“Regime change” is a failure

One of the biggest American exports these days is democracy, but it’s a product that isn’t doing very well.

Almost as soon as opposition to a dictatorship appears, the U.S. supports “regime change,” supposedly helping rebels to replace the despot with democracy.

The list of failures of this effort is depressingly long. It includes Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan.

Americans seem to think it self-evident that a representative democracy – a republic – is the best form of government for any nation. When people throw off authoritarian rule, we believe they should do the most natural thing and adopt a republican form of government.

But democracy is difficult. You need only look at the current Washington conflicts over what the U.S. Constitution means in its practical application to matters ranging from the Affordable Care Act to voting rights to see how even a mature republic still struggles.

A look at countries where democracy has failed to take root after the overthrow of a dictatorship teaches some lessons.

Russia has no democratic history. But, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and others countries took it for granted that it would install democratic institutions.

While Russia may have adopted the appearance of popular control of the government, it has become clear that the Russian people prefer an authoritarian rule allowing them some limited freedoms. A majority likes President Putin, largely because he is a throwback to paternalistic control under the czars.

Afghanistan sheltered Al Qaeda terrorists, which justified American military action to root them out. But the U.S. has engaged in its longest war ever to stamp out opposition and install democracy, so far without success.

The problem in this case is that Afghanistan has never really been a country. A collection of regions dominated by warlords, it, too, has no democratic traditions or even a truly national identity. The net result of 13 years of war may be no improvement over the U.S. staying for only 13 months and with more limited goals.

The only surviving justification for the American war on Iraq is that we toppled Saddam Hussein, a ruthless dictator. But he was no threat to the U.S., because it turned out he wasn’t lying when he said he had no weapons of mass destruction.

Democracy has not been a success there, thanks to a government that has sought to crush or exclude those who backed Saddam, rather than adopting an inclusive system. The new regime has provoked a violent and even more ruthless reaction by those it mistreated.

In Libya and Syria, the U.S. led the efforts to dump dictators. But what was the expectation from the replacement regimes?

In Libya, President Gaddafi had already disposed of nuclear weapons and sought more cooperation with the West. His replacement is a failed country that has no functioning government and warlord justice.

The chaos of Syria’s civil war opened the door to the involvement of regional terrorists, providing them a new base of operations. It proved impossible to know whom among the rebels to back, as the U.S. sought to avoid funneling weapons to terrorists while backing the rebels.

In Egypt, the fall of President Mubarak opened the way to elections, but this democratic exercise produced control by the Muslim Brotherhood, which then promptly tried to squash democracy and roll over anybody who did not support it.

In Pakistan, while there has been the appearance of democracy, the country is obviously run by the military and intelligence services. Much of the massive military aid supplied to Pakistan can flow through these services to America’s foes. And the Pakistani military obviously sheltered Osama bin Laden.

Democracy cannot itself be the policy objective, though it may be the right tool to reach political and strategic goals. But achievable goals must come first.

And the U.S. needs to do more than roll the dice and trust that democracy will inevitably produce positive results. Is the opposition capable of creating a viable government? Is it likely to adopt policies compatible with American objectives?

The U.S. should consider the country and its history. Will the people welcome democracy? Do they have any experience with democratic rule? Is authoritarian government, despite being less satisfactory by our standards than democracy, more likely to produce benefits for its people and the U.S.?

The lessons learned so far seem clear. A supposedly democratic regime is not an end it itself. If “regime change” will produce chaos, the abrupt imposition of a system with no roots is not the best idea.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.