The Fallacy of ‘Regime Change’ Strategies

“Regime change” or destabilizing sanctions are Official Washington’s policy options of choice in dealing with disfavored nations, but these aggressive strategies have proved harmful and counterproductive, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Many variables are involved in the messy predicaments in the Middle East, but one way of framing the history and issues of U.S. policy toward the region is in terms of the approaches that have been taken toward so-called rogue regimes. That term, one should hasten to add, obscures more than it enlightens. But it has been in general use for a long time. Take it as shorthand to refer to regimes that have come to be considered especially troublesome and are subjected to some degree of ostracism and punishment.

Three basic approaches are available in formulating policy toward such a regime: (1) keep ostracizing and punishing it in perpetuity; (2) try to change the regime; or (3) negotiate and do business with it, to constrain it and to influence its actions. There are some contradictions between the approaches. Any regime that is led to believe that it is going to be overturned anyway, or that it will be perpetually punished anyway, lacks incentive to make concessions in a negotiation.

The approaches that outside powers, especially Western powers and above all the United States, have taken toward Middle Eastern regimes that have come to be considered rogue have varied — not only from one state to another but also over time in the policy toward any one state.

Iraq was subject to punishment for a long time, with the prevailing outlook not involving urgency to try different things. The perspective, as voiced by Secretary of State Colin Powell, was that Saddam Hussein was “in his box.”

Then suddenly the policy became one of forceful regime change, stimulated by nothing other than such a project has been on the neoconservative agenda and that the surge in militancy in the American public mood after the 9/11 terrorist attack, even though Iraq had nothing to do with that event, finally made realization of that agenda item politically possible.

Libya under Muammar Gaddafi was subject to years of punishment and ostracism. As far as international sanctions were concerned, this did have a specific declared objective: involving the turning over of named suspects in the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988. Once Qaddafi surrendered the suspects, real negotiation ensued. It resulted in an agreement that ended (while opening up to international inspection) Libya’s unconventional weapons programs and confirmed the Libyan regime’s exit from international terrorism.

Then, after an internal insurrection broke out in Libya, the idea took root — first in Western European capitals, although Washington would go along — that the situation should be exploited to intervene on behalf of the rebels and to help overthrow the regime. Regime change supplanted negotiation.

Policy toward Syria has been a mixed bag all along. There has been lots of punishment, but without some of the isolation to which other regimes have been subjected; the United States kept diplomatic relations with Syria even after placing it on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Once an internal revolt broke out in Syria, a situation similar to Libya arose, in that some outsiders (principally Gulf Arab states and Turkey) wanted to take advantage of the situation to topple the Assad regime. With Russian and Iranian help, and also for internal reasons, the regime has managed to hang on.

But “Assad must go” became a slogan elsewhere, and many in the West took regime change to be an objective. There was negotiation leading to the surrender and disposal of Syrian chemical weapons, but some, including in the United States, did not like that approach.

While there has been some backing away from the idea that Assad must go, others outside Syria say that still should be an objective. In short, there has been conflict and controversy, even within the United States let alone in any larger coalition, over just what the objective should be.

Iran has been subject to much punishment in the form of sanctions. Then after Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013 there was real negotiation on an important issue. This led to the conclusion and implementation of a multilateral agreement that places limits on, and subjects to international scrutiny, Iran’s nuclear program.

A Balance Sheet

Before turning to a balance sheet regarding the results of these different approaches, some observations are in order about what has too often been overlooked with two of the approaches. The sustained use of punishment in the form of sanctions often has been accompanied by confusion about exactly what the objectives are — if that objective is to be anything besides punishment for punishment’s sake, which does not advance anyone’s interests.

An objective might be to make it directly harder for the targeted regime to do certain things, such as to procure advanced military technology. Or it might be to try to provoke an internal revolt, although this rarely works, for several reasons including where the blame for the pain usually falls.

Often the rationale for the sanctions is that it is an inducement to get the targeted regime to change its policies. But this does not work unless there is a positive alternative to the negative one of punishment and sanctions, and unless there is a firm expectation that the sanctions will end if the regime chooses a different, specific, identifiable course. And that is what has often been overlooked and missing.

