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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.
Whenever an existing regime is destroyed, a political and security vacuum emerges and a power struggle begins.
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 example, President Bashar al-Assad watched Qaddafi brutally tortured and killed by Libyan rebels and decided to crack down even more ruthlessly on his opponents, creating an opening for jihadis, who then spilled over into neighboring Iraq and undermined the government there.
The attempt by the United States and others to remove Assad by supporting opposition rebels proved even more catastrophic. With Russia and Iran determined to keep Assad in power, years of outside military assistance to the Syrian opposition led not to Assad’s ouster as intended but instead to counterescalation by his regime and its foreign sponsors, fueling a vicious civil war, a humanitarian tragedy, refugee flows on a scale not seen since World War II (which themselves caused a populist backlash in Europe), and an explosion of jihadi extremism. The desire to overthrow the murderous Assad was understandable. But the consequences of trying and failing to do so—in part because no one had the appetite to invade and occupy Syria less than a decade after the Iraq disaster—proved to be worse than not trying at all.
The heart of the problem is that whenever an existing regime is destroyed (or even just significantly weakened by outside forces, as in Syria), a political and security vacuum emerges and a power struggle begins. In the absence of security, people feel no alternative but to organize and arm themselves and to turn to kinship networks, tribes, and sects for safety, exacerbating sectarianism and internal rivalries and sometimes leading to demands for secession. In the run-up to an intervention, groups with little in common form coalitions of convenience. But once the regime falls, they quickly turn against one another. All too often, the most extreme or violent groups prevail and more moderate or pragmatic forces are sidelined; inevitably, those excluded from power work to undermine those who seized it. When the United States has tried to fill the vacuum itself, as it did in Iraq and at times in Afghanistan, it has found itself the target of locals and neighboring states that resist foreign interference and has ended up sacrificing thousands of lives and spending trillions of dollars yet still failing to create stability.
The security vacuum created by regime change not only sets up a struggle for power within states but invariably generates ruthless competition among regional rivals as well. When governments fall (or appear likely to do so), regional and even global powers rush in with money, arms, and sometimes direct military force to put their own proxies in power and pull the country into their orbit. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s repeated assertion around the time of the Iraq war that Washington’s pursuit of “stability at the expense of democracy” in the Middle East had produced neither was broadly true. But it turned out to have a corollary—that pursuing democracy at the expense of stability might also produce neither, but at even higher cost.
Well-meaning interventions in the Middle East have often led to violent resistance.
Americans like to believe their foreign interventions are generous, benign, and widely appreciated, but it turns out that even when they help topple unpopular regimes they are not necessarily greeted as liberators. Indeed, even well-meaning interventions in the Middle East have often led to violent resistance. After the 1953 coup in Iran, antipathy toward the United States for empowering the dictatorial shah led to virulent anti-Americanism that endures to this day. In Afghanistan, where suspicion of outsiders runs deep, Hamid Karzai, the leader whom Washington favored after its 2001 invasion, could never escape the impression among Afghans that he was put in power and supported by foreigners. Today, ridding the country of occupying U.S. troops remains the opposition Taliban’s most central rallying cry. Most famously, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s prediction that U.S. troops would be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq proved wildly wrong and was followed by years of bloody anti-American insurgency.
Even the allegedly friendly leaders the United States has put in place have not always acted according to Washington’s wishes. After all, they have their own local interests to worry about and often have to stand up to outside powers to bolster their legitimacy. Frequently, they have defied Washington on a range of domestic and international issues, knowing that their U.S. sponsors had little choice but to continue to support them. And far from exercising positive influence on such leaders and helping the United States overcome these challenges, many regional and global players do just the opposite. For decades, Pakistan has helped thwart U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Iran undermined U.S. efforts in Iraq by supporting violent Shiite militia groups. Libya has been torn apart by competing outside powers supporting rival proxies. And in Syria, Russia and Iran—determined to undermine U.S.-sponsored regime change in part lest Americans get the idea of trying it one day in Moscow or Tehran—responded to every U.S. escalation with a counterescalation of their own. These regional spoilers often succeed because they have more local influence and more at stake than the United States does, and it’s far easier to cause chaos than to prevent it.
