‘Regime Change’ Strategy Spreads Chaos

Official Washington’s “regime change” strategy for governments that have somehow gotten on the “enemies list” is now threatening to destabilize not just the Mideast and Africa but Europe as well, yet there is little indication that these policies will change, as Nat Parry describes.

By Nat Parry

It has long been an article of faith that despite whatever slipups it might make along the way in pursuit of its foreign policy, the United States is always motivated by a sincerely held desire to promote democracy and human rights around the world, which, in turn, is seen as vital in ensuring global stability and prosperity.

The roots of this principle can be traced back to the days of “Manifest Destiny” the prevalent mid-19th Century view that it was Anglo-Saxon Americans’ providential mission to expand their civilization westward across North America and can be identified in the pronouncements of presidents including Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy. But it was perhaps most eagerly embraced by George W. Bush, who claimed it as his divine mission to combat tyranny around the world. He called it “the Freedom Agenda.”

President George W. Bush announcing the start of his invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

President George W. Bush announcing the start of his invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

In the waning days of the Bush presidency, on Jan. 12, 2009, the White House even issued a “fact sheet” attempting to secure Bush’s legacy and defend his record in “spreading freedom,” which by then had already been largely discredited thanks to the disastrous U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

“President Bush has kept his pledge to strengthen democracy and promote peace around the world,” the fact sheet read. “He has promoted the spread of freedom as the great alternative to the terrorists’ ideology of hatred, because expanding liberty and democracy will help defeat extremism and protect the American people.”

Although it was never fully articulated precisely how the use of U.S. military force would “promote the spread of freedom,” the so-called Freedom Agenda had broad appeal among American neoconservatives, arms manufacturers and others who had a vested interest in expanding U.S. power and deepening the nation’s involvement in geopolitical hotspots.

The narrative of “spreading freedom” also resonated with an American public long conditioned to believe that as the self-evident “good guys,” the U.S. could do no wrong or, even if it did occasionally “make mistakes,” it was nevertheless guided by altruistic motives and therefore given a pass when “blunders” took place.

Much of the rest of the world also may have reluctantly accepted some American boorishness as the price to be paid for all the “good” that the U.S. did in promoting democracy and providing security.

But with the world now clearly in a state of rising instability and insecurity on multiple fronts with refugee crises, violent extremism, economic volatility and climate chaos threatening to undermine the very foundations of civilization throughout Asia, Africa, Europe and North America it has become increasingly obvious how misguided these policies have been.

Rather than establishing liberty and democracy as the irrefutable and irresistible alternatives to hatred and extremism, U.S. military involvement in the Middle East has played a key role in creating the conditions that have given rise to vicious groups like the Islamic State, or ISIS. The ongoing wars to “spread freedom” in the region have led to a humanitarian disaster and refugee crisis, the likes of which haven’t been seen in many decades.

Intelligence Assessment

Although the link between U.S.-led wars and the rise of extremism was once primarily made by left-wing dissidents and what conservatives dismissed as the “blame-America-first crowd,” the link became so obvious at some point during the Bush years that even so-called “serious” people in the intelligence community and foreign policy establishment began publicly stating this case.

Nearly a decade ago, a National Intelligence Estimate representing the consensus view of the 16 spy services inside the U.S. government  starkly warned that a whole new generation of Islamic radicalism was being spawned by the U.S. occupation of Iraq. According to one American intelligence official, the consensus was that “the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse.”

The assessment noted that several underlying factors were “fueling the spread of the jihadist movement,” including “entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness,” and “pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment among most Muslims all of which jihadists exploit.”

But rather than leading to substantive changes or reversals in U.S. policies, the strategy agreed upon in Washington seemed to be to double down on the failed policies that had given rise to radical jihadist groups such as “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” which later vomited up its brutal offshoot ISIS. In fact, instead of withdrawing from Iraq, the U.S. decided to send a surge of 20,000 troops in 2007, and the combat mission dragged on well into President Barack Obama’s first term, despite his being elected on a wave of antiwar sentiment in 2008.

After its failure in Iraq, the U.S. turned its attention to Libya, overthrowing the government of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 utilizing armed militias implicated in war crimes and backed with NATO air power. Following Gaddafi’s ouster, his caches of weapons ended up being shuttled to rebels in Syria, fueling the civil war there. The U.S. also took a keen interest in destabilizing the Syrian regime and to do so began providing arms that often fell into the hands of extremists.

The CIA trained and armed so-called “moderate” rebel units in Syria, only to watch these groups switch sides by joining forces with Islamist brigades such as ISIS and Al Qaeda’s affiliate the Nusra Front. Others surrendered to Sunni extremist groups with the U.S.-provided weapons presumably ending up in the arsenals of jihadists or sometimes just quit or went missing altogether.