This explains the years of failure of imposing sanctions on Iran without providing any positive alternative. If such an alternative had been offered, a nuclear agreement could have been reached years earlier, when Iran’s nuclear program was much smaller.

As for regime change, one needs to reflect first of all on just how irregular and extreme is the notion that if we don’t like someone else’s government, forcefully overthrowing it is to be considered as just another policy option. Such a notion is contrary to tenets of international law and international order than have been in effect since the Peace of Westphalia in the Seventeenth Century.

Also overlooked when regime change is turned to is how other people may have different ideas from our own about what rulers are legitimate and who should get their support — a factor in considering the status of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Overlooked all too often as well is what comes after the ruler we don’t like is gone. A simple faith that something better is bound to fall into place has led to the problems we have seen in spades in Iraq and Libya.

Now for the balance sheet. The results of regime change in Iraq have been too glaringly bad to need a full recounting. They include a civil war that has never ended and has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, has disrupted the Iraqi economy, and has created enormous flows of refugees and displaced persons. These include the birth of a major terrorist group that we now know as ISIS. And for those who don’t like to see Iranian influence anywhere, the war that toppled Saddam resulted in the single biggest increase in Iranian influence in the region in at least the last couple of decades.

Libya has seen prolonged chaos since the removal of Gaddafi. Contending governments based in different parts of the country have competed for power, with only tentative and fragile progress made recently toward a reconciliation. The economy, despite the oil resources, is in shambles. Instability has been exported from Libya in the form of both men and materiel, and ISIS established in Libya its biggest presence outside of Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, the closest thing to successes have come from the bits of negotiation and diplomacy that have come into play: those involving the Assad regime’s surrender of chemical weapons and some partial and temporary cease-fires. The war in Syria — the war itself, not any particular political outcome in Damascus — has been a major breeder of extremism and the threat of instability spilling over borders.

Actions against the regime have brought counteractions not only from external supporters of the regime but also internal players who see the alternatives as worse for them. Moreover, it would be difficult to escape a similar conclusion from the point of view of our own interests — that is, that the most feasible alternatives to the current Syrian regime would not be those hoped-for moderate forces the building up of which always seems to fill short, but instead radical extremists.

The brightest spot in this regional picture is found in the one place where the policy move by the United States, in cooperation with international partners, has been in the direction of negotiation. That involves Iran, and the big result so far has been the agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program, which certainly is one of the most significant steps in recent years on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation.

It is just one issue, but an important one. And lest we forget, it was the issue about which anti-Iran activists had for so long been crying most loudly. What comes later in dealings with the Iranian regime will depend in large part on the continued attempts of hardliners in more than one capital, but especially in Washington, to sabotage the nuclear agreement.

But at least there has been an unshackling of diplomacy in the Middle East in the sense of establishing, even in the absence of full diplomatic relations, something closer than before to a businesslike dialogue with one of the most significant states about issues of mutual concern (including countering ISIS, an issue on which U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel).

It should have been apparent, on an a priori basis alone, that overthrowing foreign government we don’t happen to like is not to be considered as just another foreign policy option, even for a superpower. And it should have been apparent that punishment for the sake of punishment doesn’t do anyone any good, beyond registering our dislikes.

When we take into account the actual record of results from the different approaches that have been taken toward regimes we choose to call rogue, these conclusions should be all the more obvious.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




Sheriff Arpaio Paved the Way for Trump

Before there was Donald Trump and his promise of a “beautiful wall” across the U.S.-Mexican border there was Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Arizona who pushed cruel treatment of illegal immigrants and other Latinos, reports Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s embrace of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has built a national reputation for his harsh treatment of undocumented migrants and U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, is a clear signal of how Trump plans to treat Latinos if he becomes president.

While the federal courts have taken legal steps to restrain Arpaio’s most flagrant actions, the elected sheriff has set the tone for the right-wing debate on immigration and has paved the way for Trump’s promise to deport all 12 million undocumented people from the United State and build “the most beautiful wall you’ve ever seen.”

