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Regime Change and Its Limits

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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.

Using regime change as a policy panacea is nothing new. Nor are the challenges posed by repressive countries possessing threatening weaponry; these are certainly not exclusively post-Cold War or post-September 11 phenomena. Indeed, the Cold War itself can be understood as a prolonged confrontation with a state of precisely this sort; the Soviet Union threatened the United States by what it did beyond its borders and offended Americans by what it did within them. So had Nazi Germany and imperial Japan before it.

The Roosevelt administration ultimately chose to deal with Germany and Japan through a policy of regime change, seeking not simply to defeat them on the battlefield and reverse their conquests but to continue war until the regimes in Berlin and Tokyo were ousted and something much better was firmly ensconced. It took years of armed occupation and intrusive involvement in the internal politics of both countries -- what is known today as nation building -- to achieve that latter objective.

The U.S. approach to the Soviet Union, however, was markedly different. After World War II, when Moscow emerged as Washington's principal global rival and threat, "rollback" became something of a popular concept. Yet the potential for a nuclear war in which there would be no winners regardless of who struck first tempered U.S. policy. Seeking regime change, or rollback, was deemed too risky, even reckless, given what could result if a desperate Soviet leadership lashed out with all the force at its disposal.

Simply acquiescing to Soviet behavior at home and abroad, however, was not acceptable to Washington either. The result was a policy of "containment," which George Kennan (then a U.S. diplomat in Moscow) helped formulate in his "long telegram," which ultimately found its way into this magazine in 1947. Containment was never as modest a policy as its critics alleged. Although it prescribed resisting Moscow's attempts to spread communism and expand Soviet influence, it also had a second, less cited dimension.

"It is entirely possible," Kennan wrote, "for the United States to influence by its actions the internal developments, both within Russia and throughout the international Communist movement. ... The United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than [the Kremlin] has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power."

In other words, containment's second, subordinate goal was regime change. It eventually achieved this end through incremental means. But this method was so gradual (it took more than 40 years to succeed) that it could better be understood as regime evolution, and it took a back seat to containing Soviet advances. Whereas regime change (as the Bush administration uses the term) tends to be direct and immediate and to involve the use of military force or covert action, as well as attempts to isolate both politically and economically the government in question, regime evolution tends to be indirect and gradual and to involve the use of foreign policy tools other than military force.

Advocates of regime change generally reject most, sometimes any, dealings with the regime in question, lest the process of interaction or engagement somehow buttress the offending government. Diplomacy is therefore marginalized, as it has been in U.S. Cuba policy for 40 years, and as it has been more recently in U.S. policy toward both North Korea and Iran.

Regime evolution, however, accepts the need for give-and-take. The United States carried out an active diplomacy with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. It mattered not whether the policy was characterized as "peaceful coexistence" or, somewhat more optimistically, as "detente"; either way, the United States was prepared to deal with the Soviet Union when doing so served U.S. interests. Containment took precedence over rollback, or regime change, and influencing Soviet foreign policy took precedence over influencing Soviet behavior at home. This did not mean the United States ignored questions of what was going on inside the Soviet Union -- it did not, as evidenced by sustained U.S. support for radio broadcasts addressed to the Soviet people, for individual human rights cases, and for the right to emigrate. But Washington did not accord these issues the same weight as Soviet foreign policy.

To understand how this process worked, consider arms control, one realm of intense U.S-Soviet involvement. U.S. officials regularly negotiated with their Soviet counterparts and entered into agreements to limit weapons, particularly nuclear ones. Such a policy may have prolonged the Soviet regime, since it accorded Moscow a unique and prominent international standing and placed curbs on a costly arms race that might have hastened the regime's demise (given the country's weak economic base). Still, successive U.S. administrations prudently deemed avoiding war and regulating U.S.-Soviet arms competition higher goals.

A similar rationale motivated the United States' economic dealings with the Soviet Union. Concern that bilateral trade could buttress the Soviet government was overridden by the view that trade deals would also give the Soviets a stake in better relations with the United States and the West and thereby rein in any Soviet temptation to challenge violently the status quo.

In the end, the Soviet regime did change. Historians will continue to debate how much of this was due to internal flaws in the Soviet system and how much resulted from U.S. and Western policy. The easy answer is that both forces were effective. The important thing is that an end did come, and it came peacefully. The third great conflict of the twentieth century, like the first two, ended with the result desired by the United States. Unlike the outcomes of the first two conflicts, however, this one was achieved without total war.

EASIER SAID THAN DONE

The Soviet experience holds important lessons for current U.S. foreign policy. Removing odious leaders -- "regime ouster" -- is no easy thing. The Soviet Union survived for nearly three-quarters of a century. The United States found it difficult to locate and arrest Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1989 and impossible to oust Mohamed Farah Aideed in Somalia in 1993. Fidel Castro remains ensconced in Havana today.

