Regime change is a dangerous and destructive policy, and forcibly changing the government of another state makes civil war, violent changes in leadership, and interstate conflict more likely in the following years. These are some of the key findings in Alexander Downes’ authoritative new book, Catastrophic Success: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Goes Wrong.
Downes has conducted an extensive review of the history of foreign-imposed regime changes (FIRCs) over the last two hundred years, and he concludes that even regime changes that succeed in their initial goal of toppling a targeted leader or government often lead to policy failure over the longer term. The most common type of regime change, the replacement of an existing leader with a new one, is also the one most likely to fail and the one most likely to lead to civil war and backlash against the newly imposed leader. The cases where regime change have genuinely succeeded are quite rare and atypical, and they are very much the exceptions that prove the rule.
Catastrophic Success is an extremely valuable resource for foreign policy analysts and academics. It is an important complement to the work that Lindsey O’Rourke has done on covert regime change, and it pairs well with Philip Gordon’s recent book on the long-term failures of regime change. We can hope that more policymakers will also take its conclusions to heart. Restrainers are well-versed in the reasons why regime change is wrong and ought to be rejected, and this book will provide them with many more examples to strengthen those arguments.
As Downes shows with his wide range of examples, the failure of regime change is hardly unique to the United States, and often fails to deliver to the intervening government what it seeks at the outset. Downes illustrates his argument with many case studies drawn from the last two centuries. Whether it is Napoleon III intervening in Mexico to install a friendly monarch, or Rwanda and Uganda invading Zaire to install a puppet leader, many of the same problems crop up and end up causing major setbacks and even greater costs for the interveners. Downes also makes sure to call attention to the massive costs borne by the people in the affected countries. Regime change often goes wrong for the intervener, but it is usually catastrophic for the people that have to live with the consequences of it.
Downes identifies two mechanisms that cause these policies to go awry in many of the cases: military disintegration and what he calls the competing principals problem. Military disintegration happens when the intervening state succeeds in defeating the targeted state and causing its military to break apart. As a result, the targeted state’s military personnel disperse into the countryside where they often go on to form the core of an armed insurgency against the new government. This is the most direct way that regime change creates the conditions for later civil war, and cannot be avoided. Americans are all too familiar with the consequences of military disintegration following regime change, since this is what happened in both major post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Downes emphasizes that the disintegration had already occurred in Iraq even before Paul Bremer made his colossally stupid decision to disband the Iraqi army and interior ministry. Bremer’s decision further exacerbated a problem that the invasion and overthrow of the government had already created.
The competing principals problem presents itself when a new leader must act as the agent of two principals, the intervening government that props him up on one side and the population that he rules over on the other. Once regime change has happened and a new leader is installed to replace the old one, the new leader is forced to walk a tightrope between the two. The more that the new leader caters to the preferences of his people, the more he risks angering his patron, and the more that he serves the interests of the foreign patron, the more he puts himself in danger of being overthrown and possibly killed by his countrymen. Because it is very difficult to pull off this balancing act, Downes finds that new leaders following regime change are more likely to be removed by “irregular” means.
He observes that the weak states where regime change is easiest to achieve are the same states where such a policy is practically guaranteed to fail. Since these states are so weak, they don’t pose enough of a threat to make overthrowing the government useful in the first place. As Downes puts it, “The ‘benefits’ of regime change in most of these cases, I argue, are very low because the threats they seek to counter are so minor. Because the benefits are so meager, the potential costs of regime change loom large.” Furthermore, the costs are largely unavoidable: “the downsides of regime change are built into the enterprise itself and cannot be fully avoided by doing it better or smarter or with more resources.”
Given that its benefits are so few and its costs tend to be quite high, how is it that any governments keep choosing this option? Why does the U.S. opt for regime change over and over when its own experience has been mostly terrible since the end of WWII? Downes speculates that interveners choose this path because they have poor or misleading information about the target state, or they are relying on sources that have a vested interest in promoting such a policy. He further supposes that interveners are preoccupied with the goal of toppling the targeted government without giving any thought to what would come next, and he suggests that interveners also don’t understand the competing principals problem.
These explanations all make sense, and they certainly match up with what we have seen in the last twenty years of U.S. foreign misadventures. Unfortunately, if that is correct, it means that our government will never learn anything from the debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and we can expect more misguided policies in the years to come.
Regime change requires other states to abandon their interests and agency to satisfy the preferences of a foreign government, and for that reason it is deeply delusional. In the end, such policies are driven by a mistaken understanding of the interests of states. Because no two states can ever have identical interests, attempting to eliminate divergent interests by forcibly changing the leadership of another state is bound to fail.