There is something curiously old-fashioned about Alexander Downes’s elegant and well-researched essay. The underlying assumption appears to be that nation-states are discrete disconnected entities, and from this follows his argument that foreign-imposed regime change rarely works in the sense of leading to stability and/or democracy. But in reality we live in an interconnected world where regime change is rarely the consequence of purely outside or inside influences. States and citizens interfere all the time in the affairs of other states, whether purposively or not. The question, therefore, is not whether to intervene in order to bring about (or to prevent) regime change, but how.

I would reformulate Downes’s argument. Regime change by force rarely works in the sense Downes uses, whether undertaken by outsiders or insiders. Military coups and violent revolutions—I would contend, though I have not gone through the historical record in the way Downes has—rarely lead to a peaceful and democratic outcome. This was the lesson that the Eastern Europeans learned in the 1980s. This is what the protestors in the Middle East have also learned: nonviolent regime change is the only way to end dictatorship, as opposed to replacing one dictator with another. Support for this type of regime change is important; outside powers should be doing everything possible to assist the protestors in the Middle East.

Downes seems to imply that there could be a role for the use of force by outside powers short of regime change. I would agree that there is a role for intervention using force only in cases where the goal is humanitarian (to stop genocide, ethnic cleansing, or massive violations of human rights) and where the means are tailored to the goal.

In Libya, the aim should have been to reduce violence so that protests could be peaceful.

Consider the examples of Iraq and Libya. In the case of Iraq, President Bush and Saddam Hussein had a shared interest in the proposition that Hussein could only be toppled by force. Actually, as the United States and its allies discovered, the Iraqi state turned out to be fragile, weakened by years of wars and sanctions and dependent on a patronage system that involved the manipulation of ethnic, tribal, and religious loyalties. The underground opposition inside Iraq (as opposed to the exiles consulted by Bush), which included both communist and religious groups, wanted to open up Iraq through, for example, direct outside control of the Oil-for-Food Programme, maintaining the weapons inspectors, deploying human rights monitors, and pressing for implementation of the ceasefire resolution after the Gulf War, which included commitments to political pluralism as well as getting rid of weapons of mass destruction. In language recalling Eastern and Central Europe, members of the Council of Sunni Clerics whom I met in May 2004 told me they realized they could never defeat Saddam Hussein through a coup; instead, from 1999 onward they developed, together with their Shia counterparts, a strategy of slow strangulation. Forceful regime change, as we now know, led to a long and destructive war. I believe the alternative to invasion was not doing nothing but supporting peaceful regime change. Had this been pursued, Iraq today may well have been at the forefront of the Arab Spring, constructing a meaningful democracy instead of the semi-democratic, violent society it has become.

There were no immediate humanitarian grounds for military intervention in 2003. However, had the Iraqi people risen up as the Kurds and Shias did in 1991, I believe there would have been a case for outside intervention to protect them, as indeed happened in Kurdistan.

In the case of Libya, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was a breakthrough both in the range of states that supported it and in its explicit goal of protecting civilians just in time to prevent Muammar Qaddafi’s forces overrunning Benghazi with horrendous humanitarian consequences. But the means—airstrikes, just as in Kosovo twelve years earlier—are totally inappropriate. The right course of action would have been to declare all liberated areas UN protected areas and to deploy human-security forces (peacekeepers, international police, humanitarian and reconstruction experts) to protect people directly and to protect their right to protest. Air strikes escalate the use of force and intensify political polarization. Resolution 1973, of course, excludes “foreign occupation force[s] of any form.” But the deployment of human-security forces, especially if they were drawn from Arab and African countries as well as Europe and America, could not be construed as such. Rather than support one side militarily, creating the conditions for long-term violence, the aim should have been to reduce violence so that protests could be peaceful. In other words the outside world should have helped both to prevent an ongoing humanitarian disaster and to create the conditions for peaceful regime change. Even if the first rounds of fighting are resolved, instability and lengthy conflict may lie ahead.