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.