For more than seven years, Salvador Reza, a Phoenix-based indigenous rights leader and long-time human rights activist with Tonatierra, has gone head to head with Arpaio and was appalled to see the sheriff on stage at the Republican National Convention. Dennis Bernstein spoke with Salvador Reza.

Dennis Bernstein: Could [you] begin by just giving us a bit of background in terms of the kind of work you’ve been involved in, what your struggle has been over the last 10 and 20 years?

Salvador Reza: Well, Tonatierra is an indigenous rights organization, and we see immigration tolerance through that lens. We see that we have been here for thousands of years, and these are the lands where the Aztecs migrated from. So when we defend anybody that’s being persecuted by Joe Arpaio or by this racist law, we do it from that context.

We’ve been fighting Arpaio since 2007, when he started deporting day laborers massively from a furniture store. We were able to get him out of there, basically by almost breaking the store financially. We’ve been instrumental in putting pressure on Joe Arpaio everywhere he turns. He arrested me twice, once voluntarily and the second one because he wanted to teach me a lesson. And the litigation is still going on.

But then [State Rep] Russell Pierce arrested me too, for opposing his racist policies in the state legislature. So, I hate to say it, but with Trump, you know, getting up there and possibly becoming the next president, the same policies that started here in Arizona are going to be implemented nationwide. With the exception that, now with Donald Trump, you don’t have a sheriff that’s relying on taxpayers’ money. He’ll be relying on corporate money plus tax payers’ money. So that makes him more dangerous. […] So he doesn’t care whether the justice department, the judge, whatever puts pressure on Arpaio or what he stands for, because Donald Trump basically stands for Arpaio.

DB: That was a good way to set the scene for your multiple confrontations with Arpaio and the policy that he, and now Trump, represent. But let me, for a moment, ask you to give us your reaction when you heard both that […] Arpaio would be a major supporter [of Trump], and then that [Arpaio] was given a platform [at the Republican National Convention] leading up on the day that Trump would speak. What did that mean to you? What went through your mind? How did that reverberate in your community?

SR: Well, what it means to us, and what it means to our community, is that the racist policy in Arizona, at the national level, are going to be massively pushed by the Trump administration if he gets elected. The thing is that Trump is only like a mini-me of Arpaio, with the exception that this mini-me is actually more powerful than Arpaio. Cause Arpaio is local at a county, and Donald Trump will be at the international level and the national level.

So what it means to us, the way we saw it, is very dangerous. What we predicted would happen is happening now. We didn’t stop it in Arizona, we were able to squash it a little bit, but we were not able to stop it. And SB 1070 is the law of the land right now. Any police force, any police officer, can stop you for what they consider reasonable stop, and basically ask you for your documentation. And that’s what is about to happen, nationwide. And to ask what it meant to us, it’s a very dangerous precedent. People better hold on, because I don’t think they’re ready for what’s coming.

DB: Can you talk … [about] the level of violence that Joe Arpaio perpetrated on the people of Arizona, and brown people across the state […] and very specifically, because a lot of people don’t understand. I know that you were put in jail a couple of times. But just remind people some of the brutalities. Some of them led to fatalities that Arpaio propagated, forced, pushed as sort of a vigilante operation. Just so we have a taste of what he’s doing on the ground, why you were able to be a little bit successful, in the courts.

SR: Arpaio, the type of damage that he inflicts upon our community, is first of all psychological– the climate of fear. That is daily for a child. For example, when a parent leaves, [the child] doesn’t know if he’s going to have the parent back home that afternoon. The parent goes to work, he doesn’t know whether he’ll come back from work place, right? And, more than that, the tent city is an area where at a temperature of 115 – 120 degrees on the outside, getting to be 140 – 150 [degrees] under the tents. And that type of scenario…

DB: So, he created a tent city to house, and essentially subtly torture, the community that he was arresting en mass.

