On Regime Change

One of the surprises of the 2016 Democrat Convention was the speech by GEN Wesley Clark (US Army retired). Normally the military is associated with Republicans, but Clark has had an extraordinary career being valedictorian at West Point, promoted to 4-star general, and running for president in 2004. Clark’s one career moment that will be examined here is his claim that after 9/11 (2001), he was in the Pentagon and a colleague told him that there was a list of seven countries that had been identified for regime change:

  1. Iraq
  2. Syria
  3. Lebanon
  4. Libya
  5. Somalia
  6. Sudan
  7. Iran

This list was generated by the newly installed George W. Bush administration with the help of the Project for a New American Century, many of whose members made up the Bush administration. Regime change has long been a goal of politicians because it allows them to engage in two of their favorite activities: impact world evens and pick the winners of those events as the rewards in terms of status and wealth are considerable. The “great game” goes back to Mahan, who advoated sea power, and Mackinder, who advocated land power, has been going on as long as there’s been politics. Clark’s list narrows down the scope of the analysis in space and time.  The seven countries identified will be examined in order over the time of Bush’s time as president as well as his successor, Barack Obama. Each one of these countries merits its own in-depth study, but it is worth the effrot to consider them all in an integrated if necessarily constrained analysis.

For Bush (The son, George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States. His father, George Herbert Walker Bush, was the 41st president). Bush is most known for his invasion of Iraq on 20 March 2003 and the resulting war that lasted until 18 December 2011, which did not turn out well. The plan for a more muscular was interventionist American foreign policy was described in the neoconservative Project for a New American Century (PNAC) “Statement of Principles” that was released on 3 June 1997. PNAC sent a letter to President Clinton on 26 January 1998 requesting that he remove Saddam Hussein from power. Bush took office on 20 January 2001, but the invasion was paused for more than a year while the United Nations (UN) weapons inspectors tried to avoid war, but Saddam Hussein was eventually removed from power and a new, democratically elected regime was installed. It is worth noting that Iran, Iraq’s next door neighbor, influenced the Iraq war significantly by supporting Iraq’s Shia militias and developing improved improvised explosive devices that killed US troops. The departure of American troops in 2011, before Obama’s reelection, led to an internal struggle between Shias and Sunnis that resulted in the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Regarding Lebanon, there was a war between Israel and Lebanon in July and August 2006. Israel was surprised by the capability of Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. Given that the fighters were trained and supported by Iran, they were much more capable than the Hamas fighters on the Palestinians. Israel survived but did not invade Lebanon.

Regarding Somalia, the US was pushed out of the country by the Black Hawk Down incident of 3-4 October 1993, that resulted in an ungoverned space, ongoing humanitarian crises, the al-Shabaab terrorist group that eventually associated itself with al-Qaeda, and piracy that threatened shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Camp Lemmonier was established in Djibouti during March to May 2001, mere weeks after Bush took office, to project American force in the region.

Bush invaded Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, mere weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York that prompted it. Like Somalia, Afghanistan was an ungoverned space that had experienced a series of humanitarian and cultural crises after 10 years of war from the Soviet invasion and another 10 years of civil war that had resulted in rule by the Taliban, who destroyed the Bamiyan Bhuddahs to international consternation. The American invasion resulted in regime change as the Taliban was replaced with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and its first elected leader, Hamid Karzai. Notably, Afghanistan’s neighbor to the west is Iran.

Beyond interventionist security arrangements, Bush pursued globalist economic arrangements. Mainland China, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), jointed the World Trade Organization on 11 December 2001, within the year of Bush taking office. Together with the Treaty of Maastricht that created the European Union (EU) on 1 November 1993 and the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) on 8 December 1993 during the Clinton administration, Bush help to further the globalist economic project.

As Obama took office in 2009, the security environment had changed. The large invasions Bush pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan had proven expensive, unworkable, and ineffective. Beyond that, Putin’s Russia and the PRC had become more adventurous, although they had learned not to confront the United States head on but had instead pursued their strategic goals through a combination of information operations and low-intensity conflict that could not easily be confronted directly. The result was that both Russia and China sought to achieve the bonus of their strategic goals without the onus of outright conflict and censure of the international community.

In Syria, Obama too sought the bonus of removing Assad, an ally of Iran and Russia, from power without the onus of bringing about his removal and subsequently being responsible for the country. Obama sought to do this by riding the wave of the Arab Spring, the popular uprisings that were threatening autocratic leaders throughout the region. Obama attempted to achieve the removal of Assad through a similar popular movement with Robert Ford, the first ambassador to Syria in five years. Ford was appointed through a recess appointment in December 2010 and confirmed on 3 October 2011. During his time in Syria, Ford visited the government resistance stronghold of Hama, where he was cheered by protesters and he visited a mass grave at Jisr ash-Shugur filled with those who opposed the Syrian government. Ford also met with Hassan Abdul-Azim—a left-wing activist, main figure of the Syrian opposition, and the general coordinator of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change—and was attacked with eggs and tomatoes by government supporters. AMB Ford was recalled on 24 October 2011 due to credible threats on his life, less than a year after arriving in Syria. He spent the remainder of his career advocating for the arming of moderate Syrian rebels before retiring from the Foreign Service on 4 Feb 2014. In Syria especially, Obama appears to have inverted the famous quote of President Theodore Roosevelt, “Speak loudly and carry a small stick.”

In Libya, Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton again pursued an explicit policy of regime change along with a coalition of European partners. Gaddafi was died on 20 October 2011, and afterwards his body was dragged through the street. Gaddafi’s ally, Russia’s Putin, took notice. Clinton commented on the Obama administration’s experience in Libya, “We came. We saw. He died.” On 11 September 2012, the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked and four Americans were killed including Ambassador Chris Stevens, his body dragged through the street.

Sudan had long been a trouble spot with the Muslims in the north fighting the Christians in the south.  Long an ungoverned space from which terrorists could work, President Bill Clinton destroyed the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory on 20 August 1998 using cruise missiles.  In July 2011, the country of South Sudan was created, which gives a sense of the long time scales of foreign policy that do not correspond to nor are bounded by the cycle of American elections, much to the consternation of Washington DC’s politicians.

Regarding Iran, Obama and his second Secretary of State, John Kerry, attempted a rapprochement of sorts, despite Iran’s numerous activities in the region, through their Nuclear Deal. Iran has been implacably against America since the Iranian Revolution in 1978, and Shia Iran has opposed Shiite powers in the Middle East, most notably in the Iraq-Iran war from September 1980 to August 1988. The Nuclear Deal’s negotiations were fraught with setbacks, and the deal itself has been a lightning rod for criticism because it seems that America conceded much more than the Iranians. This prompted President-elect Donald Trump to note Obama and Kerry had been thoroughly out negotiated and called it, in his characteristic fashion, the worst deal ever. The Iranians seem to have negotiated in poor faith as they embarrassingly apprehended a US Naval vessel on the evening of Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address and sanctions against Iran have just been reinstated.

Seven countries were identified in the fall of 2001 for regime change: (2) Iraq, (2) Syria, (3) Lebanon, (4) Libya, (5) Somalia, (6) Sudan, and (7) Iran with Afghanistan added to the list. While significant changes have occurred to each of these countries as discussed herein, the changes were more varied, difficult, and expensive than the PNAC could have imagined in the late 1990s. Leaders of countries not on the list have noted America’s interventionist policies and have taken note, and not in a positive manner, which has made foreign policy more difficult. In this respect, America’s experiments with regime change have resulted in the onus without the bonus.


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