As the Wall Street Journal rather dryly reported last January, “All sides now agree that the U.S.’s effort to aid moderate fighters battling the Assad regime has gone badly.”

The “moderates” only managed to hold control over small pockets of northern Syria, while radical jihadists gained ground culminating earlier this month in the seizure of the last major oilfield under Syrian government control by ISIS.

As the Sunni extremist groups have consolidated control, the ranks of refugees have swelled, overwhelming authorities in European countries who lack any sort of cohesive policy to deal with the crisis. The numbers of refugees are growing as attacks by rebels have increased in recent months, with the United Nations now projecting that at least 850,000 people will cross the Mediterranean seeking refuge in Europe this year and next.

Although Assad continues to be blamed for the vast majority of civilian deaths in the civil war, rebel mortar attacks on Damascus and a wave of car bombings in major cities like Lattakia, Aleppo, Homs, Hassakeh and Qamishli have driven thousands from their homes, according to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees.

“Inside Syria, the last few months have been brutal,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a press briefing in Geneva on Sept. 8. “Fighting has intensified in almost all governorates.”

As bad as it currently is, the situation will likely dramatically worsen if the Assad regime collapses. Already, some are predicting a dramatic upsurge in refugees fleeing the country if the Islamist groups continue their advance on Damascus.

Writing in the British Independent on Sept. 6, Patrick Cockburn noted that ISIS is currently threatening to capture a crucial road, the M5 highway, which is the last major route connecting government-held territory in Damascus to the north and west of the country. The loss of this highway “could touch off a panic and the exodus of several million refugees from government areas, in addition to the four million who have already fled,” Cockburn warns.

Stressing that the Assad government at the moment is relatively secure, Cockburn predicts that “any sign that it is weakening will convince millions of Syrians that it is time to leave the country” in a last-ditch attempt to flee the brutality of ISIS.

‘Bad, Bad Sick Joke’

Reelected by large margins last year in a partial presidential election (excluding areas of Syria not under government control), Assad is widely viewed as the protector of Syria’s Christian, Shiite and Alawite minorities, groups that will likely be among the first victims of ISIS’s mass executions should these extremists seize control of Damascus.

But despite this reality and the already dire situation of refugees fleeing to Europe and elsewhere, Western governments are doing little to help end the Syrian civil war. In fact, true to form, while the U.S. attempts to block Russia from providing any sort of support to the Assad government, the Obama administration continues to fuel the war by supporting rebel groups with training, weapons, and air support.

A $500 million Pentagon program meant to replace or supplement the CIA’s earlier training program with a view towards more comprehensively supporting “moderate” Syrian rebels is reportedly being re-examined in light of criticism that the first group of U.S.-trained Syrian fighters was handily defeated by Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate in late July. The Islamists apparently attacked the group and took an unspecified number hostage, with the remaining fighters fleeing and still unaccounted for.

As the Associated Press reported on Wednesday, “Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook offered no details on how the program could be revamped, but told reporters that Defense Secretary Ash Carter still believes training and equipping moderate Syrian rebels and sending them into battle against the Islamic State is the right strategy.”

Despite these reassurances, congressional hawks like Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, are withdrawing their support for the program just a year after Congress authorized it. “It’s a bad, bad sick joke,” said McCain of the program, while Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, called it “a bigger disaster than I could have ever imagined.”

But perhaps this just goes to show how limited U.S. policymakers’ imaginations are and how tone-deaf they remain to criticisms and words of caution. Russia, for one, has long been raising concerns over Washington’s support for the Syrian rebels, a policy which is blamed not only for the refugee crisis destabilizing Europe but also the failure to defeat the Islamic extremists in Syria.

Russian criticisms reached a new height last month when it was announced that the U.S. would be providing air support to the rebels fighting both Assad and ISIS. Officials in Moscow warned on Aug. 3 that Obama’s decision to back allied Syrian rebels with airstrikes would unleash wider chaos and instability in Syria.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia has “repeatedly underlined that help to the Syrian opposition, moreover financial and technical assistance, leads to further destabilization of the situation in the country.”

But now it is Washington that has gone on the offensive in the war of words between the U.S. and Russia. Following reports that Russia sent a military advance team to Syria, State Department officials objected to what they call Russia’s military “buildup” in Syria.

In a call to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “reiterated our concern about these reports of Russian military activities, or buildup if you will, in Syria and made very clear our view that, if true and borne out, could lead to greater violence and even more instability in Syria,” according to State Department spokesman John Kirby.

Who’s Destabilizing Whom?

It’s a classic tactic of Washington when it is guilty of destabilizing a country, it points the finger at another culprit to deflect attention from the mess that it has made. Yet, far from being the result of Russian meddling, the destabilization of Syria starting in 2011 can actually be traced back to 2001, when plans were hatched in the Pentagon for taking out governments in seven Middle Eastern countries.

