Regime Change Doesn’t Work


A Boston Review forum with Neta C. Crawford, Mary Kaldor, Tod Lindberg, Greg Grandin, James D. Fearon, John Tirman and Joanne Landy all responding to Alexander B. Downes:

Obama’s reasons for confronting Qaddafi are more like Clinton’s in Bosnia and Kosovo than Bush’s in Iraq and Afghanistan, but several enduring factors trump changes in administration and provide a powerful impetus for continuing efforts at regime change spearheaded by the U.S. military.

First, there are few external constraints on the exercise of American power: the United States spends nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined and dwarfs most potential adversaries in military capability. Because the United States is so powerful, defines its international interests so broadly, and is so accustomed to intervening militarily on behalf of those interests, only a radical realignment of strategy would enable American leaders to forswear regime change. As long as the United States is committed to providing stability in most of the world, rooting out terrorism, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, curbing human rights abuses, spreading democracy, and pursuing global primacy, frequent intervention is unavoidable.

Second, U.S. leaders face few hurdles to initiating military action abroad. Even though regime changes are costly and can result in prolonged occupations and insurgencies, U.S. leaders can successfully downplay or lie about the potential costs in order to obtain public approval. This was amply demonstrated by the Iraq invasion: long before the war began, widely available information showed that the Bush administration’s liberate-and-leave story was flawed. Yet the president and his advisors insisted that taking out Saddam Hussein would be cheap and easy, and the administration won the support it needed. Even after this story proved false, Bush was not held accountable, winning reelection in 2004. Leaders in democracies such as the United States focus on manufacturing consent for regime change rather than planning realistically for the fallout. As Afghanistan and Iraq show, it is easier to get the troops in than to get them out, even if public opinion turns against the mission.

Finally, Americans tend to personalize their conflicts. Almost every target of U.S. intervention in the post–Cold War world has been labeled another Hitler. It is enticing to believe that removing one person from power will fix a problem. This “evil leader” syndrome is one reason why it is so difficult for the United States to fight limited wars: the temptation to “go to Baghdad” rather than make peace with a dictator is strong, and, historically, killing the leader has meant defeating his army. Decapitation by airpower and targeted killing have become popular because they supposedly enable the United States to oust leaders without a ground invasion, thereby obviating the need for a costly war.