Regime replacement, the second step in regime change, is even more difficult, however. In the end, toppling Saddam Hussein was easy compared with putting in place a new Iraqi government that could run a secure, viable country. Although the Iraq venture was made far more expensive and difficult than necessary by Washington's poor planning and questionable decisions, it is possible it would not have gone more smoothly even had Iraq's occupation been approached differently. And occupations elsewhere will not be much easier. The rise of nationalism, together with globalization (and the increased availability of powerful means of resistance), may have doomed prolonged occupations of foreign countries by sharply increasing their human, military, and economic costs.

Indeed, the uncertainties surrounding regime change make it an unreliable approach for dealing with specific problems such as a nuclear weapons program in an unfriendly state. Neither North Korea nor Iran appears to be on the brink of dramatic domestic change. A decade ago, many believed that North Korea was near collapse, yet the regime still stands, and it may persist for years more, notwithstanding North Korea's impoverishment, its cruel and eccentric leadership, and its utter lack of freedom. Iran, too, is unlikely to throw off its current clerical leaders, despite their unpopularity. Even if these assessments ultimately prove incorrect, regime change cannot be counted on to come quickly enough to remove the nuclear threats now posed by these countries.

Unless, that is, the United States is prepared to invade them. But the expense of this approach would be enormous. Pyongyang's conventional military power could inflict great loss of life and physical destruction on South Korea, and its nuclear weapons could obviously increase such costs dramatically. Many U.S. military personnel (including some of the more than 30,000 currently stationed in South Korea, along with reinforcements who would be sent) would lose their lives. The United States could and would win such a war, but only at great cost to itself, the region, and the rest of the world. The same goes for war with Iran. That country is roughly the size of Alaska and has 70 million people, roughly three times as many as Iraq -- more than enough to make any occupation costly, miserable, and futile for the United States.

Using more indirect tools to bring about regime evolution, instead of change, might well work but would take years, if not decades. Achieving regime evolution requires the strategic use of television, radio, and the Internet. Admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) could be offered in return for fundamental economic reforms, ones that are, by their nature, also political. Rhetorical support for change can also help, as can direct assistance to nongovernmental organizations and other elements of civil society. Economic and political incentives should be made available to the target country if it is willing to adopt policies that reduce threats and that create more freedom and space for independent economic and political activity; in the absence of such changes, targeted sanctions should be considered. Trade and personnel exchanges can open a closed society to new ideas. Over the past few decades, there have been dozens of cases of successful regime evolution in the former Soviet bloc, Latin America, and Asia, and there is no reason such patterns could not be repeated elsewhere if the United States makes the investment and takes the necessary time. Odious or dangerous regimes should never be neglected, but the safest and best way to encourage their moderation or implosion is to smother them with policies that force them to open up to and deal with the outside world.

MILITARY MEANS

One other alternative for dealing with Pyongyang's and Tehran's nuclear programs is the limited use of military force. Such attacks could take two forms. One is a preemptive strike, akin to what Israel did in 1967 when, learning of an imminent Egyptian attack, it hit the Egyptians first. For such an attack to work, however, the intelligence assessment of the threat must be near 100 percent accurate, confirming that the danger is in fact imminent and that there are no other available means to stop it. Under such rare circumstances, it is widely viewed that a state enjoys the right to strike before it is certain to be struck. This is preemption in the classical sense -- something quite different from President George W. Bush's use of the term, which in fact is better understood as prevention.

The problem for U.S. policymakers today is that neither situation -- neither that with North Korea nor that with Iran -- is likely to satisfy the conditions that warrant a preemptive strike in the traditional sense. Instead, available intelligence will probably be questionable, the threats uncertain and in no way clearly imminent, and the military option but one of several policies available. Under such circumstances, any U.S. attack would be preventive, not preemptive -- the use of force against a gathering but not imminent threat.

There are some precedents for preventive strikes, such as Israel's attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear complex in 1981 or the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq some two decades later. But preventive attacks always pose serious problems. For one thing, it is all but impossible to get international support for them. For another, they are quite difficult to carry out successfully; indeed, given the secrecy surrounding nuclear programs, the level of intelligence needed to effectively cripple them through a military attack can be impossible to attain.

It is this last consideration -- of feasibility -- that is likely to determine the use of preventive strikes in the future. It is not just a question of what constitutes North Korea's nuclear weapons program or where it is. Washington could in principle strike other targets valued by Pyongyang to coerce it into meeting U.S. and international demands regarding its nuclear programs. It is not clear, however, whether Washington could get political support for such attacks or that they would have the desired effect. In fact, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia are likely to oppose any action that could lead to a war on the Korean Peninsula that would kill hundreds of thousands and destroy the economy of South Korea and of the region more generally.

