Thursday, September 30, 2010

When Should U.S. Policy Try to Promote Regime Change in the Middle East?

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By Barry Rubin

“Interference in foreign countries, according to my mind," said British Prime Minister William Gladstone more than a hundred years ago, "should be rare, deliberate, decisive in character, and effectual for its end.”

While Gladstone might have overstated these limits, I'd stress that direct intervention is never something to be undertaken lightly. What does a government have to do to be a candidate for being overthrown by the United States? Let me give some general principles but restrict my examples to the Middle East.

1. The regime must pose a clear and present danger to vital U.S. national interests too important to ignore and with a determined intransigence that no other diplomatic measures can stop.
2. There must be a very strong basis for expecting that a replacement regime would be better than what exists at present.

3. The United States must have the ability to achieve this goal or of helping allies to do so without a high degree of risk and with a good prospect for success.

One might add one more point for special situations

4. An emergency situation when the regime is engaging in major massacres or human rights' violations that can be considered genocide.

If direct military efforts are involved than all of the above must be absolutely clear, with no room for wishful thinking or only examining "best-case" outcomes.

I won't get into the multilateral/unilateral issue here--is UN agreement necessary?--because my concern is only in identifying candidates for such treatment, not the detailed implementation of the resulting policy. Yet U.S. leadership is always necessary for mobilizing international support and getting allies to cooperate. UN backing is useful but must never be indispensable. 

At the same time, regime change should never be either a policy "short-cut" nor part of any broader doctrine. I said at the time and maintain today, the so-called "neo-conservative" option--that by overthrowing dictators and proving U.S. policy backed democracy the masses would rally to love America--was thoroughly wrong and based on basic misunderstandings of the Middle East. The overwhelming majority of Israeli analysts--and the words "overwhelming majority" is an understatement--felt skeptical all along.

Only one regime so far has clearly met that criterion in the contemporary Middle East: Taliban Afghanistan, because of its involvement in the September 11 attacks, the certainty it would continue collaborating in large-scale terror attacks against the United States, and the relative ease with which that regime could be brought down. How long U.S. forces should have stayed in Afghanistan is another question.

Indeed, once regime change has been accomplished, the clock should start ticking toward withdrawing U.S. troops. Naturally, Washington cannot abandon those who have stepped forward at its invitation to take over. Yet usually such new governments can survive with aid plus training. Even in Vietnam, it was not the withdrawal of  U.S. troops but of U.S. aid that doomed the Saigon government.

If President George W. Bush had pulled out most U.S. troops in 2008, the United States would be better off today, not only in terms of Iraq and casualties but also regarding the domestic political situation. And if U.S. forces stay in Afghanistan for another decade, by the end they would have achieved little or nothing more than could have been gained by forcing and helping the Afghan government to preserve itself. 

Today, there are two regimes that qualify for regime overthrow, not through U.S. military efforts but indirectly, as noted in the final part of point 3 above. That is, the United States should support allies--both regional and internal-- in bringing down regimes but not engage in any military action to achieve that goal--Islamist Iran and Hamas-ruled Gaza.  

Regarding Gaza, it could have been accomplished by Israel in early 2009 but there is no chance that the U.S. government--certainly not the current one--will help or allow Israel to do so. On the contrary, U.S. policy in recent months has legitimized and stabilized that regime despite the fact that this is an extremely dangerous mistake that makes peace impossible, future war likely, and the spread by Hamas of Islamist subversion certain. 

There is no way that regime can be moderated and the territory should, given the range of realistic options, have been returned to Palestinian Authority rule.

As for Iran, there is no question at present of the United States going to war with Iran to stop its nuclear weapons' drive. Some readers may wish otherwise but that simply isn't going to happen and shouldn't happen. What U.S. policy can do is to help the regime's opponents in any appropriate way. Even if this doesn't succeed, pressure, tough words, and helping the opposition will intimidate many Iranian leaders--not the current president there but others--into being more cautious and less supportive of Tehran's current policies.    

