Downes makes an important point in spelling out just how frequently the United States has intervened abroad, whether by military or clandestine means. One could increase the numbers by including all the “non-kinetic” efforts the United States has undertaken in the direction of democracy promotion. All in all, a long list.

Robert Kagan has made a similar point, but Kagan, of course, has been a proponent of U.S. power and the potential value of using it (as have I). Insofar as Downes presents himself as a critic of the use of U.S. power, or at least of “foreign-imposed regime change,” his conclusion that the United States view interventionist policies with caution will be more persuasive to those who share his normative views than Kagan may have been.

Let’s all begin at the same place then. The United States, a powerful country, has intervened a lot, often with the purpose (or at least the hope) of bringing about regime change. Accepting Downes’s policy recommendation, namely that the United States eschew efforts to impose regime change, therefore, constitutes a big departure. It’s important that those who favor policies of non-intervention and oppose regime change understand that their preference cuts against longstanding U.S. practice.

Downes does not make a categorical argument, but rather advises policymakers to avoid if possible what he later calls an “extreme option.” So for him, regime change remains an option. This strikes me as prudent.

U.S. policymakers might well conclude in some cases that intervention and indeed regime change constitute the best policy option. They may, in fact, have difficulty reaching any other conclusion. The reasons may be specific—the Taliban government in Afghanistan gave safe haven to the perpetrators of 9/11 and was unable or unwilling to give them up after the attack—or they may be more structural in character—the United States has global security responsibilities and the power to make good on them when it perceives they are being challenged.

But examining only cases in which the United States has opted for interventionist policies is like adding up one side of a ledger. You simply can’t calculate the best policy, intervention or non-intervention, from there. What about the cases in which the United States decided against regime change?

Examining only cases in which the United States has intervened is like adding up one side of a ledger.

NATO’s 1995 bombing campaign against Bosnian Serbs was not intended to bring down the Milošević regime in Belgrade, but to pressure Milošević to negotiate. NATO’s 1999 air campaign targeting Serbia and Serbian forces in Kosovo likewise aimed not at removing Milošević, but at winning his accession to demands for Kosovar autonomy. Colin Powell labeled Omar al Bashir’s campaign against the people of Darfur a genocide in 2004, but the United States has never sought to change the Sudanese regime. The U.S. response to Hugo Chavez’s fervent anti-Americanism has been to treat him as a pest, not to organize a coup against him.

While policies of regime change, military intervention, and clandestine action to subvert a regime are common, they have not been the United States’s only choices, nor even the default option for policymakers vexed at the conduct of others.

We need to ask what distinguishes the instances in which the United States has pursued regime change, or military action short of that objective, from the others. With regard to recent decades, the answer is simple: the size of the perceived threat to Americans themselves or to U.S. interests, or to broader principles of human rights, such as the international community’s responsibility to protect populations whose governments fail to protect them from atrocities or are perpetrating atrocities against them.

One can argue over the accuracy of these threat perceptions, as well as the normative principles underlying them. But Downes misses something important in his focus on the efficacy of regime change. The United States has sought to topple regimes and oust rulers only once it has (rightly or wrongly) concluded that their conduct is intolerable. A consequentialist argument against regime change must demonstrate not only that regime change doesn’t work very well or often (a point Downes argues effectively), but also that the alternative is preferable: that the supposedly intolerable conduct of an offending regime, however bad it may be and however much it may be worsening, is in fact tolerable, indeed preferable, to the foreseeable consequences of taking action to remove it from the world stage.

Downes offers a good and sobering argument for scaling back our expectations about regime creation following regime removal, but not against the need from time to time to remove a regime.

I believe we owe something to the people of a state whose regime we have removed. We owe them a sincere attempt to help create a regime that improves the quality of their lives. The difficulty of that task is formidable. But its difficulty doesn’t bear much, in the end, on the prior question of whether the United States finds a regime’s bad conduct to be tolerable or not.