SR: Exactly. And then he marched them for all the media to see, and humiliate them, and basically say, “Look, I am tough on illegal immigration. This is the way it is supposed to be.” And even in [Trump’s] speech [at the RNC] he said that in this nation people care more about illegal aliens, for the lives of “illegal aliens,” than U.S. citizens. And there was Arpaio saying it, exactly when the judge saying he could not be arresting people on the grounds of their status.

The thing is, the torture for the community here, and the violence against the community, is very bad. Like Arpaio, he has two, three people getting killed in his jails, that we know of. And then there’s people that die, and we don’t know of[…]. Every year there’s 2 – 3 people that get killed in jail.

DB: What’s an example? How do they die in the jails? Explain to us why it’s suspicious.

SR: Well, sometimes it’s not even suspicious, they basically beat them to death. Like this veteran that […] had PTSD. He goes in there, he’s complying. And they surround him, about ten deputies, and beat him into unconscious. And they basically left him there at the powder room […]. And then another deputy actually steps on somebody, on their neck. He puts him on a table, gets on top of the table, and steps on his neck.

And those are the ones that we know of. The ones we don’t know of, I don’t know what it is. But the thing is, Arpaio is bad on his jails, Arpaio is bad on enforcement, Arpaio is bad on the psychological warfare against the community. Yet that’s what Donald Trump stands for. That’s a problem. Donald Trump is just like Joe Arpaio, except magnified by a lot more power.

DB: We’re talking about the kinds of policies that are now being threatened by Donald Trump, by his close relationship with Joe Arpaio. He is now an advisor to Trump, an informal advisor, a supporter. [He] was featured at the convention the day leading up to Trump’s statement and acceptance of the Republican nomination for the presidential convening.

Now we know, Salvador, that under the Obama government, [Obama has] been referred to as the deporter-in-chief. Essentially, Arpaio has a friend, in that the prison industrial complex, the private prison industry has blossomed. And it exists now to torture the kinds of people that Joe Arpaio arrests, and sort of torture at the local level. That’s part of the whole national security program that is inspired by this kind of policy. How do you respond to that?

SR: Well, I’ll just tell you that Arpaio, for 18 years, was on the 18th floor of the Wells Fargo building here in Phoenix, Arizona,
living in corporate offices, because Wells Fargo is one of the biggest investors in the prison industrial complex. So, he basically sent people to the jails, and they get something like $200/day for everybody they send there. So, that tells you a little bit about that.

And the difference between the two parties, to me, the Democratic party and the Republican party, it doesn’t matter who gets
up there, the[y] will be still under the influence of the prison industrial complex. And they will continue this type of immigration
policies, including [how] Obama deported 2.5 million people, that I know of, during his tenure. That’s more than anybody else […] and we’re talking about the massive deportations in the 30’s and massive deportations in the 40‘s, the massive deportations anytime. I mean he has deported more people than anybody else. Yet, he’s supposed to be our friend.

So, to me, the Democrats and the Republicans or any party, in reality, they will all have to basically kowtow to the prison industrial
complex. So, we have to organize on our own, and put pressure [on] whatever party is up there, because maybe one will deport more than the other. But, […] to me, 2.5 million people deported in eight years is a lot of people.

DB: And are you getting some of the same reports that we’re getting, that the treatment of folks who are being arrested by the government, taken into custody by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], being swept up, are being brutalized at various levels and in many ways?

SR: Oh, yeah. I mean people die all the time under custody. They are punished severely if they protest. If they try to organize in any way, shape, or form they basically put them in the hole. People whose only crime was to work, all of a sudden they have to deal with being thrown in the hole, in solitary. So, it’s not nicey-nice, like they say.

It’s not even supposed to be imprisonment. It’s supposed to be detention. But in reality it’s a long term detention, for a lot of people stay there for 1.5 – 2 years waiting to resolve their case. And they don’t let them out into the streets, even though they’re no danger to anybody, because they’re collecting money on it.

DB: We talked a little bit about this before, but I want to come back to the atmospheric pressure. Could you talk a little bit more about how people have really changed their lives, how they live more cautiously, how they live more in fear, how they perhaps act in ways that try and anticipate and take precautions against being arrested, being abused by these laws?