The more recent U.S. interventions in the Middle East have sought to replace autocratic regimes with democratic governments. But even if those actions had somehow avoided the pitfalls posed by security vacuums, popular resistance, and untrustworthy proxies, they would have been unlikely to shepherd in new democracies. Although there are no clear recipes for democratic development, extensive scholarly research suggests that the main ingredients include a high degree of economic development; significant ethnic, political, and cultural homogeneity (or at least a shared national narrative); and the previous existence of democratic norms, practices, and institutions. Unfortunately, the states of the contemporary Middle East lack all these attributes. None of this means that democracy is impossible there or that promoting democracy should not be an American aspiration. But it does suggest that pursuing regime change in the Middle East with the hope that doing so will lead to democratic development is wishful thinking in the extreme.
The deep-seated American desire to fix problems in the Middle East is in many ways honorable, but it can be dangerous as well. The hard reality—demonstrated by decades of painful experience in the region—is that there are some problems that cannot be entirely solved and trying to solve them sometimes makes things worse.
Part of the problem is that U.S. policymakers often lack a deep understanding of the countries in question, making them susceptible to manipulation from parties with their own vested interests. The most famous example is the Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, who helped convince top officials in the George W. Bush administration that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators in Iraq. Years after the invasion, Iraqi authorities arrested Chalabi on charges of counterfeiting and allegedly working to advance the interests of Iran. Similar scenarios played out in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, where even well-meaning exiles told Americans and others what they wanted to hear in order to win the support of the most powerful countries of the world. In each case, it led to massive miscalculations about what would happen in the wake of the U.S. intervention, almost always in the direction of excessive optimism.
Regime change will always tempt Washington.
Americans also keep placing hope over experience when it comes to Middle East policy because of a persistent tendency to underestimate the degree of resources and commitment it will take to get rid of a hostile regime and stabilize the situation once it is removed. But many decades of experience demonstrate that autocratic regimes never relinquish power in the face of economic sanctions alone (which hurt the public more than the leadership) or even in the face of modest amounts of military force. Numerous Middle Eastern rulers have been willing to risk and even lose their lives rather than give up their power voluntarily. The result is that when the United States wants to get rid of such leaders, it must go far beyond the low-cost remedies often proposed by proponents of regime change, such as implementing no-fly zones, launching airstrikes, and providing arms to the opposition. Instead, significant U.S. military deployments are required to dislodge such leaders, and even after they are gone, it always proves far more costly to deal with the aftermath than proponents of regime change suggest. And although officials in Washington often assume that regional or international partners will help bear the burdens and assume the costs of regime change, that rarely happens in reality.
Some of these problems would be manageable if the American public’s commitment, patience, and staying power were infinite, but they are not. Especially because U.S. leaders and regime change proponents rarely acknowledge the likely heavy costs as they make the case for action, once the immediate crisis passes and public perceptions of the threats at hand diminish, public support dwindles. Most Americans initially supported the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. Over time, however, majorities concluded that both interventions had been mistakes. And hardly any public support ever existed for intervening or peacekeeping operations in Libya and Syria. In every case, as the problems mounted and the costs rose, the public backing necessary for success disappeared.
In the future, there may be cases in which mass terrorism, genocide, a direct attack on the United States, or a country using or proliferating nuclear weapons makes the benefits of removing a threatening regime exceed the costs. But if history is any guide, such cases will be rare to nonexistent. And even where they exist, they demand caution, humility, and honesty about the likely costs and consequences.
Regime change will always tempt Washington. So long as there are states that threaten American interests and mistreat their people, U.S. leaders and pundits will periodically be pulled toward the idea that Americans can use their unparalleled military, diplomatic, and economic power to get rid of bad regimes and replace them with better ones. The long, diverse, and tragic history of U.S.-backed regime change in the Middle East, however, suggests that such temptations—like most quick fixes that come along in life and politics—should be resisted. The next time U.S. leaders propose intervening in the region to overthrow a hostile regime, it can safely be assumed that such an enterprise will be less successful, more costly, and more replete with unintended consequences than proponents realize or admit. So far, at least, it has never been the other way around.
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