This article is part of Regime Change Doesn’t Work, a forum on the use of military intervention to overthrow foreign governments.
Still knee-deep in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, this spring, the United States entered the regime change business in Libya.
After Muammar Qaddafi began suppressing a popular uprising there, the UN Security Council authorized a no-fly zone to protect civilians. President Barack Obama made it clear from the beginning that half-measures would not suffice, asserting in March that Qaddafi had “lost the legitimacy to lead” and demanding that he “step down from power and leave.” Although the president later backtracked somewhat from his hawkish stance, in April he reaffirmed that regime change was the U.S. objective. In an op-ed penned with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama denied any intent to “remove Qaddafi by force,” but added, “It is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power. . . . Qaddafi must go and go for good.”
The Libyan operation is the third post-9/11 U.S. military intervention whose explicit goal is regime change. The United States also played a role in a fourth case, the removal of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.
As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush criticized Clinton-era intervention in conflicts and humanitarian crises of questionable relevance to the national interest and promised to focus instead on great-power politics. The 9/11 attacks, however, triggered a reversal, prompting Bush to launch wars for regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq and engage in massive nation-building efforts in those countries. Failed states became a threat to U.S. security because they offered safe havens for terrorists, and tyrants with weapons of mass destruction had to be opposed lest they provide those terrorists arms. Suddenly, an administration that promised to abjure military intervention in weak states embraced a doctrine of preventive war. Bush cited the post–World War II transformations of West Germany and Japan as precedents for Afghanistan and Iraq, ignoring the vast differences between these countries as well as many unsuccessful instances of attempted regime change and nation building.
Obama’s reasons for confronting Qaddafi are more like Clinton’s in Bosnia and Kosovo than Bush’s in Iraq and Afghanistan, but several enduring factors trump changes in administration and provide a powerful impetus for continuing efforts at regime change spearheaded by the U.S. military.
First, there are few external constraints on the exercise of American power: the United States spends nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined and dwarfs most potential adversaries in military capability. Because the United States is so powerful, defines its international interests so broadly, and is so accustomed to intervening militarily on behalf of those interests, only a radical realignment of strategy would enable American leaders to forswear regime change. As long as the United States is committed to providing stability in most of the world, rooting out terrorism, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, curbing human rights abuses, spreading democracy, and pursuing global primacy, frequent intervention is unavoidable.
Second, U.S. leaders face few hurdles to initiating military action abroad. Even though regime changes are costly and can result in prolonged occupations and insurgencies, U.S. leaders can successfully downplay or lie about the potential costs in order to obtain public approval. This was amply demonstrated by the Iraq invasion: long before the war began, widely available information showed that the Bush administration’s liberate-and-leave story was flawed. Yet the president and his advisors insisted that taking out Saddam Hussein would be cheap and easy, and the administration won the support it needed. Even after this story proved false, Bush was not held accountable, winning reelection in 2004. Leaders in democracies such as the United States focus on manufacturing consent for regime change rather than planning realistically for the fallout. As Afghanistan and Iraq show, it is easier to get the troops in than to get them out, even if public opinion turns against the mission.
Finally, Americans tend to personalize their conflicts. Almost every target of U.S. intervention in the post–Cold War world has been labeled another Hitler. It is enticing to believe that removing one person from power will fix a problem. This “evil leader” syndrome is one reason why it is so difficult for the United States to fight limited wars: the temptation to “go to Baghdad” rather than make peace with a dictator is strong, and, historically, killing the leader has meant defeating his army. Decapitation by airpower and targeted killing have become popular because they supposedly enable the United States to oust leaders without a ground invasion, thereby obviating the need for a costly war.
Beyond the question of whether it is wise for the United States to seek regime change in yet another country while it continues to clean up the mess from the last two, the Libya adventure begs a reconsideration of the wisdom of regime change in general. Focusing on consequences, I will steer clear of issues of legality and moral justification. Rather, I ask what the historical record tells us about the capacity of externally imposed regime change to bring peace, stability, and democracy to target countries. Is the bloody aftermath of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq the exception or the rule? Does regime change work?
The short answer is: rarely. The reasons for consistent failure are straightforward. Regime change often produces violence because it inevitably privileges some individuals or groups and alienates others. Intervening forces seek to install their preferred leadership but usually have little knowledge of the politics of the target country or of the backlash their preference is likely to engender. Moreover, interveners often lack the will or commitment to remain indefinitely in the face of violent resistance, which encourages opponents to keep fighting. Regime change generally fails to promote democracy because installing pliable dictators is in the intervener’s interest and because many target states lack the necessary preconditions for democracy.
Since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the United States has become the world’s foremost practitioner of regime change.
Before proceeding, a point about terminology. “Foreign-imposed regime change” refers to instances where a state, or group of states, removes the effective political leader of another state by the threat or use of force and brings a different leader to power. About one-fifth of regime changes are undertaken to restore a previously governing ruler who was deposed in a coup or revolution or by a foreign power. A good example is the U.S. intervention in Haiti that returned Aristide to office in 1994. The vast majority of regime changes, however, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, empower leaders who have not held power before. In this article, I focus on this more common type of regime change.
A History of Violence
Regime change is nothing new to the United States. Since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the United States has been the world’s foremost practitioner. Of the roughly one hundred cases of externally imposed regime change in that period, the United States has been responsible for more than twenty. These are only the “successful” attempts.
Regime change is popular in part because it enjoys bipartisan support. Historically, many Democrats have been regime change enthusiasts. Woodrow Wilson overthrew leaders in Mexico (1914), the Dominican Republic (1914, 1916), and Haiti (1915) and demanded that German militarists leave power during World War I. Wilson’s Democratic successors Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman presided over the most ambitious regime changes in history—the remaking of West Germany and Japan after World War II—and Truman sought to unify Korea under democratic governance during the early stages of the Korean War. President Kennedy tried on multiple occasions to oust or kill Fidel Castro—most ignominiously at the Bay of Pigs in 1961—and approved the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam.
Republican Presidents have not shied away from regime change as a policy instrument, either. William Howard Taft sent Marines to help oust Presidents José Santos Zelaya and José Madriz of Nicaragua and Miguel Dávila of Honduras. On Eisenhower’s watch, the CIA helped to depose Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Eisenhower also ordered the overthrow of Indonesia’s Sukarno and Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, although Belgium was responsible for the latter’s ouster and subsequent murder. In 1970, following Salvador Allende’s election in Chile, Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to “prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him,” and the United States played a supporting role in the coup that felled him. Ronald Reagan went after Grenada and supported the Contras’ effort to topple the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and George H. W. Bush brought down Manuel Noriega in Panama.
The neoconservatives of the George W. Bush administration are thus not alone in pushing regime change. Liberal internationalists such as President Obama share many of the same goals as neoconservatives—for instance, maintaining U.S. primacy and spreading democracy—differing mainly in their greater trepidation about using force. And liberal internationalists have additional goals, such as preventing massive human rights abuses, that make regime change an attractive policy.
The United States has not been the sole practitioner of regime change. The Soviet Union installed Communist governments in Eastern Europe after World War II and interfered regularly to keep friendly rulers in power. Nazi Germany overthrew multiple leaders in Western Europe and the Balkans in World War II. France has intervened on numerous occasions in its former African colonies to depose leaders it viewed as hostile. Great Britain twice tried, with little success, to place puppets on the Afghan throne in the nineteenth century.
Minor powers have also played the regime change game. Of the eight Honduran leaders who have been overthrown by outside actors, seven were removed by neighboring Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Other minor powers that have engaged in regime change include Brazil and Argentina in Paraguay (1869), Chile in Peru (1881–82), Tanzania in Uganda (1979), Vietnam in Cambodia (1979), and Rwanda and Uganda in the Congo (1997).
The Logic of Regime Change
In every instance of regime change, the target state is behaving in a way that the intervener finds objectionable or threatening, and the intervener believes that installing new leadership will correct that behavior.