Using preventive strikes to destroy Iran's developing weapons program would also be much easier said than done, given the imperfect nature of the intelligence on Iran's program and the operational challenges of attacking its dispersed and buried nuclear facilities. U.S. strikes might succeed in destroying part of Iran's weapons program and set it back by months or even years. But even if this were to occur, Iran would surely reconstitute its program in a manner that would make future strikes even more difficult. Moreover, Iran has the ability to retaliate by unleashing terrorism (using Hamas and Hezbollah) against Israel and the United States or by promoting instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. A U.S. strike on Iran would also further anger the Arab and Muslim worlds, where many already resent the double standard of U.S. and international acceptance of Israel's and India's nuclear weapons programs. Much of the Iranian population, currently alienated from the regime, would likely rally around it in the case of a foreign attack, making external efforts to bring about regime change that much more unlikely to succeed. Attacking Iran would also lead to sharp and possibly prolonged increases in the price of oil, which could trigger a global economic crisis. Nor would the United States avoid these costs if Israel carried out the strike (a scenario suggested by Vice President Dick Cheney in January 2005), since Israel would be widely viewed as doing the United States' bidding.

TALK FIRST

Another alternative policy for meeting the nuclear challenge posed by Iran and North Korea would be to emphasize diplomacy. North Korea and Iran could be promised a number of benefits, including economic assistance, security assurances, and greater political standing, if they satisfied U.S. and international concerns regarding their nuclear programs. They could also be presented with clear penalties in case they fail to cooperate adequately. Such penalties could include diplomatic and economic sanctions and, in the most dire circumstances, military attack.

It is far from clear, however, whether any such agreement could actually be negotiated. North Korea may well decide that possessing nuclear weapons is the best way to deter a U.S.-led military intervention and to earn hard currency -- and thus refuse to give up such weapons. Iran, too, may decide that nuclear weapons are too useful as a deterrent and a means to acquire regional influence. Even if these states agreed to give up their weapons, moreover, there is no guarantee that they would honor their agreements. North Korea has already breached a 1992 accord with South Korea to keep the peninsula free of nuclear weapons and violated the spirit (if not necessarily the letter) of the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework. Iran, for its part, has failed to fulfill its obligations to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its uranium-enrichment activities, as it is required to under a safeguards agreement Tehran signed pursuant to the Nonproliferation Treaty.

Given their records, North Korea and Iran could be expected to exploit the time any negotiation would buy them to enhance their nuclear capabilities. Even absent such bad faith, essentially rewarding a country such as North Korea with alternative energy sources and various political and economic benefits for its having once invested in nuclear weapons could have the perverse effect of encouraging proliferation elsewhere. It might give other countries an incentive to follow suit in the belief that they, too, will eventually be rewarded for their bad behavior.

Despite these problems, however, diplomacy remains an attractive option, both because it could succeed and because only by first making a good-faith effort will the United States have a chance of getting the necessary regional and international backing for then pursuing a more confrontational tack.

In fact, the United States (working with China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea) has already initiated a series of discussions with North Korea in order to convince it to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang, however, rejected the incentives Washington offered it last year, and the failure to include any clear penalties in the deal put little pressure on North Korea to compromise. Neither the carrot nor the stick was adequate. In addition, the Bush administration lost valuable time by resisting the prospect of bilateral talks with North Korea. This was a mistake; it matters little whether China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia are physically in the room so long as the United States coordinates its policies with them.

The best path available now is to continue to work with these states on a diplomatic package that would give North Korea security assurances, energy assistance, and specified political and economic benefits in exchange for forgoing its nuclear programs (fuel and weapons alike) and agreeing to robust international inspections. Sequence matters in all this; it is unrealistic to expect North Korea to satisfy all nuclear-related requirements before it receives any benefits. Washington and its partners should also agree on what economic and political sanctions would be imposed on Pyongyang if it failed to accept such an agreement by a specified date or if it crossed a red line, such as by testing a nuclear device.

China's role is central to any such diplomatic undertaking. Although Beijing's influence on North Korea is limited, it is greater than any other country's. China is the source of much of North Korea's energy and is its principal trading partner. But Beijing, while willing to apply some pressure, seems reluctant to insist, possibly out of fear that if Kim Jong Il's regime begins to collapse, war will break out and refugees will flood China. As a result, China has seemed more interested in placing a lid on the North Korea problem than in actually resolving it.

Washington must try to persuade Beijing to use all of its influence to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program. To this end, China's leaders should understand that the North Korea problem is a test case of China's willingness to become a true strategic partner of the United States. It would also help if the U.S. government were to reassure China's leaders about its long-term thinking on Northeast Asia, namely, that the United States is firmly opposed to the emergence of any new nuclear weapons state in the region, be it Japan, a unified Korea, or Taiwan.

