments in other countries, even when their government is aligned with ours. In the chapters on Iraq and Libya in particular, Gordon quotes extensively from the arguments that regime changers made at the time to show how incredibly arrogant and wrong they were in their predictions, before detailing all the problems they failed to anticipate.

Re-reading the smug and overconfident interventionist claims from previous debates was frustrating because it reminded me that policymakers and pundits typically learn nothing from previous regime change failures and go on to make almost all of the same errors the next time. In that sense, Gordon’s attempt to educate would-be regime changers seems somewhat hopeless. Ideologues that seek regime change in this or that country will continue to seek it no matter what the evidence says. They will always insist that “this time is different” because they want it to be, and because they don’t really care what happens to the people in the countries where they want to meddle. The complete lack of accountability in our system ensures that those who have been wrong in every previous debate will never go away.

Gordon is a former Obama administration official, and he served as White House coordinator for the Middle East from 2013 to 2015. This gives his criticisms of Obama administration mistakes in Egypt, Libya, and Syria added weight. His purpose in criticizing the administration’s policies is not to pin blame on particular officials, but to illustrate that no administration has pursued these policies without doing far more harm than good. Having followed and written about most of these policies as they were unfolding, I found Gordon’s accounts to be accurate. He doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the Obama administration’s errors, and his dissection of the failure of the Libyan intervention is particularly damning. He is one of a very few former officials to admit to the destabilizing effects of the Libyan war on the surrounding region. Gordon’s book stands in sharp contrast to some of the memoirs of other former administration officials that pass over these failures in silence or seek to duck responsibility.

One flaw in the discussion of many of these cases is Gordon’s repeated descriptions of some of the countries as “artificial.” He seeks to explain why the U.S. can’t replicate the relatively successful cases of replacing the Japanese and German governments after World War II by stressing these countries’ advanced economies and homogeneity and noting that they were not “artificial entities fractured along the sectarian, religious and national lines that make it so hard to develop and maintain democratic institutions and internal peace.” While Gordon’s points about national institutions and previous experience with representative government are well-taken, it is a mistake to think of these states as being “artificial” after they have been in existence for generations.

All of the countries covered in the book have existed for at least a century, so they aren’t really more “artificial” than any other. Indeed, one of the recurring mistakes that regime changers tend to make is to assume that the U.S. will face little resistance because the countries they want to meddle in aren’t “real” nations. An emphasis on the “artificial” nature of a country can cut both ways, since it suggests to interventionists that it can be remade and altered to their preferences. If we make the mistake of thinking of these countries as “artificial,” we may be laying the groundwork for reckless proposals for partition as the “solution” to the country’s internal divisions. We can also end up encouraging policymakers to endorse U.S. support for an authoritarian ruler on the assumption that only a strongman can keep the “artificial” country together. The “artificial country” description is a pernicious idea that interventionists can exploit quite easily for their own purposes.

Gordon anticipates and answers defenses of these policies by attacking the “if only” logic that many interventionists use to explain away the failures of regime change. He recounts the errors that each administration made, but he doesn’t accept that these policies produced bad long-term outcomes because of flawed execution or insufficient resources. He turns the argument around on the interventionists and asks why greater U.S. involvement in Libya and Syria would have produced better outcomes rather than costlier versions of the same debacles. So far, interventionists have never provided a credible answer.

The core problems with all regime change policies are the same in virtually every case: the U.S. government doesn’t understand the countries in question, it relies on bad information that is frequently offered to them by self-serving exiles and activists, and it doesn’t know how to do state-and-institution-building on such a large scale in any case. The U.S. has expended vast resources for decades on some of these policies with remarkably little to show for it, so it is laughable to think that the problem is insufficient resources. There are things that are simply beyond our government’s power. The answer is not to do regime change on the cheap, as the U.S. tried in Libya, but to reject regime change.

While Gordon makes an overwhelming case that regime change is not worth doing because of its long-term deleterious consequences, he does not rule out the option entirely. He allows that there might be occasions when a government is sufficiently dangerous or atrocious in its treatment of its own people that regime change is worth considering, but he qualifies this immediately by saying “such cases will be rare to nonexistent.” That being the case, it isn’t clear why Gordon feels the need to leave the door to regime change open even a little bit. Just as there are certain tactics that the U.S. refuses to employ because they are inherently illegitimate and wrong, we should be able to rule out regime change for good.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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