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Is Regime Change Good for Orderly Global System

Paper No. 5758                                          Dated 01-Aug-2014

By Kazi Anwarul Masud

When Cold War ended some influential Americans thought that time has come for an orderly global system, through inducement and if necessary through regime change. It is widely believed that the term "regime change" was coined by Bill Clinton and popularized by his Presidential successor George W Bush with reference to the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The anti-Vietnam activist who resigned from foreign service and became a journalist  wrote  In THE HISTORY OF “REGIME CHANGE”: Putting Syria into Some Perspective William Blum writes: The Holy triumvirate- the US, NATO, and   European Union — or an approved segment thereof, can usually get what they want. They wanted Saddam Hussein out, and soon he was swinging from a rope. They wanted the Taliban ousted from power, and, using overwhelming force, that was achieved rather quickly. They wanted Moammar Gaddafi’s rule to come to an end, and before very long he suffered a horrible death. In their exuberance and hubris  the neo-cons disregarded the cardinal principles of democracy that, as suggested by Jurgen Habermas,  the way out for the capitalist society in crisis, should be looked for in affirmation of the "communicative rationality", in strengthening of the civil society autonomy, in expanding the space reserved for free action and communication of people who, in mutual communication, bring about rational decisions founded upon rational argumentation and consensus instead of upon strengthening of authoritarian government forms and system enforcement.

Iraq and Libya were the two most modern, educated and secular states in the Middle East; now all of these countries could qualify as failed states. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies while the US has withdrawn from Iraq, US withdrawal left a legacy of insecurity and instability.   Though the presence of US forces may have artificially suppressed the severity of Iraq’s internal political, military, and economic challenges since the US withdrawal, Iraq has faced an unsettling rise in civil unrest, and is experiencing a political power struggle that threatens to undermine its ability to develop into a functioning democracy.  Perhaps most troubling, these minor skirmishes and political crises could spiral into new rounds of sectarian and ethnic conflict which has plagued Iraq in the past.

CSIR report states that with the withdrawal of US troops, it became clear that US-Iranian competition in Iraq was to play out in an increasingly uncertain and unstable environment. It became evident, as the New York Times reported , that “finally confronting the social, economic, and religious divisions that were papered over by the presence of American troops” would pose a greater challenge than previously anticipated.  Rival political and sectarian factions throughout Iraq saw the draw down of major US military presence as an opportunity to revive the fight for power. This is a simplified version of sectarian conflict in Iraq. The very fact of the emergence of ISIS backed by militant Sunnis testify to the centuries old conflict between the Shias and the Sunnis.

After the death of Prophet Mohammed(SM) a debate started on the question of succession as to whether it should be based on bloodline of the Prophet or successor should be the most qualified individual. Those supporting the bloodline group is known as Shia while the other faction is known as Sunnis. This political struggle continues and has become steadily more violent and divisive. While Iran leads the Shias, Saudi Arabia leads the Sunnis. In the case of Iraq it was left unresolved. The resulting crisis and the other problems the country currently faces could lead to the collapse of Iraq’s fledgling democracy and result in serious civil conflict. There is no way to predict how sectarian and ethnic internal violence will emerge out of the power struggles now going on in Iraq. However, the existing levels of violence are relatively high.  

William Blum described the end of Moammer Gaddafi caused by  incessant bombing by the three Western entities daily for  months, unceasingly, crushing the pro-government forces, as well as Gaddafi himself, and effecting the Triumvirate’s treasured “regime change”. Now, rampant chaos, anarchy, looting and shooting, revenge murders, tribal war, militia war, religious war, civil war,  racism against the black population, loss of their cherished welfare state, and possible dismemberment of the country into several mini-states are the new daily life for the Libyan people.

The crowd surrounding George Bush made Madeline Albright to wonder if a tectonic shift had not taken place when the Presidency changed from Clinton to Bush. In the case of Iraq Joseph Cirincione, a Senior Associate and Director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace revealed that long before September 11, before the first inspections in Iraq had started, a small group of influential officials and experts in Washington were calling for regime change in Iraq. Some never wanted to end the 1991 war. Many clamouring for regime change had become Bush administration officials. Their organization, dedication and brilliance offered much to admire, even for those who disagreed with the policies they advocated.

In the Beginning in 1992, Paul Wolfowitz, then-under secretary of defense for policy, supervised the drafting of the Defense Policy Guidance document. Wolfowitz had objected to what he considered the premature ending of the 1991 Iraq War. In the new document, he outlined plans for military intervention in Iraq as an action necessary to assure “access to vital raw material, primarily Persian Gulf oil” and to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and threats from terrorism. The guidance called for pre-emptive attacks and ad hoc coalitions but said that the U.S. should be ready to act alone when “collective action cannot be orchestrated.” The primary goal of U.S. policy should be to prevent the rise of any nation that could challenge the United States. These concepts are now part of the new U.S. National Security Strategy.

The mess created by the neo-cons in George Bush administration encouraged by the intellectual force of Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, Christopher Caldwell and some  European political leaders e.g. Giscard d'Estaing, Berlusconi, Austrian Prime Minister etc  has put the Just and Unjust War theory of Michael Walzer to the book shelf gathering dust. In his own words Michael Walzer writes: "My own view is that they can never rightly use force to create a democratic regime in someone else's country.

