Friday, September 30, 2011

Forum of articles on "Regime Change Doesn't Work"

Boston Review for Sept/Oct has a forum called Regime Change Doesn't Work. Boston Review's forums, some of which have been published separately in book form, consist of a long introductory article, several response and a final word by the lead author.

Alexander B. Downes provides the lead contribution, which is also called Regime Change Doesn't Work: "The Libyan operation is the third post-9/11 U.S. military intervention whose explicit goal is regime change. The United States also played a role in a fourth case, the removal of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004." Downes mentions that one of the reasons regime-change adventures are attractive to policymakers is the tendency to personalize international conflict, e.g., git Saddam!

And this is an interesting historical observation:

Regime change is nothing new to the United States. Since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the United States has been the world’s foremost practitioner. Of the roughly one hundred cases of externally imposed regime change in that period, the United States has been responsible for more than twenty.
This is also a sobering statistic: "More than 40 percent of states that experience foreign-imposed regime change have a civil war within the next ten years."

The responders include:


Greg Grandin, The Containment-Liberation Complex: "U.S. interventions in the Western Hemisphere have generally had disastrous consequences." He credits the title phrase to the quirky radical historian William Appleman Williams.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. in Prudent Strategy praises the Obama Administration's Libya intervention:

The outcome in Libya was and remains uncertain. Qaddafi might fall because of further defections, but the fighting between his forces and the resistance could also lead to a stalemated civil war. If so, Obama established a basis for avoiding ownership of a nasty problem. Some foreign-policy realists question Obama's decision to be involved in a humanitarian action based on what is known as the "responsibility to protect," but in terms of balancing interests and values while limiting risks, Obama provided a lesson in smart leadership.
Neta Crawford, Counterproductive and Wrong: "Promoting democracy by military intervention ... is an oxymoron in ethical and political terms."

James Fearon, Taking the Gamble: "Bush's Iraq fiasco is by far the best case for Downes's contention that U.S. administrations don’t know what they are getting into when they try regime change."

Mary Kaldor in Peaceful Regime Change defends the notion of humanitarian intervention, and seems to have an expansive definition of it:

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.
John Tirman, A Bloody Affair:

The most popular accounts of the growth of insurgencies in Iraq tend to ignore U.S. violence. Academics contend that Sunnis suffered an intolerable loss of status; journalists' favorite has been the more prosaic "ancient hatreds" argument; and Washington emphasizes the destabilizing roles of al Qaeda and Iran. But we have ample evidence showing that U.S. violence is essential to any explanation.

The people of Iraq, when asked, have said that violence and insurgency were directly attributable to U.S. military actions.
Tod Lindberg argument in Weighing Alternatives is essentially to tout the general virtues of regime change as an instrument of US foreign and military policy:

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?

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.
In fact, the US under Cheney-Bush and Spain's conservative government at the time encouraged as coup again Chavez in 2002, a coup which failed. It's easy to imagine that Chavez' adversary attitude toward the US wasn't diminished by that experience.

Joanne Landy in The People's Interest argues that Downes gives too much credit to American policymakers for idealistic goals, as distinct from using idealistic justifications for policies :

Oddly, Downes says that repeated U.S. military interventions flow from an overly broad dedication to idealistic goals, "providing stability in most of the world, rooting out terrorism, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, curbing human rights abuses, spreading democracy." But U.S. policy and interventions actually have been guided by pretty much the opposite of these goals. The United States has often favored the false stability of tyrannical governments. Downes himself notes that the United States has made "common cause with right-wing dictators," and worked "to overthrow leftist regimes (or regimes viewed as susceptible to leftist influence) in Iran, Indonesia, Guatemala, Congo, Cuba, Ecuador, Brazil, Guyana, Chile, and Nicaragua."
Alexander Downes in his final response Wise Choices gives this perspective on the role of promoting democracy in US foreign policy:

Although I do not think that spreading democracy should be a high priority for U.S. foreign policy, to the extent that U.S. leaders wish to promote democracy abroad, there is evidence (from academic studies and recent events in the Middle East) that nonviolent protest is a better route to obtaining regime change and democratization than are violent means, and that foreign aid targeted directly at democratic reforms rather than the economy or civil society more broadly can be helpful. ...

Overthrowing the Arbenz regime in Guatemala [in 1954] may have served American interests (although this is debatable), but surely it did the Guatemalan people much harm. The same can be said of many other cases of regime change. ... More broadly, however, it is not obvious that regime change promotes friendly relations or reliable allies. Although interveners and targets rarely fight wars later on, militarized disputes involving the threat or low-level use of force occur in about one-fifth of cases. In fact, the high frequency of civil conflict suffered by regime change targets poses a threat to the interests of the interveners.
He takes issue with Joseph Nye's defense of the Obama Administration's Libyan intervention:

Obama has declared that the U.S. objective is regime change rather than simply protecting civilians and providing humanitarian relief. The United States has also recognized the rebel coalition as the legitimate government of Libya. The Obama administration would like somebody else to get rid of Qaddafi, but even as the rebels march on Tripoli, the hard work of regime change may well result in protracted conflict. By coming down on the side of regime change, the president has committed the United States to the rebels' aims, which they cannot achieve on their own. The longer the war goes on, the more pressure the United States will face to act decisively to remove Qaddafi. Obama has thus placed U.S. policy on a slippery slope; eventually we will face a choice between escalation and a humiliating retreat. A smarter strategy would have been to lend rhetorical and moral support to Libyans opposed to Qaddafi and provide humanitarian assistance, but leave the job of deciding what to do with their country to them.
This is a good summary of the practical risks that Obama's policy faced. At this writing, it looks much more like Qaddafi's defeat is all but inevitable. But the basic point that the US has committed itself to the rebel forces and their aims continues to be an issue. To repeat Lyndon Johnson's saying, "It's a hell of a lot easier to get into a war than to get out of one," a proposition which speaks very much to his own experience with the Vietnam War. Even if the Administration wants to take itself out of the picture of regime change and nation-building in Libya, the practical difficulties of doing so are real.

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