Stephen M. Walt
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Col. Muammar Gaddafi arrives at the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters Sept. 23, 2009 in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A brief global history of a tactic that's back in style: toppling other countries' governments.
In my last column, I argued that U.S. President Donald Trump’s rash decision to violate the Iran nuclear deal was the first step in a new round of regime change in the Middle East. If his goal was stopping an Iranian bomb and preventing a regional arms race, the existing agreement was working just fine, and he should have been trying to make it permanent instead of gutting it. If his goal was stopping Iran’s "regional activities,” the smart strategy would have been to keep the country from going nuclear while working with others to bring Iran to heel through pressure and additional diplomacy. Instead, Trump, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are hoping that violating the Iran deal will let them re-impose sanctions on Iran. They hope this pressure will topple the Islamic Republic, or lead Iran’s own hard-liners to restart its nuclear enrichment program and provide a pretext for the preventive war that Bolton has long advocated.
More sensible strategists might have first considered whether this goal even makes sense. What does history teach us? Did previous efforts at regime change (by the United States and by others) produce the expected benefits, or did they end up making things worse? Does regime change produce real benefits at relatively low cost, or is the price tag usually much higher than expected, while the benefits tend to be disappointing?
The answers, in fact, are pretty obvious, as can be seen from the following brief history of regime change. (Spoiler alert: It’s almost always a very bad idea.)
The Iran coup, 1953: In the Middle East, the grandfather of post-World War II regime changes was Operation Ajax, the joint American and British effort to topple the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and restore the young Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to the throne. The plot was a brilliant tactical success, and one could argue that the shah was a valuable ally to the United States until 1979. But the shah was something of a mixed bag as an ally (among other things, he began Iran’s nuclear weapons program), and the U.S. role in placing him on the throne and backing him is the main reasons that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his political descendants have been so hostile to the United States. The lesson: even short-to-medium-term success sometimes leads to much bigger problems later on.
The Suez debacle: After the Egyptian government nationalized the Suez Canal Company in 1956 (a perfectly legal maneuver, by the way), the leaders of Britain, France, and Israel colluded in a harebrained scheme to topple Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Israel agreed to invade the Sinai Peninsula, providing the pretext for Britain and France to intervene to "protect the canal.” The attackers assumed that the defeat would puncture Nasser’s prestige and led to his ouster. The result was a humiliating failure: Although the Israeli assault went well, the scheme fooled precisely no one, and the United States and Soviet Union eventually forced Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw from the territories they had seized. Not only did Nasser not fall from power, but his defiance of the two former colonial powers and Israel also sent his prestige soaring. In the end, the Suez war mostly succeeded in demonstrating that Britain and France weren’t true great powers anymore.
Egypt’s Yemen adventure: Unfortunately for Egypt, Nasser’s prestige went to his head, and in the early 1960s he decided to intervene on the side of supposedly progressive forces in the Yemen Civil War. Egypt eventually sent more than 50,000 troops there, spent money it didn’t have, and ended up withdrawing five years later with nothing to show for it.
Ariel Sharon’s grand scheme: In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, ostensibly in retaliation for the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London but in fact as part of a grand scheme that then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had cooked up. In an attempt to rout the PLO and install a pro-Israel government in Lebanon, Israel’s troops invaded its neighbor, shot down a bunch of Syrian aircraft, and chased Yasser Arafat and the PLO all the way to Beirut. But the whole scheme soon unraveled, Israel ended up occupying Southern Lebanon until 2000, and the end result was the creation of Hezbollah. Well done, Arik!
Saddam Hussein vs. the world: Mired in debts following the Iran-Iraq War, in 1990 Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and tried to annex it. This blatant attempt to solve his many economic and internal problems failed completely, because an unlikely coalition of Western and Arab powers led by the United States quickly assembled to toss Iraq out of Kuwait, destroy much of its military power, and then dismantle his various weapons of mass destruction programs. Saddam managed to cling to power, but his effort at "regime change” in Kuwait was an abject failure.
Toppling the Taliban: When the Taliban regime in Afghanistan refused to deliver Osama bin Laden into U.S. custody after Sept. 11, the United States joined up with the Afghan Northern Alliance and intervened to drive the Taliban from power. Washington then helped coordinate the formation of a new Afghan government under Hamid Karzai. Guess what? That was more than 15 years and a trillion dollars ago, and today the United States is still mired in a war it can’t win and can’t seem to get out of. Turns out toppling governments is easy; creating new ones is really, really hard. And don’t forget that the Soviet Union had a similar experience when it tried to engineer regime change in Kabul and ended up in a protracted war it couldn’t win either.