Those who have opposed this idea will claim that such support can be used by the regime to discredit the opposition. But it behaves that way every day any way, even if it is untrue. Another argument is that this "interference" will unite Iranians on a nationalistic basis to support the regime. Such a stance is pretty valid for the Arab world but not Iran, which has a decidedly different history and political culture. At any rate, living under Islamism has immunized Iranians to the appeals of that ideology, whose triumph is a huge danger confronting any fiddling with the stability of governments in Arabic-speaking countries.

I have spoken repeatedly about the need for the West to ally with most of the existing Arabic-speaking regimes in the battle against revolutionary Islamism. Despite Saudi subsidies for Wahhabi radicals abroad and other policy differences, the survival of the current Saudi regime is a vital Western interest. There should be greater effort to get more in return from Riyadh for Western backing, but this has to be within realistic parameters.

What about Syria? As terrible as the Syrian regime is, destabilizing it--assuming that was possible--might lead to a radical Islamist regime that was even more dangerous for the region. That's no excuse for coddling Damascus but it is a reason for not waging a campaign to change the regime there. Of course, this isn't going to happen any way.  

Why not Saddam Hussein's Iraq? For a reason that, much to my surprise, is virtually never mentioned. Iraq was being successfully contained by the existing sanctions and international opposition. True, these sanctions were gradually weakening. But by 2000 the Iraqi regime was pretty powerless to wreak the kind of havoc on the region that it had done in past decades. As I said at the time and later, if the situation were to change then one could consider whether the Baghdad government should be brought down.

Whether the Iraqi intervention was a success or not is a much wider topic I'm not going to enter into now but have dealt with at length elsewhere. Whichever way one judges, however, it should be recognized that there are legitimate arguments on both sides.  

Fear that "regime change" can lead to something worse--anarchy, a more radical Islamist government--is a reasonable concern.

Sadly, the one place where the most could have been done to back moderates was in Lebanon, when the March 15 forces ruled there and defied Syria, Iran, and Hizballah. It is to the lasting discredit of the United States and France that they did so little to help at that time. It is even more to the discredit of these two countries and their leaders that they are still not aware of how much harm was done when an independent, moderate Lebanon might well have emerged instead of an Iranian-Syria satellite.

It's not that I don't respect brave dissidents in the Arabic-speaking world and wish them well. My book, The Long War for Freedom details their courage and efforts. But the book also shows how weak they have been and the structural reasons why that has been and continues to be true.

Let's give the last word to one of Gladstone's successors, Margaret Thatcher, who in her autobiography explains:

"International relations is a matter of second-best-alternatives rather than the ideal. Even if it had been within my power to replace one ruler with another...I would rarely have been able to replace a bad one with a better, and often it would have been worse. Those, for instance, who rejoiced in the fall of the Shah must reconcile themselves today to the sad truth that the regime of the Mullahs is more oppressive to its own citizens, and abroad promotes terrorism and subversion, where the Shah was a pillar of stability, if in the end a shaky one."

Actually, the main priorities regarding regime change is to battle against regime change, that is to oppose the overthrow of more moderate regime's  and their replacement by radical, anti-American ones. The most recent such failure was when the United States stood by and watched the subversion of a moderate Lebanese regime and the country's transformation into an Iran-Syria puppet with Hizballah largely controlling the country. Foolish flirtation with Islamist groups may extend this kind of defeat to other countries.

PS: If you are interested in further reading, you can take a look at my essay on how the 1953 regime change in Iran looks today: “Regime Change and Iran: A Case Study,” Washington Quarterly, 2003, also available as Barry Rubin, "Lessons from Iran," in Alexander T. J. Lennon and Camille Eiss, Reshaping Rogue States: Preemption, Regime Change, and U.S. Policy toward Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, (Boston: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 141-156. 
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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