The Costs and Consequences of Managing Rogue States
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 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. The 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 Qaddafi. 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 is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World.
Image: Muammar el-Qaddafi attends the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 2, 2009. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy