At the start of his essay, Alexander Downes offers several reasons why U.S. leaders are drawn to military intervention for regime change even when it is a stupid idea: American power tempts them, they tend to personalize conflicts, and the electorate is easily misled about the likely costs and benefits.
The rest of his piece, however, seems to suggest that if U.S. leaders realized that such interventions do not usually bring about greater peace, stability of the new government, and democracy, they would be less inclined toward them. I think this is probably wrong, but not only for the reasons that Downes gives.
Is it true that U.S. leaders typically don’t realize that intervention for regime change can increase the risk of civil war, that today’s puppet may not last long and subsequent ones may be less pliable, and that democracy may not flourish as a result? I doubt it. I suspect that when these considerations do not dissuade policymakers from attempting regime change, they typically go ahead for some combination of three other reasons: they don’t care, they think there are other benefits that regime change will most effectively realize, and they think the alternatives are even worse.
These reasons underlie U.S. interventions that put friendly dictators in power during the Cold War (and before, in Latin America). The purpose was not to lower the odds of civil conflict, guarantee long-lasting power for any particular right-wing leader, or promote democracy, as Downes notes. The core motives were to prevent the development of left-leaning regimes that would align with the Soviets and/or reduce the profits of U.S. multinationals. One can argue that U.S. administrations shouldn’t have cared nearly so much about undermining left-leaning regimes, but the policy was arguably effective overall, given its ends.
Or consider the Libya intervention. I am sure that the Obama administration realizes the substantial risk of civil strife and violence in whatever regime follows Qaddafi (and, obviously, on the way there). This is one reason the administration has tried hard not to “own” the conflict the way the Bush administration owned Iraq after deposing Saddam Hussein. And the Obama administration surely cares little about how long the first post-Qaddafi leader lasts and is more concerned about whether subsequent leaders will be better than Qaddafi on average, regardless of how they leave office. There may be some small risk of radical Islamists gaining power, but accepting that risk doesn’t seem like a completely crazy gamble. More generally I am not convinced that Downes’s measures of whether an imposed regime represents an improvement for U.S. interests—how long the leader survives and whether he loses power by “regular” means—are good ones.
U.S. leaders know that regime change can be destabilizing and expensive, but they do it anyway.
It is also unlikely that Obama supports the Libyan uprising because he and his advisers think Libya is a shoo-in for democracy after Qaddafi. Nonetheless, since democracy in Libya has basically nowhere to go but up, some optimism regarding the democratic potential of the next regime is reasonable. It may be that the prospects for democracy in Libya would have been even better without intervention, but that’s highly conjectural, and when you throw humanitarian (and possibly some strategic) considerations into the mix, intervention in support of Libyan rebels seeking regime change was not obviously a bad decision.
Bush’s Iraq fiasco is by far the best case for Downes’s contention that U.S. administrations don’t know what they are getting into when they try regime change. Top policymakers appear to have convinced themselves that political order would magically emerge after Saddam Hussein was eliminated, and so didn’t plan for post-Hussein politics. Those policymakers knew about the argument that leadership decapitation could turn Iraq into a hornet’s nest. Some of them, such as Cheney, apparently held this position during the first Gulf War. But for reasons that remain unclear—apart from a catastrophic failure of leadership by Bush—the concern was ignored in 2002 and 2003. Iraq reminded neoconservatives that building political order from anarchy in a country far away can be extremely difficult and expensive, and it ended their dreams about military intervention to change the regimes of Syria and Iran.
But apart from the strange disaster of Iraq, U.S. leaders’ attempts at forceful regime change are probably not well explained by a failure to appreciate the risks and costs that Downes tries to measure. Perhaps those leaders have had a tendency to downplay the cost and difficulty of exit if civil war results, while putting too much weight on the policy pressures of the moment. With respect to these leadership shortcomings, the reminders and evidence Downes offers can be valuable. But he misreads the typical objectives of U.S. leaders.
U.S. leaders may correctly judge that imposed regimes will hew closer to their policy preferences than the status quo leader or the threatening alternatives. They may not care about democracy, or they may reasonably guess that the prospects for democracy are better with intervention than without. And they may have humanitarian objectives concerning some pressing crisis. Whether such considerations outweigh the possible costs of intervention for regime change—which clearly can be enormous—is a case-by-case matter, and one concerning which moral judgments cannot be sidestepped.