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How Do We Stop Washington’s Regime Change Addiction?

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Tyler J. Clements

Philip Gordon has written a smart article in Foreign Affairs explaining why policies of regime change fail even when they initially “succeed” in toppling the targeted government. He concludes:

Regime change will always tempt Washington. So long as there are states that threaten American interests and mistreat their people, U.S. leaders and pundits will periodically be pulled toward the idea that Americans can use their unparalleled military, diplomatic, and economic power to get rid of bad regimes and replace them with better ones. The long, diverse, and tragic history of U.S.-backed regime change in the Middle East, however, suggests that such temptations—like most quick fixes that come along in life and politics—should be resisted. The next time U.S. leaders propose intervening in the region to overthrow a hostile regime, it can safely be assumed that such an enterprise will be less successful, more costly, and more replete with unintended consequences than proponents realize or admit. So far, at least, it has never been the other way around.

Gordon makes a persuasive case that the U.S. should generally avoid policies of regime change, and I recommend reading the full article. It is always encouraging to see the case against regime change being made, but I fear that the argument will be wasted on regime changers. So long as the costs of regime change are primarily borne by the people in the affected countries, they will continue to promote these policies until there is enough of a political and professional price for them that it no longer makes it worth their while. Pointing out the chaos and devastation that regime change policies have frequently caused does not discourage them, because destabilizing and fragmenting these countries simply provide regime changers with new excuses for further interventions. They are primarily arsonists, but regime changers are also eager to pose as firefighters once they get the blaze started.

I would just add that policymakers and politicians keep opting for policies of regime change because they insist on unrealistic goals for U.S. foreign policy, they inflate threats to justify U.S. interference in other countries’ affairs, and they exaggerate the interests that the U.S. has at stake in various parts of the world. As long as the U.S. expects other states to capitulate and abandon their core security interests, the temptation to pursue regime change will be strong for many in Washington. No self-respecting government would give in to the extreme demands that the U.S. has made of Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Syria, to name a few recent examples, and so it usually doesn’t take much from hawks to convince policymakers that replacing the government is the answer to the problem. Only regime change in North Korea is perceived to be so outlandish and dangerous that there are very few who publicly support it. In the other cases, it is the stated or implied goal of U.S. policy. As Gordon points out, even the replacement regimes are never as pliable and subservient as Washington wants, and to the extent that they are subservient they end up turning the population against them, but regime changers never think beyond the short term and don’t worry about the consequences of their policies.

When the U.S. claims that some third-tier dictatorship on the far side of the world poses an intolerable threat to our country, the appropriate response should be not just to argue against regime change, but to challenge the irrational fear of a much weaker state that is driving that policy. One of the weaknesses in arguments against regime change is that the critics of the policy will often concede that a certain government really is the terrible menace that the regime changers claim, but the regime changers are consistently wrong. In almost every case, regime changers target another country because it is weak and cannot fight back, not because it is powerful and threatening. Having granted the regime changers’ premise that there is a threat to be countered, the critics end up disputing the tactics that should be used. If we want to avoid future policies of regime change, we have to challenge threat inflation at every turn and make it politically costly for our leaders to exaggerate external threats. We need to treat advocates of regime change as the extremists that they are, and advocacy for such a policy should be made so toxic that no sane person wants to be associated with it. If the U.S. didn’t imagine that it had “vital” interests in every corner of the globe, it would have no pretext for threatening to overthrow other governments. Regime change is a radical and reckless goal at the best of times, and it is difficult to think of many scenarios where it would be justified. So-called “rogue” and pariah states may have very bad governments, but we have no legitimate reason to try to replace them. In addition to having no legitimate reason to do this, our government has no right to try. Regime change needs to be viewed as a gross violation of the rights of another country, because that is what it is.

Regime change is treated as a respectable, debatable option in the U.S. because we presume to have the right to dictate terms to other nations and “shape” their political futures. Historically, this has not been limited to the Middle East, but has been part of U.S. foreign policy for more than a century. From Wilson’s arrogant claim that “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men” to Trump’s demand that Maduro relinquish power, the U.S. has meddled in the affairs of dozens of nations not because they threatened us but because we felt entitled to interfere and we had no respect for their sovereignty and independence. If we cannot check that impulse to meddle and intrude into other nations’ internal affairs, I fear that our government will be drawn back again and again to the destructive and outrageous policy of regime change. Put another way, regime change is just the extreme expression of the misguided desire to dominate the world, and until we learn to resist that desire our government will likely keep driving the country into the same ditches of unnecessary sanctions, coups, and wars.

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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