Regime Change and Its Limits
Richard N. Haass is President of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was Director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff from 2001 to 2003. This article is drawn from his recently published book, The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's Course.See more by this author
ARMED AND DANGEROUS
Although a third of the "axis of evil" is now occupied by U.S. forces, the other two thirds -- North Korea and Iran -- remain clear threats to U.S. interests. Consider North Korea: in February 2005, Pyongyang announced that it had nuclear weapons, and it is now thought to have several of them, or at least the material to build them. Over time, if the United States does nothing, North Korea's arsenal will surely grow, as will the amount of its fissile material. The results of this growth will be destabilizing and potentially disastrous: a sizable North Korean nuclear arsenal might well stimulate similar weapons programs in both Japan and South Korea, diminishing the region's stability. The repercussions could also spread far beyond Northeast Asia if Pyongyang decides to sell its new weapons or nuclear fuel for hard currency -- as it has with drugs and missile technology in the past.
Iran, for its part, also has a nuclear weapons program, which may not be as advanced as North Korea's but is much further along than almost anyone realized only a few years ago. Building on efforts that began under the shah, Iran has assembled many of the elements needed for a uranium-enrichment program with military potential. Magnifying Washington's concern, Iran has a history of concealing its nuclear program, as well as supporting terrorism and developing medium-range missiles.
Thus far, the Bush administration has consistently shown that it would rather resolve all of these challenges through regime change in Tehran and Pyongyang. It is not hard to fathom why: regime change is less distasteful than diplomacy and less dangerous than living with new nuclear states. There is only one problem: it is highly unlikely to have the desired effect soon enough.
REVOLUTION AND EVOLUTION
Regime change allows a state to solve its problems with another state by removing the offensive regime there and replacing it with a less offensive one. In the case of North Korea or Iran, this would mean installing a regime that either would not pursue nuclear weapons or, if it did, would be so different in character that the prospect would be much less worrisome.