SR: Well, the people that get close to organizations where they know their rights, more than likely they’ll not get deported. More than
likely they’ll just end up, one day, in a local detention center and let go. But the people that don’t know that, they end up being
deported, because they’ll sign. Once they sign, they lose all their rights. In reality, the way people behave […] right now, they try to drive less. If they don’t have to, they won’t drive. They basically, something as simple as giving them a drivers license
is something that is beyond the state of Arizona, or many other states.

And what happens is that [this law enforcement creates]…they say, “Okay, I’m going to make you a criminal.” And then when [immigrants] do their everyday stuff, and then they get criminalized, then they say, “Well, they got arrested because they violated the law,” when they created the law so that they could arrest people. It’s no different than apartheid in the Bantustan, and apartheid laws that basically were made so to keep a certain sector of cities. They wanted the labor of the African communities, the South African communities, but they didn’t want them there.

And, to me, the same thing [is happening] but at a global level, at the continental level. They want our labor but they don’t want us. So that type of situation, to me, is inhumane, immoral and basically goes to the very heart of our humanity. And, unfortunately, Trump seems to have at least close to 50% of the population of the United States wanting him to be president.

DB: Well, he’s up by a couple of points in the latest polls, that’s for sure. And I guess this thing about repression also goes to the
fact that people will be more hesitant to seek medical help when they need it. Or for a woman to deal with an abusive husband, or a man in the house, if they need the help. So this becomes a grave danger, given this kind of law and repression. This is what people who you work with feel like every day in Arizona, huh?

SR: Yes. And you know what’s really funny? Some of the local [police] chiefs in this area, don’t think that their job is to do immigration work. And they basically don’t like for the police officers to do immigration work. Yet, the law permits them to do it. And the thing is, you have very strong police officers’ associations that basically lobbied for the law, and they will fight, tooth and nail, for the officers to be able to deport people.

DB: Under ICE now, deportations are considered a national security action. And folks, everyday folks, people who do the hardest work in this country, who get abused every day for it, are all of a sudden become turned into national security risks, and thus it justifies the brutality of law enforcement. How do you respond to that?

SR: Well, it’s like one, they criminalize you, then they dehumanize you. When they dehumanize you, they can do anything they want to against you, and the population will applaud it, or a certain percentage of the population will applaud it. It’s no different than
what Hitler did, you know? He demonized the Jewish communities, and then pretty soon people that had Jewish workers, or were working with Jewish people, then they started denouncing them, and then trying to save themselves from not being associated with them. And that’s what the laws do here. […] If you give somebody a ride that’s an “illegal alien” then you are aiding and abetting. Then the law says you become the criminal, even though you were giving a ride to a friend. That’s the type of situation that’s being created, unfortunately, nationwide, now.

DB: And, just finally, just so we’re fair and balanced here, we’re sort of dealing with the major candidates. I imagine that you have
some real concern with Hillary Clinton besides her connection to Obama. The fact that she, as Secretary of State, supported the coup in Honduras, and policies, free trade policies, that have forced migration out of countries in Central America, and so on and so forth. I guess that’s a concern as well, on the other side.

SR:  Well, like I said, both parties to me are the same. They’re just appendages of a capitalist system that only see profit. They don’t
care about human beings. To me they’re the same. Now, what we have to decide is […] which one of the three is the worse evil. Because […] under this false democracy, that’s all that’s left. They leave us to…just to deal with who can we influence more, Hillary or Donald. And I really don’t know, in reality, which one is the best, because both of them are pretty bad.

The thing is, we have to make the decision whether we want […] somebody that’s going to be crazy enough to unleash the police forces throughout the United States, and then create a vigilante type of a movement, like we have here in Arizona. Or, do we want somebody that’s going to be more middle of the road, trying to look liberal? Where they’ll let you at least say a word or two, whether they listen to you or not, at least they give you an opening. So, that’s what we’re going to make a decision on. But to me, both parties are just the same face….two faces of the same coin.