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The False Promise of Regime Change

  • Philip H.
  • Nov, 2020
  • 143
  • US Foreign Relations

Why Washington keeps failing in the Middle East

Since the 1950s, the United States has tried to oust governments in the broader Middle East once every decade, on average. It has done so in Iran, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Syria-a list that includes only the instances in which the removal of a country’s leaders and the transformation of its political system were the goals of U.S. policy and Washington made sustained efforts to achieve them. The motives behind those interventions varied widely, as have Washington’s methods: in some cases sponsoring a coup, in others invading and occupying a country, and in others relying on diplomacy, rhetoric, and sanctions.

All these attempts, however, have one thing in common: they failed. In every case, American policymakers overstated the threat faced by the United States, underestimated the challenges of ousting a regime, and embraced the optimistic assurances of exiles or local actors with little power. In every case but that of Syria (where the regime held on to power), the United States prematurely declared victory, failed to anticipate the chaos that would inevitably ensue after regime collapse, and ultimately found itself bearing massive human and financial costs for decades to come.

Why is regime change in the Middle East so hard? And why do U.S. leaders and pundits keep thinking they can get it right? There are no easy answers to those questions, and it is important to acknowledge that in every case, the alternatives to regime change were unappealing. But as U.S. policymakers contemplate the challenges of dealing with this vexing region, they should see the patterns of self-delusion and misjudgment that have time and again made regime change so tempting-and, ultimately, so disastrous.


In 2011, as senior officials debated whether the United States should use military force against the Libyan ruler Muammar al-Qaddafi, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates-the most experienced member of President Barack Obama’s national security team-reminded his colleagues that “when you start a war you never know how it will go.” Gates’s warning was an understatement: in every single case, however carefully prepared, regime change in the Middle East has had unanticipated and unwelcome consequences. Perhaps the most powerful example of this phenomenon was the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, when Washington ended Saddam Hussein’s rule but also inadvertently empowered Iran, fueled jihadism, demonstrated to dictators around the world the potential value of possessing nuclear weapons (to deter such invasions), increased doubts all over the world about the benevolence of U.S. power, and soured the American public on military intervention for decades to come.

Iraq was hardly an outlier: in every other case, the most significant consequences were the unintended ones. In Iran in 1953, the CIA helped oust the prickly nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, hoping that with Mosaddeq out of the picture, the Iranian shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, would be a more reliable regional ally and keep Iran out of the Soviet camp. But the shah’s baroque corruption and harsh repression-abetted by his U.S. benefactors-ultimately led to the 1979 revolution, which brought to power an intensely anti- American Islamist regime that has sponsored terrorism and destabilized the region ever since. In Afghanistan in the 1980s, U.S. support for the Islamist mujahideen helped to undermine the Soviet Union but also contributed to a decade of chaos, a civil war, the rise of the brutal Taliban government, an empowered global jihadi movement-and, ultimately, another U.S. military intervention, after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which were planned by al Qaeda terrorists based in Afghanistan. After a popular uprising in Egypt in 2011, the United States used its diplomatic leverage to help end the decades-long repressive rule of Hosni Mubarak. The situation deteriorated in the years that followed, however. In 2012, elections brought to power an exclusionary Islamist government. The next year, that government was violently overthrown and replaced by a new military regime led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has proved to be even more repressive that Mubarak’s.

In 2011, the U.S.-backed ouster of Qaddafi and the subsequent collapse of the Libyan state led to widespread violence, allowed weapons to proliferate across the region, exacerbated instability in neighboring Chad and Mali, and stiffened Russia’s resolve to never again allow the UN Security Council to pass a resolution that would facilitate regime change, as it did in the case of Libya. Advocates for regime change in Libya had hoped that Qaddafi’s overthrow would lead other dictators to agree to leave power or suffer Qaddafi’s fate. In fact, the intervention had the opposite effect. In Syria, for exam...

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