Sometimes the growing power of a rival state prompts the intervention. During both World Wars, Allied leaders decided that it would serve little purpose to make peace with Germany because the potential military power of the country would remain a latent threat. Their solution was to impose a benign democratic regime. The erratic behavior of a particular leader might also make a state seem threatening. In the case of Iraq in 2003, Bush administration officials and their supporters became convinced that Saddam Hussein was a reckless gambler—“unintentionally suicidal,” in the memorable phrase of Kenneth Pollack—who was bent on obtaining nuclear weapons that he would share with terrorists. To prevent this nightmare scenario, the United States again chose regime change.
In another scenario, the target itself is not a threat, but is simply a weak state that looks as if it may fall under the influence of a more powerful, potentially hostile one. Under these circumstances, interveners seek to install leaders more disposed to their own interests. British fears that Afghanistan was in danger of falling into Russia’s orbit, which would put Tsarist troops directly across the border with India, prompted both nineteenth-century British incursions into Afghanistan. Similar reasoning applied in Nicaragua and Honduras in the early twentieth century, when the United States deposed their leaders after they sought loans from Europe.
Americans tend to personalize their conflicts. Almost every target of U.S. intervention in the post-Cold War world has been labeled another Hitler.
Leaders may also want to replace rulers who subscribe to a competing ideology, the spread of which they view as dangerous or as extending the influence of a rival state. The adoption of Communism—or even populist leftism—by governments outside of the Soviet Union’s immediate sphere of influence in Eastern Europe during the Cold War was often sufficient to incite a U.S. military response. The Communist—and by extension Soviet—threat led the United States to make common cause with right-wing dictators and work to overthrow leftist regimes (or regimes viewed as susceptible to leftist influence) in Iran, Indonesia, Guatemala, Congo, Cuba, Ecuador, Brazil, Guyana, Chile, and Nicaragua.
Whatever the individual circumstances, when states install new rulers in other states, they empower leaders they believe will be friendly and reliable allies; the intervening state doesn’t want to take responsibility for governing. In the case of imposed dictatorships, the new leaders are beholden to the interveners—not to their constituency. The newly empowered leaders may share the intervening power’s ideology, further cementing ties, and the intervener may install institutions that help maintain the new alliance. Democratic interveners who impose democracy often believe that democratic systems generate elites with compatible views on the illegitimacy of using force against other democracies, respect for human rights, and the need for democracies to band together to oppose autocracies.
Foreign-imposed regime change, in sum, is a method whereby countries can neutralize threats and spread their influence by empowering leaders who share their preferences. And all this is supposed to come on the cheap, avoiding the costs of outright conquest in blood, treasure, and reputation.
A Recipe for Civil War
Despite what interveners hope, regime change implemented by outsiders is not a force for stability. More than 40 percent of states that experience foreign-imposed regime change have a civil war within the next ten years. Regime change generates civil wars in three ways. First, civil war can be part of the process of removing the old regime from power and suppressing its remnants. In Hungary in 1919, a Romanian invasion unseated the Communist regime of Béla Kun. His successor Miklós Horthy carried out a “White Terror” that killed roughly 5,000 supposed Communists, communist supporters, or sympathizers. Similar conflicts and purges followed the ousters of Arbenz in Guatemala and Allende in Chile.
Second, regime change fosters civil war because it abruptly reverses the status of formerly advantaged groups. Remnants of the old regime’s leadership or army may wage an insurgency against the new rulers rather than accept a subordinate position. This happened in Cambodia following the Vietnamese invasion in December 1978. The Vietnamese army quickly defeated the Khmer Rouge in conventional battles, but Pol Pot, other top leaders, and many fighters escaped to remote jungle hideouts along the Thai and Laotian borders. Determined to regain power, the Khmer Rouge waged a decade-long insurgency against Vietnam’s puppet, Heng Samrin, and occupying forces. Similarly, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Sunni Ba’athist ex-soldiers took up arms to eject U.S. occupiers and restore Sunni rule.
