Is There Still a Role for Regime Change?

Scholars warn efforts to spur regime change rarely pan out, but in a flawed international community, regime change may still have a place

To borrow a phrase from Richard Nixon, the U.S. is “everyone’s 911 call.” Therefore, we must make hard decisions on when to support regime change. Image Credit: Juan Moyano/Getty Images

Fifty years ago this week, a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. Although the U.S. government didn’t back the coup, it often used covert methods to limit the influence of Soviet-backed regimes in the region and install leaders who would be more favorable toward the U.S.

This milestone reminds us how often the U.S. has sponsored “foreign-imposed regime change” (FIRC) over the years. Although not as common today as during the Cold War—during which time scholar Lindsey O’Rourke counts the U.S. launching 64 FIRC operations—the sponsorship of regime change, either by political pressure, economic sanctions, covert action or overt force, remains a potent U.S. foreign policy tool. O’Rourke adds that every president in the post-Cold War era has pursued regime-change policies.

Foreign policy scholars often look askance at such activities, claiming they are ineffective, if not morally disagreeable. But despite the evidence, U.S. policymakers will always seek ways to positively shape the international environment for the country’s national security objectives. Given this reality, we should consider when better principles on FIRC might be necessary.

Chile Revisited

During the Cold War, both the CIA and the KGB used covert aid to intervene in many democratic elections around the world. Accordingly, the U.S. covertly tried to prevent Allende from winning the election in Chile in 1970. Allende was the first Marxist ever to come to power via the ballot box, and after he took office, the U.S. government authorized the CIA to plot against his government. But the CIA’s support for a coup attempt ceased after Chile’s army commander-in-chief was murdered by Chilean military officers. In his memoir “The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende,” U.S. Ambassador Nathaniel Davis insisted the U.S. embassy was not involved in coup plotting, and that the U.S.’s covert actions merely amounted to $2 million per year. CIA operations officer Jack Devine, a critic of some of these covert plans, says in his book “Good Hunting” that the CIA’s effort focused helping Chilean opposition parties and newspapers survive the Allende government’s pressure.

In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile after a coup overthrew the Marxist government. Image Credit: Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional/Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. was not alone in supporting regime-change efforts in Chile. As Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin relate in “The World Was Going Our Way,” the KGB helped Allende win and propped up his government. By 1972, the KGB became discouraged by Allende’s economic mismanagement. Opposition from civil society was mounting. When the military coup came in September 1973, it was no surprise to anyone, including Allende.

The U.S.’s foreign policy priorities changed over time—and its strategic approach to regime change did as well. In the late 1990s, a similar Marxism-through-the-ballot-box strategy would be employed successfully by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. But the Cold War was over, and now, Washington backed democratic process over ideological struggle. In 2002, a coup attempt by Chavez’s military opponents received no U.S. support, and Chavez consolidated his hold on power. Again, focusing on democratic principles, the U.S.’s failure to provide covert aid to our ally Ayad Allawi’s coalition in the 2005 Iraqi parliamentary elections allowed Iran-backed parties to win. Some of our former Cold War interventionist spirit might have blocked Tehran’s subsequent domination of Iraq’s politics.

Driver of World History

Foreign-imposed regime change has been a key feature of the interaction between states from the beginning of recorded history. Even in the post-Westphalian order, with its foundation resting on the sovereignty of states and international rules, regime change hasn’t disappeared as a foreign policy objective, even for democracies. The scholar John M. Owen notes how common FIRC is in international history, recording more than 200 cases between 1510 and 2010, with ideological contests between great powers as a key driver of many of these examples.

And regime change isn’t solely for major powers: Even small states engage in regime change activities against their adversaries. In the post-WWII era, Israel launched two unsuccessful wars, against Egypt in 1954 and Lebanon in 1982, to encourage regime change. During the 1950s and 1960s, military dictatorships in Central America and the Caribbean sponsored regime change against the democratic states of Venezuela and Costa Rica, with Castro’s Cuba later joining in against both sides. In 1960, a bomb plot launched by the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo blew up Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt’s limousine. Yet the badly burned Betancourt would live to see the assassination of Trujillo by U.S.-backed dissidents, an act probably not directed by Washington. Today, several West African states are contemplating forcing out the government in Niger after last month’s coup that overthrew its elected president.

Given its long history, it is difficult to believe FIRC policies will ever entirely disappear from interaction between states—and probably not from Washington’s playbook either. After all, FIRC has been the object of the U.S.’s most successful wars, such as World War II, which resulted in successful regime change for all three of the Axis powers and France, now steadfast allies. When regime change hasn’t happened after one of our wars, such as the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, we feel uneasy about not “finishing the job.”

