A Better Kind of Regime Change?

When President Obama called on President Assad of Syria to leave office last week it was a sign that Gaddafi was the verge of losing Libya.  Obama made clear that the West would continue the strategy of aiding popular uprisings through diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and low levels of military support.   His message to the Syrian people was clear: Don’t give up.   President Obama, like President Bush before him, has a strategy designed to promote regime change.   It’s less risky than the one embraced by Bush, but can it succeed?

President George W. Bush went into Iraq with a bold and risky foreign policy.   He wanted regime change led by the US, so the US could shape the new regional order.   The Bush Administration understood that the dictators of the Mideast were anachronistic — out of place in the globalizing 21st Century.  Surveying the region directly after 9-11-01, while the fear of Islamic extremism was still intense, they reckoned that the benefactors of the coming instability would be Islamic extremists.   This would create more terror threats and perhaps lead to an existential threat against Israel.

Emboldened by the end of the Cold War and the belief that the American economy was unstoppable, they gambled.  What if the US went into Iraq, ousted Saddam, and then used Iraq as a take off point for further regime change throughout the region?

The formula was clear: invade, use America’s massive military to overthrow a regime, and then pour in resources to rebuild the country and make friends.    The Bush Administration thoroughly under-estimated the task at hand and over-estimated the US capacity to control events.     Their effort to reshape the Mideast failed.   By 2006 Iraq was mired in civil war, and President Bush was forced to change strategy.   Bush’s new realism was designed to simply create conditions of stability enough to allow the US to get out of Iraq with minimal damage to its prestige and national interests.   President Obama has continued that policy.

However, when governments in Tunisia and Egypt fell in early 2011, and rebellions spread around the region creating the so called “Arab Spring,” it became clear that the dynamics the Bush Administration noticed a decade earlier were still in play.   These dictatorships are not going to last.   Some may hold on for years with state terror against their own citizens; others will buy time by making genuine reforms.   But the old order in the Mideast is starting to crumble, and no one is sure what is next.

President Obama choose a new strategy in 2010, much maligned by both the right and left.   Instead of standing back and letting Gaddafi simply use his military power to crush the rebellion, Obama supported NATO using its air power to grant support for the rebels.    That, combined with diplomatic efforts to isolate Gaddafi and his supporters, financial moves to block Libyan access to its foreign holdings, and assistance in the forms of arms and intelligence to the rebels, assured that Gaddafi could not hold on.

Gaddafi’s fall creates the possibility that NATO assets could be used against Syria in a similar effort.   Moreover, it shows that the argument that those who use force will survive while those who try to appease the protesters will fall is wrong.   Survival is not assured by using force, the world community does not ‘forgive and forget’ like it did in the past.

The strategy is subtle.  Like President Bush, Obama’s goal is a recasting of the entire region; unlike his predecessor, Obama’s chosen a lower risk,  patient, longer-term strategy.    If Bush was the Texas gambler, Obama is the Chicago chess master.   But will it work?    Is this really a better form of regime change?

President Bush’s policy was one with the US in control, calling the shots, and providing most of the resources.   President Obama’s approach is to share the burden, but give up US control over how the policy operates.   It is a true shift from unilateralism to multi-lateralism.   While many on the left are against any use of the military, President Obama shares the Bush era view that doing nothing will harm US interests.   The longer the dictatorships use repression, the more likely that Islamic extremism will grow.   The more friendly the US is to dictatorial repression, the more likely it is that future regimes will be hostile.

So the US now backs a multi-faceted multi-national strategy whereby constant pressure to used to convince insiders within Syria (and other Mideast countries) that supporting the dictator is a long term losing proposition.   Dictators cannot run the country on their own.   Even a cadre of leaders rely on loyalty from top military officials, police, and economic actors.   In most cases, their best bet is to support the dictator.   This gives them inside perks, and can be sustained for generations.  However, if the regime falls, these supporters lose everything.

The message President Obama and NATO are sending to the Syrians and others in the region is that they can’t assume that once stability is restored it will be business as usual.   The pressure on the regime, the sanctions, the freezing of assets, and various kinds of support for the protesters will continue.   As more insiders decide to bet against the regime a tipping point is reached whereby change becomes likely.

For this to work a number of things must happen.   First, a stable government must emerge in Libya.  It needs to be broad based, including (but co-opting) Islamic fundamentalists.   The West has to foster good relations with the new government, building on how important western support was in toppling the Libyan regime.  Second, the pressure on Syria cannot let up.   There has to be the will to keep this up for as long as it takes.    Third, the possibility of NATO air support has to be real — the idea is that if it appears that Syria might launch a devastating blow against the revolt, NATO will do what is necessary to bring it back to life.   Finally, the costs and risks of the operation must be kept low so the dictators cannot expect to wait out the West.

If this works, there could be a slow modernization and ultimately democratization of the Arab world, perhaps even spreading into Persian Iran.  If it fails the costs won’t be as monumental as the failure of the US in Iraq, but it will be a sign that Mideast instability in the future is unavoidable, and we have to be ready for dangerous instability.  Has President Obama found a better style of regime change?   Time will tell — and it may take years to know for sure.

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  1. #1 by Black Flag® on August 22, 2011 - 4:23 pm

    Involving one in unconstitutional, undeclared wars is Terrorism

    You advocate for it.

    The “other side” will not accept it.

    Better prepare for massive, asymmetrical blow-back.

    PS: You’ll censor this too

  2. #2 by plainlyspoken on August 22, 2011 - 5:17 pm

    I question the actions by the US and NATO in Libya. There was no basis for the offensive attacks by NATO since NATO exists to collectively defend member nations that have been attacked. Libya is not a member of NATO and there was no attack on any member of NATO by Libya – so how does one justify such aggression on the part of NATO?

    Also I question the argument by Obama that he needed no consent from Congress under the War Powers Act since he determined we were not fighting in Libya in a manner that was controlled by this law. I find that to be a self-serving excuse to do as he personally decides and since Congress has allowed him to get away with such an argument he is now free to pull this same stunt elsewhere (Syria) as he personally chooses.

    The United States needs to get over the idea that this nation must be the world’s policeman – we have no right to interfere in the internal events in a sovereign nation, especially since the US Government wouldn’t tolerate such a thing happening within our borders.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on August 22, 2011 - 6:01 pm

      Good points, plainly. That’s why I have a question mark in the title, it’s not at all clear this is any better, even if it less risky. As for the War Powers Act, Obama is just the latest to make that kind of statement (though some earlier Presidents suggested the act was unconstitutional — which may be true). Congress never really stands up to the President on this. I would applaud Congress if it actually said ANY use of troops abroad required Congressional approval and they actually took action to withhold funds if that approval was not forthcoming. That said, I understand the argument that change is coming to the Mideast and we need to be on the right side of it out of national interest. The question, of course, is whether this is the best way to achieve that. Perhaps in Syria the focus will be limited to non-military actions rather than NATO bombing.

      • #4 by plainlyspoken on August 22, 2011 - 6:44 pm

        I certainly agree that he isn’t the first, or only, one to “interpret” the War Powers Act, or any law to their determined interests (I think back to all the signing statements Bush used to ignore law restricting his actions for instance).

        If a President considers a law to be unconstitutional there should be some mechanism where the President can have the constitutionality ruled on directly by the US Supreme Court – short cutting potential years of misuse of the authorities of the government.

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