According to former NATO Commander General Wesley Clark, shortly after 9/11 he was shown a confidential memo by a general at the Pentagon detailing plans to overthrow governments in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.

Of those seven, two governments (Iraq and Libya) were subsequently overthrown, one country (Sudan) was cut in half, one (Somalia) became “the most failed state on earth” and two (Syria and Lebanon) have been destabilized. War with Iran was only narrowly averted thanks to multilateral diplomacy and perhaps a little luck.

The reality is that the four-year old civil war in Syria, fueled in large part by Washington’s training and arming of the rebels, appears to have the goal of implementing “regime change” through an armed insurgency, much in the same way as it has been done in other countries, including most recently Libya.

This is Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” in action, and the four million Syrians who have already fled their homelands could rightly be considered “Freedom Agenda refugees.”

The dangers of pursuing these policies are palpable, as we see the worst refugee crisis since World War II playing out across Europe, but the worst of the ramifications may be yet to come.

Destabilizing the World

When it comes to Syria, the refugees who have already fled mostly came from opposition or contested areas that have been devastated by fighting. But most of the 17 million Syrians still in the country live in government-controlled areas, which are now increasingly threatened by ISIS. If these people find themselves more exposed to ISIS’s notorious brutality, they will likely swell the ranks of refugees beyond anything we have seen to date.

And this is only Syria. It should be kept in mind that another U.S.-fueled war in nearby Yemen the poorest country in the Middle East could contribute to yet another wave of refugees attempting the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean into Europe.

In a recent report, Amnesty International described the situation in Yemen as dire. “Prior to the conflict, more than half of Yemen’s population was in need of some humanitarian assistance,” according to Amnesty. “That number has now increased to more than 80 percent, while a coalition-imposed blockade on commercial imports remains in place in much of the country and the ability of international aid agencies to deliver desperately needed supplies continues to be hindered by the conflict.”

The human rights group points out that although the United States is not formally part of the Saudi-led coalition, “it is assisting the coalition air campaign by providing intelligence and aerial refueling facilities to coalition bomber jets,” as well as weapons including banned cluster munitions being used against Yemeni civilians.

Its assistance “makes the United States partly responsible for civilian casualties resulting from unlawful attacks,” says Amnesty, noting that “the countries that supplied the weapons have a responsibility to ensure that they are not used to commit violations of international law.”

In another recent report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute documented that the U.S. has become further entrenched as the world’s top exporter of weapons, now accounting for 31 percent of all arms sales around the world. SIPRI noted that the volume of U.S. arms exports rose by 23 percent since 2005, with the biggest increase in transfers going to the Middle East.

Besides flooding the planet with small arms and light weapons, heavy artillery, armored vehicles, and warships, the U.S. has also increased its military assistance to various countries through joint exercises and training missions.

Nick Turse reported at the Intercept on Wednesday that “from 2012 to 2014 some of America’s most elite troops, including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, carried out 500 Joint Combined Exchange Training missions around the world.”

Many of these missions are contributing to rising tensions everywhere from Eastern Europe to the Korean Peninsula. Taken together, they are certainly cause for concern for anyone hoping to live in a world at peace and security. Indeed, the fallout from the Freedom Agenda playing out now in Syria could be just the beginning unless U.S. policymakers take a step back and reassess their actions across the globe.

Nat Parry is the co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush. [This story originally appeared at Essential Opinion, https://essentialopinion.wordpress.com/2015/09/11/fleeing-the-u-s-freedom-agenda/]

11 comments for “‘Regime Change’ Strategy Spreads Chaos

  1. Olivia
    September 13, 2015 at 00:46

    This is a really well written article, defining the the disaster occurring in Syria in a well organized, meticulous way. The uprisings that began in Tunisia, Egypt and then Syria were enthusiastically cheered on by the FCM ( Fawning Coporate Media). I now believe their origins were more akin to the regime change that has occurred in Ukraine, which was spawned by NGO’s from the U.S. I think of all the suffering the people of these countries have endured as well as the populations of those listed in the article as included in the “Freedon Agenda. It is simply tragic and appalling.

  2. Tom Welsh
    September 12, 2015 at 13:54

    “…the combat mission dragged on well into President Barack Obama’s first term, despite his being elected on a wave of antiwar sentiment in 2008”.

    Just as Woodrow Wilson was narrowly re-elected in 1916, on the slogan, “He kept us out of war”, and proceeded to take the USA into the war in 1917.

    As it’s long been known that, “with $2 [or whatever is the going price of a cup of coffee] and a politician’s promise you can buy a cup of coffee”, I don’t know why anyone even listens to those pledges any more.

  3. nexusxyz
    September 12, 2015 at 06:22

    Bit extravagant to call such stupidity a strategy.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 12, 2015 at 07:47

      How true.

