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Regime Change and Regional Instability

June 26, 2011

One of the central arguments behind pushing the United States’s role beyond offshore balancing or forgoing retrenchment is the notion that the United States has a stabilizing presence in most of the world. Indeed, the US did have a stabilizing presence in Europe and still does have a stabilizing presence in East Asia. However, in recent times there has been a serious departure and shift in resources from operations that are stabilizing to operations that are essentially destabilizing. In the conduct of these operations, massive amounts of resources are then devoted to bringing stability to campaigns whose fundamental effect is to cause instability.

Its often noted that the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are responsible for the world’s largest outflows of refugees. This should immediately lead us to question if the way American grand strategy has refocused its efforts is still stabilizing in its effect. On a general level, the assumption is that stability requires state strength, and truly strong states are relatively liberal ones. These strong, relatively well-behaved states then act in ways that stabilize the region.

However, it should be quite obvious that America’s presence in Afghanistan and Iraq have undermined regional stability. American military presence,  on its own, is not an inherent force for stability. It is an instrument of American policy, and if it is misaligned with the policies of other regional actors, it will be a force for turbulence. A large part of the problem is the American, and NATO/European penchant for pursuing regime change, and for that regime change to be integrated with a program of relative liberalization and nation and state-building. That has meant, as Gulliver sharply points out:

… we can scarcely conceive of using force to achieve our military objectives without then making an effort to shape outcomes in the postwar period. (I know of no individual, even among proponents of regime change, who believe that U.S. involvement should or can begin and end with the regime’s destruction.) We can’t even imagine a world where breaking it does not mean also buying it.

Of course, it was not always this way. Although generally not explicitly affiliated with the United States military, the US and other states have had a long history of overthrowing foreign leaders while leaving most of the state apparatus intact. This has allowed the US to pursue its interests while heading off the potential instability a root-and-branch change in regime would bring. Normative changes and the moralization of US foreign policy since the disappearance of Cold War “necessity” has basically put an end to these sorts of activities. There is no more gunboat diplomacy where the US sails its ships, occupies a port or two, and ensures somebody new enters the palace. Libya demonstrates how difficult it is for the United States to veer away from its predilection for regime change, and were the US not already engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is quite likely there would be a stronger US presence there. In those eras of gunboat diplomacy, colonial powers would have had no need to worry about the legitimacy of whoever was ruling, only that who supported their interests was strong enough. Instead, the US is now essentially trying to conduct a mission of regime change and humanitarian stabilization from offshore.

This goes back to the problem of the United States as a revolutionary power. Despite our stabilizing role in Europe and East Asia, we have essentially staked ourselves to a revolutionary one in the Middle East, despite the fact that the Gulf States are hard-line reactionaries. As for our role in Afghanistan, there is little question that our attempt to radically change the status quo has made a genuine cooperation with Islamabad essentially impossible. American attempts to build strong states in Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than stabilizing Central Asia or the Middle East, have destabilized it. Yes, it is true that American troops provide a stabilizing presence – but the action which brought their insertion also massively intensified civil strife.

The assumption is that a stronger, democratizing state stabilizes its region. The evidence is quite different, in general and with these cases in particular. As Joshua Foust has been chronicling, the stronger Afghan state, with its hundreds of thousands of troops we have been arming and training, has been involved in numerous violent border clashes with Pakistan. We have plenty of reasons to think that even if we succeed in the ugly, bloody and destabilizing process of state building, that Kabul will capitalize on its stability to pursue a more muscular, destabilizing foreign policy. As for Iraq, there remains a great deal of wariness on the part of the Gulf monarchies as to its likely future behavior, particularly since Iraq might align with Iran or at least against the Sunni monarchies and heighten tensions in an already dangerous region.

A status quo, hegemonic power or concert of powers does intervene, it is true. It might even conduct regime change. But it is rarely interested in the sort of revolutionary regime change that the US is currently engaged in. Rather than entirely uprooting a regime, status quo powers would logically use the minimum possible effort, and concern themselves less with what sort of regime existed so long as its leadership was compliant. But in today’s day and age it would not be acceptable for the US to have installed an Iron Amir in Afghanistan or a secularist junta in Iraq. It would not have done well to ensure Iraq’s government remained anti-Iranian or to impose leadership on Afghanistan for the benefit of containing or appeasing that country (or Iran, for that matter).