The old arguments for "non-intervention," first made by John Stuart Mill, still hold. But once states have used force for some other legitimate purpose, to defeat the Nazis, for example, or to stop a massacre in Rwanda, they can continue to use it; they may even be obligated to continue to use it, for political reconstruction. Absent some such overriding purpose  I do not believe that sending an army across the border is a good democratic move; nor is it likely to be an effective way to promote democracy"( Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 22.4 (Winter 2008). He further explains "individuals have much wider rights to "interfere" in the politics of other people's countries than states do. They have these rights because their interference is noncoercive, dependent on persuasion, and slow enough in its effects to allow the "other people" time to consider and reconsider what they are doing".  Walzer criticizes the aberrant behavior of the super powers during the Cold War by saying that the Red Army marching on Warsaw to create communism in Poland (much like the American army marching on Baghdad to create democracy in Iraq) contradicted by its actions the principles it espoused.

Communist internationalism (like democratic internationalism) assumed the existence of local communists (or local democrats) who were supposed to rise up and take "regime change" into their own hands. Without those "hands," there cannot be any leftist process of democratization—or any other type of democratization, for that matter.  Walzer's Just War Theory uses a moral framework to establish fair principles to enter war, conduct it, and rebuild after it. For example, Walzer argues that governments have an obligation to identify combatants and thus not kill indiscriminately.

The ongoing Isareli attack on the population of Gaza in total disregard of international opinion by attacking Gaza and killing of more than one thousand civilians including women and children are complete refutation of Michael Walzer and reminds one of a former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's refusal to recognize the existence of Palestinians. Despite Michael Walzer's lifelong advocacy for the Jewish community he felt that "what most people need is a state of their own," and that there should be a Palestinian state. "There is a sense in which Israel needs a Palestinian state right now more than the Palestinians do, because Israel won't be a Jewish state unless it is a smaller state." Benjamin Netanyahu's disregard for international community's views for a cease fire can be interpreted as his desire for regime change in Gaza so that Israel can deal with a subservient entity in Palestine. But then the effort for regime change may change its course during the continuation of the conflict.

In the Syrian case where Bashar al Assad has been waging a brutal war against his own people and had been castigated by the Western powers for his brutality Assad has been playing quite successfully the Devil's Gambit by showing his regime to be more tolerant than the sudden appearance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria(ISIS). Dictators, it is believed, can play the devil’s gambit: winning international sympathy by deliberately radicalizing regime opponents, so that these adversaries look like latter-day Hitlers. This approach is cynical, bloody, and potentially effective.   United States has dispatched hundreds of advisors to join the battle against ISIS in Iraq. Members of the Obama administration are backing away from the goal of toppling Assad.

If the unfolding events in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring countries are any indication then gung-ho policy for regime change may not necessarily yield the desired result. Assuming that only democracy can give the best form of governance and deliver politico-economic goods to the people one has to prepare the grounds for the institutions necessary for the success of democracy among which a reasonable per capita income of the people has to be guaranteed. This amount would vary from country to country and the social development existing in the nation under review. The Triumvirate and other concerned nations have to be cautious before embarking on a mission of regime change while the Islamic world should be cautious that internecine conflict does not open the door to radical Islam which though emasculated refuses to fade away and let the world live in peace and prosperity.

The central question still remains unanswered. Is regime change good for global political and economic stability? The answer will depend on the question of which country or countries should be targeted for regime change. The second world war saw regime change in Europe as Nazism and fascism were rooted out of the global scene forever. In recent days Arab Spring countries have seen regime change but in the case of Egypt the nation is witnessing a reversal to Nasserite style of governance partly due to peoples' disgust to the excesses by Islamic Brotherhood though the death sentence awarded to so many Brotherhood leaders by Egyptian courts raises questions  about the judicial process followed in the trials.

An important question that remains to be answered is who decides which country/countries need regime change. One yardstick can be peoples' dissatisfaction and open revolt against the way the country is being run. Another could be the general consensus of the "international community" of the state targeted for regime change is unwilling or unable to follow the principles of prevent or protect its own people from brutalities by external or internal forces. While countries needing regime change can be identified, albeit controversially, the term "international community" would need legitimacy and legality from the global community.

The paralysis of UNSC both during the cold war period and in later days are well documented. So is the demand for enlargement of the G-5 UNSC veto powers is increasingly felt to be necessary. The after effects of regime change in Chile, for example, after the murder of Salvador Allende in the seventies and more recently in Arab Spring countries have been disastrous. There are no guarantees that post-intervention "regime change" country will settle down to a well ordered society instead of   an anarchic one.

One could conclude that if a country gives refuge and/or material support to disturb the peace of another country then it should be held accountable. Equally transnational ideologies forced upon people that   disturb international order  should be checked. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates fall into this category. In the exuberance of punishing al-Qaeda one has to be careful in its belief that it has to learn nothing from others and hence holds a superior belief.  Such kind of "superiority complex" displayed during George Bush administration was disliked by the international community who prefer multilateral approach before men and women are sent to kill other men and women where victims are largely civilians.

In short, efforts for regime change should mainly emanate from within before external forces get involved.

(The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary in Bangladesh.  He can be reached at e-mail