  4. Peter Loeb
    September 12, 2015 at 06:11


    “The roots of this principle can be traced back to the days of “Manifest Destiny”
    – the prevalent mid-19th Century view that it was Anglo-Saxon Americans’
    providential mission to expand their civilization westward across North America…”

    In fact the roots go much, much deeper. They go to the Old
    Testament ( See Michael Prior’s THE BIBLE AND COLONIALISM….),
    the many genocides (only a few of which are analyzed in Prior,
    op cit See also Gabriel Kolko, MAIN CURRENTS OF MODERN AMERICAN
    HISTORY and more.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  5. Joe Tedesky
    September 12, 2015 at 00:27

    For starters just the name ‘Freedom Agenda’ is an American packaged logo tell tale sign. Names such as, Patriot Act, Iraqi Freedom, and Homeland Security, just to name a few, have that warm sounding veneer that screams red, white, and blue. The only problem being, these names almost always represent something quite different than their patriotic sounding imageries that these names conjure up in ones mine. Call it a slight of hand, or call it what it really is, a lie. A lie camouflaged in patriotism, which is more often than not, used as an intro to some real ruthless plans ready to be unleashed. Can you say, Yinon Plan, or how about the Peters Plan, does any of this crazy stuff look familiar?

    The only concern the U.S. and it’s allies have for the refugees, is how they maybe able to make the PR work for their cause. If western societies sympathies should happen to support the ouster of Bashar El Assad then this refugee crisis will have been a crisis that didn’t go to waste. Whether down the road these refugees do well, or do not so well, it will always be Assad’s fault, even if only twenty percent of these refugees are Syrian. It won’t matter, because we came, we saw, he died, whatever, what difference does it make, will be the eulogy for another deservingly poor defeated dictator. Admit it, this is what we do. Wake up America, we are now officially an empire!

  6. Kiza
    September 11, 2015 at 19:48

    I find it grossly unfair that the war business is so privileged. If I pollute the environment, this is an externality which I have to pay for to remedy. How come war businesses can create the refugee externality and behave as if it is someone else’s problem, even blame the refugees? This would be as if I released pollution from my mine into Colorado River and then blamed the dead fish for rotting and polluting the river.

    The refugees are simply an economic externality of the Israel/US/Canada/Australia/France/Germany/Denmark etc regime change wars on Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan etc. Most regime changers are lying when they announce numbers of refugees they are taking (in small print, it is over the next 3-5-10 years), but the war business is definitely not in recession.

    • Kiza
      September 11, 2015 at 23:14

      To answer my own rhetorical question: the reason the war business is so privileged is because it is operated by the same dual citizens who also run No-Regulation-Will-Benefit-the-Consumer, Too-Big-Too-Fail, QE (print money and share it between special people) and so on, that is those who own the Government. They have converted the Private-Profit-Public-Loss into an art form and have merged with the Government so much that they have forgotten what a real business looks like.

      • Erik
        September 12, 2015 at 07:49

        Well put.

        The cause is control of mass media and elections by right wing economic concentrations.

        Aristotle’s Politics millennia ago described the tyrant over a democracy: he creates foreign enemies in order to pose as protector to demand domestic power and accuse his opponents of disloyalty. But the advocate of foreign war is not a protector at all: he is a radical right-wing revolutionary who enslaves his own people for personal gain, a traitor who should be in prison.

        The Founders were well aware of this problem: the US Constitution does not permit the US to engage in foreign wars: only suppressing insurrections and repelling invasions. It is as unlawful as anything ever done in the US. Only a treaty can extend the war-making power, and NATO was intended purely to provide for the common defense, not to permit right wing loonies to once again betray the people by pretending to be protectors against imaginary enemies. The treaty should be discarded or rewritten.

        The US Constitution was written before the emergence of economic concentrations and provides no protection of mass media and elections from money. Amendments to protect them are need NOW, but those essential tools are now controlled by money and there is no way to restore democracy, without a generation of civil war. The people of the US need to find REAL COURAGE to restore democracy.

        But they have become cowards, paying the mass media to tell them that they are heroes for murdering innocents far away.

        • Tom Welsh
          September 12, 2015 at 13:58

          “Aristotle’s Politics millennia ago described the tyrant over a democracy: he creates foreign enemies in order to pose as protector to demand domestic power and accuse his opponents of disloyalty”.

          Very true indeed. As Marie Antoinette remarked 230 years ago, “There is nothing new except what has been forgotten”.

        • Kiza
          September 12, 2015 at 21:04

          The people who are running the war/regime-change business are not specifically right-wing or left-wing, they are my-own-profit-wing.

          As far as the US Constitution is concerned, that one has been interpreted away with a Gigaton nuclear bomb, long time ago. For a few shekels only my-own-profit-wing hires a lawyer who will interpret-any-law-away.

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