Finally, regime change can contribute to the outbreak of entirely new civil wars by reversing popular policies or instituting unpopular ones. In Guatemala U.S.-supported leaders rolled back the signal achievement of the deposed Arbenz administration: land reform that had redistributed property from large landholders such as United Fruit to peasants. President Ydigoras Fuentes also alienated many in the Guatemalan officer corps by allowing the CIA to train Cuban exiles on Guatemalan territory for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. These resentments contributed to the MR-13 rebellion that erupted in November 1960. Civil war continued in Guatemala in one form or another for more than 30 years, killing approximately 200,000 people. Evidently, the United States had not learned from its prior experience ousting interim Dominican president Francisco Henríquez y Carvajal in 1916, which sparked an insurgency that continued until 1922. One of the major factors that drove the rebellion was land redistribution, which favored U.S. multinational corporations involved in sugar production and deprived many Dominicans in the region of their property.
In addition to generating grievances, regime change also tends to sap the capabilities of the state to maintain order, reducing its ability to respond to internal opposition. In many cases, including Afghanistan and Iraq, the central government completely collapses and the security forces disintegrate. Foreign occupiers, meanwhile, don’t necessarily want to get involved in providing law and order and often lack the local knowledge required to differentiate friend from foe. These conditions create an opening for rebellion. Regime change therefore provides two of the key ingredients—motive and opportunity—for civil war.
In order for the intervener to succeed, its chosen leader usually must remain in office. History shows this is a risky bet because most foreign-installed leaders don’t stick around long enough to secure peace or do their foreign benefactor’s bidding.
Leaders leave office in one of two ways: regularly or irregularly. Regular exits follow the established norms and procedures of a country’s political system, such as elections. Leaders removed in a regular fashion rarely suffer punishment beyond removal. Irregular forms of removal, on the other hand, involve the threat or use of force, and leaders ousted in this way are likely to be imprisoned, exiled, or killed. The degree to which foreign-installed leaders are removed irregularly should, therefore, tell us something about regime change’s capacity to create new and lasting allies.
Research by political scientists Hein Goemans, Giacomo Chiozza, and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch shows that roughly 65 percent of political leaders leave office via regular procedures. By contrast, less than 20 percent lose power in irregular fashion. Natural deaths and other mechanisms account for the remainder. Leaders that come to power after foreign-imposed regime change, however, are overthrown by domestic opponents at a much higher rate. Sixty-five percent of them are ousted violently, most within five years of taking power and almost all within ten years. Compared to other leaders removed by violent means, foreign-installed leaders hold office for almost a year less.
More than 40 percent of states targeted for regime change have a civil war within ten years.
Chile replaced three Peruvian presidents during the War of the Pacific (1879–1884) in search of one who would end the war on favorable terms. The Chileans finally found General Miguel Iglesias, but only two years later, he was overthrown by dissidents angered by his betrayal. Guatemalan President Carlos Castillo Armas was assassinated three years after the CIA installed him. Coup followed coup in South Vietnam after Diem’s assassination until Nguyen van Thieu gained a steady hold on power in 1965. After France intervened in the Central African Empire to oust Jean-Bedel Bokassa, his successor, David Dacko, lasted two years before he was overthrown in a coup. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda turned against Laurent Kabila only a year after they put him in power in 1997. Four years later, Kabila was assassinated by a bodyguard. Given the history, Hamid Karzai should watch his back once the United States withdraws from Afghanistan.
Exceptions do exist. In countries that are successfully democratized after regime change—such as West Germany, Japan, and Panama—leaders have fared better, serving out their terms and leaving office via regular procedures. Such examples, however, are few and far between. Those leaders who maintain power, such as Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, usually do so by repression with the assistance of the intervener.
A Force for Democracy?
The Bush administration argued that removing Saddam Hussein would not only bring democracy to Iraq but would prompt a wave of liberalization across the Middle East. Democratic transition has not always been the intention of regime change; with the exception of Grenada in 1983, no Cold War–era attempt at regime change saw a democratic intervener try to foster democracy. Installing anti-Communist leaders was the priority. These days, however, democratization is thought to be the default goal among democratic interveners.