The United States vs. Saddam Hussein, 2003: In the aftermath of 9/11, the George W. Bush administration embraced the neoconservative blueprint for "regional transformation” in the Middle East, beginning with the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney fell for this cockamamie scheme; Israeli leaders such as Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak helped sell the idea to the American people, and plenty of liberal hawks bought into the idea as well. With hindsight, however, the whole idea was positively delusional. The United States had little trouble defeating Saddam’s fourth-rate army, but the end result was a bitter insurgency, greatly expanded Iranian influence, and eventually, the emergence of the Islamic State. The war also cost the lives of more than 7,000 U.S. soldiers and contractors and left more than 50,000 wounded, and it cost the American taxpayer several trillion Neoconservative die-hards — including John Bolton — defend the decision to this day, but neither the price tag nor the result is what they confidently predicted back when they were leading the country to war.
Ousting Qaddafi: Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was a thorn in America’s side since he first seized power in 1969, but an extended multilateral sanctions campaign eventually persuaded him to give up Libya’s WMD programs, which were not far advanced. In exchange, the George W. Bush administration agreed to leave him in power and to refrain from regime change. When an anti-Qaddafi uprising began as part of the Arab Spring, however, President Barack Obama promptly reneged on Bush’s pledge and joined forces with Britain, France, Oman, and some other Arab countries to get rid of the pesky megalomaniac. The end result was not a new, prosperous, and tranquil Libya, however; instead, the country soon descended into anarchy, creating new opportunities for the Islamic State and allowing lot of unsecured weaponry to flow to other war zones.
"Assad must go” (or maybe not): As with Libya, outside powers could not resist trying to interfere in the uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Obama administration declared "Assad must go,” and Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, and a number of other powers tried to aid the anti-Assad forces, despite fears that this might result in a jihadi takeover. Russian and Iranian intervention kept Assad in power, however, and the end result has been more than a half million dead and a continuing struggle for power that keeps threatening to escalate further.
I could toss in America’s failed efforts to manage political transitions in places such as Yemen or Somalia as well, but you get the point. And lest you think I’ve just cherry-picked the biggest disasters, more comprehensive studies of the full universe of "foreign-imposed regime changes” have shown that it rarely produces the beneficial outcomes that its advocates predict. Given this sorry track record, you’d think outside powers would understand that "regime change” is a Pandora’s box that is best left firmly closed.
The reasons aren’t hard to understand.
First, toppling a foreign regime puts other regimes on notice, and they begin to take action to avoid a similar fate. It is not surprising that Iran and Syria both intervened to thwart U.S. efforts in Iraq, for example, because they knew they were next on the U.S. hit list if the Iraq adventure had succeeded. And it is equally unsurprising that North Korea sacrificed much to get nuclear weapons, or that Iran has seriously considered doing so, given that the United States has repeatedly called for their demise. The more the United States makes regime change a staple tool of its foreign policy, the more resistance it is likely to face.
Second, toppling a foreign government isn’t the end of the job — it’s when the hard work really starts. Removing an existing regime creates winners and losers, and the latter are usually willing to take up arms or do other unpleasant things to try to regain their former positions. Instead of a thriving and stable democracy, with political competition regulated by well-established and legitimate institutions and norms, the more likely result is a failed state and civil war.
Third, once installed in power, the new government is rarely the compliant tool that regime-changers expect. Hamid Karzai was hailed as the ideal leader for post-Taliban Afghanistan, but he proved to be a recalcitrant and uncooperative politician who refused to crack down on corruption or take the advice of the Americans on whom his government depended. Iraq’s post-Saddam leaders have hardly been reliable U.S. clients either, and some of them, such as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, were more sympathetic to Iran from the start. Even when you help bring someone to power, they have to govern with their own interests and political survival in mind, and that often means doing things that Americans won’t like. This is especially true in the Middle East, where the United States is broadly disliked (and not without reason).
Compounding this problem is ignorance: Foreign powers that intervene to topple a local government rarely know enough about the society they are entering to make smart decisions about the new order that must now be created. They won’t know which local leaders are reliable or honest, or have sufficient cultural understanding to devise institutions that will be seen as legitimate by the local population. No matter how bad things were before the old regime was toppled, the situation is likely to be even worse once the old order has collapsed. Regime-changers always claim they will be greeted as liberators, but the more likely outcome is a population that is quickly disillusioned and soon becomes resentful and violent.
Lastly, no population likes taking orders from well-armed foreign occupiers, no matter how benevolent their original intentions might have been, and heavy-handed measures to deal with pockets of resistance will ignite nationalist passions and generate new sources of opposition. That’s been the story nearly everywhere the United States has intervened in recent years, and the U.S. experience is far from unique.
The real puzzle, of course, is why the United States seems incapable of learning this rather obvious lesson. One reason it doesn’t learn is that it is the countries where it intervenes that bear most of the costs of its imperial follies, while the only Americans who die or are wounded are those who have volunteered for military service. And because the United States now finances wars by borrowing, the economic costs will be paid by future generations, not by those who are making decisions today. Add to this mix the phalanx of well-funded, hawkish think tanks, letterhead organizations, lobbies, and campaign contributors that buy up politicians and provide Bolton and his ilk comfortable sinecures from which to operate, and you can begin to understand why a president who used to say the United States needed to get "out of the nation-building business” is now taking steps that will force it to do more of the same.