By now the U.S. foreign-policy elite should understand that regime change is a bad idea.
The three most recent cases—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—are far from models of success. Afghanistan is now America’s longest-running war with no end in sight. Iraq is a close second and yet another example of the folly of trying to impose Western-style democracy in a tribal society with a Sunni-Shia divide. Moreover, deposing Saddam Hussein created a vacuum that first gave rise to al Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS. Libya has turned out to be a smaller-scale version of Iraq. Another dictator deposed, but even President Obama had to admit regime change “didn’t work.”
Which brings us to Syria, an ongoing military mission that is still a work in progress. Clearly, the Obama administration—via a combination of arming anti-Assad rebel factions and air strikes—was unable to topple the regime in Damascus. One view amongst the foreign-policy elite is that we must work with local partners in Syria but “we must choose the right partners.” Exactly who those right partners are is not entirely clear and our track record picking the right partners in Afghanistan and Iraq gives rational thinkers cause for pause. Indeed, there may not be any right partners and it is incredulous to think that it’s possible to create them, as some have suggested.
The problem with regime change is not whether we can use military force to topple a regime. We certainly did that in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—in different ways and at varying costs. But regime change is not about just getting rid of a regime. It’s about replacing it with a new government crafted in our image.
It’s not a question of tactics—it’s a question of strategy. Regime change is a failed strategy.
The criticism often leveled against regime change is that we do not commit enough resources—usually the U.S. military—or time for post-conflict stabilization and rebuilding a new government where democracy will flourish. The real problem is Washington policymakers’ hubris in believing that type of change can come from outside forces, namely our U.S. armed forces.
What Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya teach us is that getting rid of dictators doesn’t mean that liberty and freedom will automatically replace them and flourish.
If anything, the most immediate outcome is a power vacuum with various factions—with impossible-to-determine motives—vying for power. And if they get to vote, we shouldn’t be surprised when those upon whom we bestow democracy tend to make choices very different than what we expected. Not only are the costs significantly more than what regime change proponents predict (remember when then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz predicted that the Iraq War would be self-financing?), but the outcomes also rarely match predictions.
It’s also worth remembering that ISIS is a product of regime change—a fact often lost on proponents of intervention. Deposing Saddam Hussein in Iraq created the conditions that gave rise to al-Qaeda in Iraq which, in turn, morphed into ISIS. Toppling the regime in Damascus is just as likely to result in a vacuum of instability to be filled by ISIS or the rise of another Islamic group with a radical ideology—using foreign military occupation as a rallying call to radical elements in Islam, with the occupier as the target.
All these are reasons why polls conducted pre-election, post-election, and post-inauguration show the majority of Americans do not believe U.S. foreign policy over the past 15 years—when it embraced regime change—has made them safer.
Which brings us back to Syria. Yes, Bashar Assad is a thug and a brutal dictator. But he is not a direct military or terrorist threat to the U.S. The sole criteria for risking American military lives on foreign soil should be U.S. national security—when the U.S. homeland or American way of life is directly threatened.
So instead of conjuring up new and creative—but unproven—ways to conduct regime change in Syria or anywhere else, our foreign-policy leaders should acknowledge the folly and hubris of it.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.