There are two circumstances in which democratic interveners have succeeded in promoting democracy when they have tried to do so. The first is when they have restored to power democratic governments that were previously overthrown, such as in Belgium in 1918, France in 1944, Norway in 1945, and Haiti in 1994. These cases are not strong evidence of the democratizing power of regime change because these countries were all previously democratic; they were merely experiencing autocratic interregna at the hands of foreign occupiers or domestic coup-makers. The second circumstance consists of countries that have favorable preconditions for democracy, such as high income, homogeneous populations, strong bureaucratic institutions, and some previous experience with constitutional rule. West Germany and Japan remain the principal examples, joined by tiny Grenada and Panama. Most targets of regime change lack these preconditions; hence few successes are to be found.
The record of foreign-imposed regime change over the last two centuries is not a happy one. The promise of a quick, all-in-one solution is an illusion. U.S. leaders must face up to this illusion and begin treating regime change with serious skepticism. Certainly the United States can use force, given its great power and ineffective domestic opposition: think of the Obama administration’s rationalization before Congress in June that the United States was not engaged in hostilities in Libya even while dropping bombs on the country. However, just because one can take action doesn’t mean one should. The reality is nothing like the illusion: regime change is highly destabilizing, and outcomes depend less on the good intentions or strategy of the intervener than on conditions in the target country that are out of the intervener’s control.
Not only is regime change difficult and unpredictable, but it is usually strategically unnecessary for the United States because so few countries pose any threat. It has fallen out of fashion to say so after 9/11, but the United States enjoys a high level of security. It dominates its hemisphere and possesses the world’s best conventional military and a robust nuclear arsenal to deter the North Koreas and Irans. Few terrorist groups want to attack the United States—most have local goals and only a handful have publicly pledged allegiance to al Qaeda—and few countries want to host them. The United States should continue to take prudent measures against terrorism, including vigorous homeland defense, but regime change is unlikely to be useful in the fight against terrorists because of its potential to worsen the problem. In most of the places where U.S. leaders will contemplate future regime changes—Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Sudan, Burma—intervention is more likely to produce chaos than calm.
It has fallen out of fashion to say so after 9/11, but the United States enjoys a high level of security.
Furthermore, removing individual leaders is unlikely to cure what ails most countries. There is no doubt that men such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi have brought misery to their societies. Repairing the damage they have done, however, is far more complicated than simply driving them from power. And anointing average thugs such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Bashar al-Assad the next Hitler makes it harder not to take action. Most of the time, regime change is best left to domestic forces, as it was in Serbia in 2000. External involvement should be limited to diplomatic pressure in support of legitimate domestic demands, as was the case with the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Weakening U.S. cover during the Carter and Reagan years forced Marcos to reckon with a nonviolent, domestic revolution and submit to elections that he would lose in 1986.
Still, are there circumstances that can justify regime change? The likely costs need to be weighed against the good that can be done. Because the costs can be high, it is important to reserve the extreme option of regime change—as opposed to less intrusive forms of intervention—for real disasters. The most compelling scenario—the possibility that a state will develop nuclear weapons and give one to a terrorist organization—is highly improbable. Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons might warrant inspections, sanctions, embargoes, sabotage, and a host of other counter-proliferation and counterterrorist measures, but not regime change.
There is a stronger argument to be made on humanitarian grounds, but even here the case is not clear-cut. The first problem is where to draw the line. Repression in dictatorships is business as usual; a desire to halt all state-led violence cannot be the trigger. The second problem is that this is uncharted territory. None of the handful of genocidal leaders—Hitler, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin—who have been overthrown by foreign invaders were removed on humanitarian grounds: ending mass killing was a byproduct of regime change undertaken for strategic reasons. In the most egregious instances, then, the key issue is whether regime change has advantages beyond stopping violence. Experience has shown that getting the international community to intervene for humanitarian reasons is difficult enough. Regime change, in most cases, is probably a bridge too far.
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Alexander B. Downes is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at The George Washington University.
Regime Change Doesn’t Work, a forum on the use of military intervention to overthrow foreign governments.
Stephen M. Walt,
In the National Interest, part of a forum on new strategies for American foreign policy.