Certainly, promoting regime change is a tricky business; a lot can go wrong. We often misjudge our influence in other parts of the world, like during the 1961 Bay of Pigs covert operation to overthrow Castro. The convoluted Iran-Contra affair, which featured a plot to illegally provoke regime change against Nicaragua’s Marxist government, caused a major scandal for the Reagan administration. In 1990, the U.S. succeeded in Nicaragua—with some help from local allies like Venezuela—by pouring money behind Violeta Chamorro’s campaign to defeat the Marxist Sandinista government, after the U.S. convinced Nicaragua to hold fair presidential elections. The Sandinistas, long since back in power, have learned from that mistake.

When Washington calls for regime change, as the Obama administration did in 2011 in the case of the Assad regime in Syria, it looks weak if it fails to back its words with strong actions. But as former State Department official Philip H. Gordon notes in “Losing the Long Game,” the U.S. has a poor track record of promoting regime change in Muslim countries—in part because we consistently underestimate the costs of regime-change efforts and overestimate our influence abroad.

Scholars Disapprove

Recent scholarship casts strong doubt on regime-change meddling. Benjamin Denison argues forceable regime change rarely succeeds in bringing about the goals we want. Lindsey O’Rourke and Alexander Downes’ work highlights how regime change often has brought about unintended consequences and rarely leads to an improvement in international security. Downes, in other research, believes only a few FIRC efforts have resulted in lasting democracies. RAND corporation analyst Michael Mazarr regards regime-change policies as contrary to the U.S.’s interest in a rules-based international order.

Their overall arguments are strong, but they leave plenty of room for debate. Denison and Gordon, for instance, believe the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 ultimately failed because it inspired the 1979 anti-U.S. Iranian revolution. But the CIA has seen the 1953 overthrow as a success because it ushered in a 25-year period of stability and mostly friendly relations under the Shah.

Policymakers—optimists by nature and with a short time horizon—have tended to focus on FIRC successes. In 1983, the U.S. invaded Grenada to oust a Cuban-backed Marxist government that had just had a bloody internal coup and restore constitutional government there. In Panama in 1989, the U.S. intervened to protect American citizens and remove the corrupt Noriega regime. In the ensuing decades, Panama has become something of a democratic success story.

A regime-change enthusiasm lull? In 2022, President Biden was criticized for saying that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” Image Credit: The White House/Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, if we have the tools, and the conditions look right, why not do the job? We can always call regime change something more palatable, like “democracy promotion” or, as we did in Libya in 2012, “responsibility to protect.” If the intervention goes wrong, we chalk it up to poor planning. O’Rourke calculates that only 40% of covert action campaigns for regime change work. For policymakers, who know these operations are hardly foolproof, those might be considered excellent odds for success.

After Iraq and Afghanistan, we are currently in a regime-change enthusiasm lull, but when someone like Vladimir Putin misbehaves, the regime-change talk starts up again. Referring to Putin, in March 2022, President Biden declared, “this man cannot remain in power.” Although widely criticized for saying so, Biden basically stated the obvious, and it would be right to force out Putin if we had the means to do so.

Rules for Regime Change

As Putin’s war in Ukraine reminds us, we live in a flawed international community. Sometimes another nation’s behavior is so egregiously bad, FIRC is called for, as even skeptical scholars likely would admit. In 1979, forceable regime change by Vietnam and Tanzania ended the murderous regimes of Pol Pot in Cambodia and Idi Amin in Uganda. Inaction has dire consequences too, such as in 1994 when the international community ignored the looming genocide in Rwanda.

The U.S., as “everyone’s 911 call,” to use President Nixon’s phrase, must make hard decisions on when to support FIRC. In “Spymaster’s Prism,” former covert action operative Jack Devine recommends returning to the ethical principles of just war theory approach to evaluating forceable regime-change policies. A regime-change plan must answer these questions: Are regime-change efforts the last resort? Would the measures stand a reasonable chance of success? Are our local allies willing to fight and stay the course? Devine emphasizes the necessity of having the American public and Congress behind a regime-change enterprise.

Even more fundamentally, we must properly assess the threats in the first place, especially for less urgent issues. As former U.S. State Department official Robert H. Johnson argues in “Improbable Dangers,” we must be wary of chronic threat inflation from policymakers. Johnson warned of their tendency to define any unpleasant global development or political problem as a critical national security threat.

More pressure on the U.S. to influence or force regime change, especially in an environment of mounting great power competition, is bound to come. Given the limits of our influence, we will need to be more discerning about how we answer the “911 call.” While contemplating future regime-change efforts, the United States needs to grow more at ease with some disorder, which at times requires enduring moral discomfort. Accepting some insecurity and uncertainty will be required to avoid future regime-change controversies that have unintended and harmful results for our global standing.

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