Regime change doesn't work

This is interesting.

The great historian of U.S. foreign relations William Appleman Williams once described realism and idealism, or, if you like, isolation and intervention, in American diplomacy as two sides of the same coin, a “containment-liberation” complex: idealism gets us into whatever the quagmire of the moment is, and realism keeps us there while promising to get us out. It’s a fitting description of the last ten years, as the neocon hubris that characterized the Bush administration’s military interventions yielded to the pragmatism of Barack Obama, who not only hasn’t extricated the United States from his predecessor’s wars, but has started one of his own, in Libya, in the name of democracy.
Alexander Downes asks us to consider the consequences of regime change, arguing that it is more likely to produce conflict than stability. This has been the case in Latin America. Between 1898 and 1994, Washington effectively acted to change governments in Latin America at least 41 times, a tally that includes neither many unsuccessful efforts at regime change, nor the invasions, filibustering, and gunboat diplomacy that took place throughout the previous century.

Regime change can be motivated by a variety of reasons but I agree that they don’t work. Nations are much better off if they make changes on their own. People need to think about that even when there seem to be really, really good reasons for interventions, like genocide.

It’s more than a stretch to say that American intervention in Latin America has been motivated by idealistic goals, or anything more sophisticated than “Dictator A is more suited to our interests than Dictator B (with the occasional left-slanted democratically elected government thrown in)”.

Or is that a remnant of my Chomsky-inspired days on the left? Hmm…

Can you… mention some specific instance of… uh. What?

Sounds about right to me. The Council on Foreign Relations docs have quite a few choice quotes about “limiting the sovereignty” of 3rd world nations for the sake of US economic interests, so it’s not like it’s just the left wing ranting about it.

I have no problem with people talking about how peril-frought and problematic any attempt at external regime change is, but saying it “doesn’t work” based on US history 1894-1994 is ruining a perfectly interesting historical survey with a stupid tagline. “Regime change, it sure didn’t work much in this sample, which is a big meaningful one” isn’t as punchy, admittedly, but it at least logically follows.

I mean; it’s 1994. The Rwandan genocide is getting off the ground. Should UN peacekeeping forces seize or disable the government radios coordinating the killing? Hold on one sec while I consult the history of US interventionism in Nicaragua? The advisability of meddling in foreign crises has to be evaluated case by case. It’s helpful to study relevant history like this, but you aren’t going to come out of the exercise with commandments on stone tablets.

The Rwandan genocide and maybe Libya basically stand alone by themselves; there’s little analogy to them in our long history of overthrowing.

In 1994 they were thinking of the just recently bungled attempt to fix Somalia. 17 years later and the country is still broken, but they did manage to resurrect piracy on the open seas.

That’s my point, though. It would be a good thing for US policymakers to be intimately familiar with the history of failed interventions, but turning that knowledge into a one-sized-fits-all axiom would be harmful in the cases where interference is actually the lesser of evils.

As much as people hated watching what happened to the Green revolution in Iran I think the consensus that meddling and intervention would have been disastrous was quite sensible. In Libya, the response was kind of stumbling and sometimes ill-defined but basically appropriate. So, perhaps in a month or two, one looks at a Syria wracked by civil war. Is that a case like Iran? What would make it a case like Libya? What is the wider context, and is that something that can be shaped by policy? By all means bring history into one’s arguments - I couldn’t be more in favour of doing so. But there are no pat formulae.

Syria is starting to look like something somebody is gonna have to take a stand on. The death toll is getting out of hand.

Libya is a textbook example of a justified intervention done right. Regional support, clear and present danger to civilian lives, mandate from major multinational bodies, UN Security Council resolution. Intervention was limited and carefully targeted. Civilian casualties were rare. America supported allies rather than “owning” the whole thing, forcing them to step up. And the results have thus far been pretty much ideal.

Depends on how it falls out, but I don’t think you could find a cleaner intervention with a better rational or mandate.

The best comment from the Crooked Timber thread.

With specific respect to US foreign policy, I was told once, by someone who is connected to the foreign policy establishment in ways that I am not, that the term of art for potential-dictators-who-can-be-kept-on-tap (ambitious colonels and such) in the Department of Defense and such places is “moustaches.”

Libya is one of the first things brought up in the link you posted, though, as an example of continuing “regime change” actions.