There is a basic assumption that if the US totally removes the previously “bad” regime and brings the new one and its country up to code, things will generally work themselves out. One might look at the US stabilization of Europe and Asia and believe that because we invaded and democratized states in those areas, we could do the same in the Middle East and Central Asia. However, democratization did not stabilize Europe, or it would have stabilized Europe in the 1920s. Democracy is reversible or prone to violence. Hegemonic stability, enabled not simply by US willpower (as some would have us believe) but the utter devastation of total war and the specter of communism to unite European elites and large swathes of their populations with the US cause, and a similar effect occurred in East Asia. Where the US attempted to build regimes “up to code” where the common threat and interest was less, not stability but instability was a result. Today is no different.

If the United States smashes into a region, totally dismantles a country’s regime, and does so without careful planning for how that new, radically changed regime is going to affect the foreign policy calculations of its neighboring states, it is not going to create regional stability. Powers seeking to preserve the status quo in the region, like the United States during most of the Cold War, generally aim to do as little damage as necessary to a country’s government and infrastructure as necessary to install “their men” so as to minimize these problems.

Beyond the moral sanctions against such use of conditional surrender, coups, and or installing non-democratic systems, there are also military constraints. The American way of war does not often avail itself to limited conventional wars. It is easier and safer for US planners, whether under the guise of “rapid dominance,” “effects based operations,” or some other schema, to bombard and obliterate as much of the enemy’s military and civil organs of state power as possible, to end the war quickly and reduce potential threat to American efforts. The idea of spending so much on the US military and putting American lives at risk makes accepting anything less than total victory an uncomfortable compromise and a harder sell for politicians at home.

The emphasis on nation-building and COIN then is probably the necessary complement to the current American way of war, where everyone wants to make Phase III as quick and risk-free as possible. Unfortunately, the result of these grand strategic choices and their operationalization is that the US exposes its men and the countries and regions it is seeking to stabilize to different, and perhaps more dangerous, forms of risk. Gulliver talks about the prospect of acknowledging the limits of our military instrument, but there are many ways this could end. Libya is an obvious possibility, where we simply take Phase IV off the plate and limit our involvement in Phase III to make sure reconstruction and regime change does not become our responsibility – all the while refusing to accept an endgame that does not involve regime change. This, of course, is strategically incoherent, and relies on a degree of cooperation with those who are willing to pick up the slack to fulfill more combat and reconstruction roles. Another possibility would be the more broadly non-interventionist stance where America reduces its emphasis on the regime types of other states, and even is willing to accept a degree of instability as part of the natural equilibrium, lest its attempt to “stabilize” the region produce more chaos. Yet another would be the US re-entry into the game of coups, manipulation, and covert activity, but this possibility actually seems the least likely at this point.

In any case, if the US wants to retain its role as a hegemonic stabilizer, it will need to take a step back and think about where stability is most needed, the resources necessary to impose it, and the manner in which it creates and perpetuates it. As Patrick Porter pointed out in his Infinity Journal essay, it would help the US goal of dealing with defense in an age of austerity to recognize where its presence, rather than its absence, is undermining stability and its broader foreign policy interests.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2011 5:12 am

    I think most Americans, including ones in government, don’t recognize just how aggressive our posture as a “revolutionary power” really is. Revolution in the form of democratization is a central pillar of our government’s foreign policy, and recent administrations have been awfully ambitious in their pursuit of it. Liberalism and paternalism are strange bedfellows, and as you explain here, the revolutions that ensue can produce undesired strategic consequences. This approach gets justified on grounds that the regimes we help build will not go to war and will not “breed terrorists,” but we have to remember that there are more than two plausible alternative histories here (perpetuation of status quo ante vs. U.S.-backed transition to electoral democracy). Democracy can emerge without U.S. intervention, and U.S. intervention in processes of democratization doesn’t always lead in the desired direction.

    • June 27, 2011 5:42 pm

      It’s certainly not something that seemed immediately obvious to me. The US was not always a revolutionary power, although it had spurts of revolutionary activity in World War I and World War II. But after WWII we took on something of the role of a restraining, reactionary status quo power, partially by necessity, and partially by ideological opposition communism and partnerships with plenty of reactionary regimes.

      It seems to me that historically speaking, most of the great waves of democratization occurred after or were the cause of catacylsmic events in world history (the revolutions and wars of the 19th century, WWI, WWII, and decolonization) which shook and destroyed “stable” systems. Now the US is running the stable system but it thinks that more revolution is going to bring stability rather than require or cause a profoundly destabilizing event.

      I have some similar concerns about China. Kind of hard to accommodate a rising power when we have an all-but-explicit assumption that we want its regime to wither away or die.

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