Addressing Iran's nuclear program will require an international proposal offering Tehran the nuclear fuel it says it requires for power generation, but not direct access to or control of the fuel itself. Such an offer could be made to Iran alone. But to improve its attractiveness, the deal should be put forward as a new global policy, in which no entity other than the five acknowledged nuclear weapons states and the IAEA would be permitted to control nuclear fuel. To secure Iran's agreement, the country, which is currently subject to numerous U.S. economic sanctions, could be offered various economic inducements and security assurances akin to those being considered for North Korea. In exchange for these benefits, Iran (again like North Korea) would be expected to convince the world, by allowing intrusive inspections, that it is not developing nuclear weapons or producing the fissile material they require. U.S. policy currently seems to be headed in this direction, but Washington needs to offer more than simply ending its blockage of Iran's admission to the WTO or its purchase of spare parts for aircraft. For their part, Europe and Russia, as well as China, must commit to meaningful sanctions in the event Iran violates the agreement. This is a moment for creative specificity, not ambiguity.

Even if such tactics are used, it remains possible (some would say likely) that diplomacy with Iran will fail, either because of insufficient international support or because many in Iran want to proceed with uranium enrichment or develop nuclear weapons regardless of the cost. As with North Korea, however, the diplomatic option is nonetheless worth pursuing, given the costs of every other approach and given that the only chance for building international support for (or even acceptance of) a more aggressive strategy is to first make a good-faith effort to resolve matters diplomatically.

LIVING WITH PROLIFERATION

There is always the option of accepting a de facto nuclear status for North Korea and Iran. This is the default option if regime change yields no dramatic result, the military option is rejected, and diplomacy fails. And it would be similar to what has already become the U.S. and international approach to Israel, India, and Pakistan. There would have to be, however, one big difference: given the bellicose history and nature of both North Korea and Iran, the United States would need to introduce an extra element of deterrence to discourage either government from using a nuclear weapon or transferring critical technologies, fuel, or weapons to other states or to terrorist groups. To this end, the United States should declare publicly that any government that uses weapons of mass destruction, threatens to use them, or knowingly transfers WMD or key materials to third parties opens itself up to the strongest reprisals, including attack and removal from power. This message should be accompanied by a concerted diplomatic effort to get the other major powers to sign on to such a policy. Such moves would add teeth to Security Council resolutions and international conventions that already forbid states from facilitating nuclear terrorism in any way.

Even with such international statements, this approach would be inherently risky: accepting a North Korean nuclear arsenal might mean accepting the perpetuation of a desperate, failing government that could well try secretly to transfer nuclear material to terrorists in exchange for much-needed money. Accepting the existence of a nuclear-armed Iran implies a similar bargain. And in both cases, deterrence might not work.

What is more, even if deterrence did work, accepting and learning to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea or Iran would not be cost free. As suggested above, if North Korea is allowed to retain nuclear weapons, this could prompt Japan, South Korea, or other states to seek to acquire them as well. Keeping the peace in a nuclear Northeast Asia would be no easy feat given the historical animosities, the latent rivalries, and the lack of institutional mechanisms for promoting regional confidence and stability.

The same goes for the Middle East. A nuclear Iran could well cause Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and even Iraq to consider developing a similar capability, although it might take them longer to catch up due to their lack of an advanced industrial base. And keeping the peace between a half dozen nuclear-armed states that are suspicious of, if not downright hostile toward, one another would be extremely difficult. The emergence of new nuclear weapons states would also dramatically increase the risk that these weapons or their components would fall into the hands of terrorists, whether by accident or design.

ALL TOGETHER NOW

Regime change, limited military action, diplomacy, and deterrence can all be considered as alternative policies. They are better understood, however, as components of a single comprehensive approach toward states such as North Korea and Iran. Deterrence is a way to make the best of a bad situation. Military action or, more precisely, the threat of it can buttress diplomatic prospects. But diplomacy should be the heart of U.S. policy toward both countries -- because it could succeed, because it must be shown to have failed before there is any chance of garnering support for other policies, and because all the other options are so unattractive.

As for regime change, it is best viewed as a complement to diplomacy and deterrence. It is essential to appreciate not only the limits of regime change but also its nature. A refusal to engage tyrannies allows them to wrap themselves in nationalism and to maintain control; offering regimes enhanced security and economic and political interaction if they meet specified requirements can deny them their rationale for tight control and their ability to maintain it. A foreign policy that chooses to integrate, not isolate, despotic regimes can be the Trojan horse that moderates their behavior in the short run and their nature in the long run. It is time Washington put this thinking to the test, toward what remains of the axis of evil. Delay is no longer an option, and drift is not a strategy.

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