Is the age of Middle East ‘regime change’ over?


With the tragic consequences of America’s role in the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya added to the failures of U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the policy of regime change is being more vigorously questioned, the New York Times notes:

The administration still insists that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must be deposed before his ruined country can be set right. But can the removal of dictators, without a substantial military presence to maintain stability afterward, still be considered a sensible policy given the repercussions we’ve seen?

The record of America’s intervention aimed at regime change in the Middle East and North Africa is hardly brilliant, writes Haleh Esfandiari, director emerita and public policy fellow of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:

The lessons are clear: Forcing regime collapse can lead to chaos, and nation-building is not the task of outsiders with (inevitably) a limited grasp of domestic political culture, factions, traditions and the like. As a result of these ill-considered interventions, the standing of the U.S. in the region has been greatly diminished. 

Over recent years, we have learned (or should have) that, in the Middle East, regime change is not enough, argues Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and a member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff from 2011 to 2013, where he advised the secretary on U.S. policy in North Africa and the Levant:

Recent experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya has demonstrated that the United States is extremely good at overthrowing governments. But what really matters for ending the suffering and maintaining U.S. credibility is the ability to stabilize the country after the cheering stops. The United States is not good at this less telegenic slog.

The reasons for interventions may vary — religious or ideological imperatives, colonial policy, the exigencies of the Cold War or the postmodern “duty to protect,” notes Eran Lerman, a lecturer at Shalem College in Jerusalem and a senior research associate at Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies:

The tools are equally wide-ranging, from armored invasion to playing the saxophone at an Israeli high school (as President Bill Clinton did in 1996, in a failed attempt to influence elections). All have in common a conscious effort to bring about a change in the political patterns in a target country. Given the norm of nonintervention, they are often shrouded in plausible deniability: but it is difficult to see how any American administration can fully forego this element of its strategic arsenal without offering a crucial advantage to global rivals, such as Putin’s Russia, as the sad story of Syria amply demonstrates…..

It is one thing to bemoan the dubious legitimacy of interventions, and to note (correctly) that they often fail, as President John F. Kennedy learned in the Bay of Pigs. But it is another matter to let go of this option altogether. After all, it was Tallleyrand who said that nonintervention is a moral and political concept the import of which is exactly the same as intervention.

“If you do nothing to weaken and break those who endanger the world, you are in effect contributing to the triumph of evil,” he adds. RTWT

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