• The Alternative to Regime Change: Talking to Philip Gordon

    Why does every short-term “success” in US-imposed Middle East regime change seem to lead to catastrophic long-term failure? Why should we never blame such failures simply on flawed implementation? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Philip Gordon. This present conversation focuses on Gordon’s book Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East. Gordon is a senior fellow in US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has served as Special Assistant to the President and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region. As the most senior Obama-administration official focused on the greater Middle East, Gordon’s 2013-2015 portfolio included Iran’s nuclear program, regional peace negotiations, the Syrian conflict, Iraq security, US relations with the Gulf states, democratic transitions in North Africa, and bilateral relations with Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Lebanon.


    ANDY FITCH: For its cautionary tales of “hubris, overreach, and magical thinking,” this book starts from the US, since World War Two, attempting full-scale regime change in a Middle East nation roughly once per decade. This book argues that, regardless of our shameful or admirable motivations, regardless of our covert or invasive or economic or rhetorical methods, US efforts to oust Middle East regimes not only have failed to achieve their stated objectives, but have led to catastrophic consequences. So could you first sketch your own lived experience of coming to recognize not just that intervention after intervention didn’t seem to be working — but that these kinds of regime-change interventions don’t work, and won’t work?

    PHILIP GORDON: Well, this book’s first half tracks historical episodes from long before I entered government, or during stretches when I didn’t serve in government, like during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But as you say, other regime-change efforts took place during my time in the Obama administration, first as an Assistant Secretary of State and then as White House Coordinator for the Middle East. So I definitely learned some of these lessons the hard way.

    This is ironic, of course, because Barack Obama himself hardly entered office as a big fan of regime change. You could argue, in fact, that Obama won the presidency in 2008 largely because of his opposition to the regime change and the war in Iraq (in contrast to his opponent in the primaries, Hillary Clinton, and his general-election opponent, John McCain). But the Obama legacy also poses this interesting question of how somebody as skeptical of regime change as this President ends up embracing the goals of putting new leaders and political systems in place in Egypt, Libya, and Syria — before discovering, like his predecessors, the tremendous difficulties in attaining our desired objectives, and the high costs and unintended consequences involved.

    And let’s say certain analysts respond to Losing the Long Game’s sustained critique of regime change with various caveats, along the lines of: “We can’t rely on counterfactual presumptions of what might have worked better,” or “We had no good options,” or “Well, nobody gets it perfect.” Given those very constraints, why in fact does the US have even less reason to pursue this most ambitious policy option of full-scale regime change?

    It’s important to acknowledge that in every case this book looks at (Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Syria), we only had bad options. We do know, however, that for 70 years now in the Middle East, not a single case of regime change has succeeded unambiguously, and some have been costly, catastrophic failures. The alternatives to those catastrophes would in every case have been far from perfect, but sometimes in foreign policy (and other areas of politics and life in general) it’s better to just manage a problem as best you can, rather than to try to “fix” it once and for all.

    I also demonstrate in the book that these problems with regime change are not just problems of “implementation.” Successive administrations from both parties (with Presidents as different as, say, George W. Bush and Barack Obama) didn’t just fail to send the right number of troops, or to do enough planning or whatever. There is something inherently difficult about removing a hostile or repressive regime, and putting a better one in its place.

    Where does this call to resist the temptations of regime change still leave room for US intervention when it comes to, say: preventing WMD proliferation, containing terrorism, saving civilian lives, and improving civilian lives?

    The alternative to regime change does not have to mean giving up and going home. The US has clear interests and significant capabilities in the Middle East. We can do all of those things you just mentioned, while stopping short of whole-scale regime change. Diplomacy, deterrence, engagement, alliances, arms control, and development are all tools we can use to promote our interests, without the risks that come when you just roll the dice and hope to get a better regime replacing the current one.

    I also want to caution against the notion that “things can’t get much worse,” so that we should always at least “try something.” It’s a very American way of thinking to believe that every problem has a solution, and that with enough will and effort these problems can be solved. Americans possess this can-do spirit and this history of great achievement. We truly have done much good for the world with our tremendous power. But if this way of thinking has something noble about it, it also has something dangerous about it, because some of our interventions can actually make matters worse.

    Here before we even get to individual countries, what makes modern Middle East nations as a group particularly unlikely to stabilize in response to US-imposed regime change?

    Regime change doesn’t fail just in the Middle East. In the book I also look at other places (including Guatemala, Cuba, Vietnam, and Nicaragua) where it backfired. But regime change is particularly difficult in the Middle East, a region mostly made up of artificial states with artificial borders — aside from a few historic nation-states such as Iran, Turkey, and Egypt.

    When you remove the regime in artificial states like these, you inevitably open up a power vacuum. The country almost immediately becomes “up for grabs.” Different entities inside it compete fiercely for power. With regional competitions for power also at play, other states start meddling in various ways. The result (as we’ve seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere) is a violent internal and regional struggle.

    It’s also particularly difficult to “spread democracy” to the Middle East, often a stated US goal. There are no magic formulas, but extensive scholarly literature suggests that for democracy to take hold, you need a certain degree of economic development, a past history of strong civic institutions, and relative ethnic or cultural homogeneity, or at least a shared national narrative. Alas, those features are not very present in the modern Middle East.

    So now starting to trace individual US interventions, first in 1950s Iran, how did we (with encouragement from our British allies) talk ourselves into the convictions that regime change was essential, desirable, and achievable? And how did this whole line of thought fail to account for the basic fact that, regardless of who held power, Iran’s sense of its national interests and options actually wouldn’t change much?

    You’re right to emphasize the British role in this one. The British were determined to overthrow the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had nationalized the country’s oil industry in 1951. During the Truman administration (until January 1953), the US resisted British pressure to respond with a hard line, and Truman wanted to engage Mosaddegh. But London managed to persuade Eisenhower (and his deeply anti-communist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles) that Iran could fall into the Soviet camp if Mosaddegh were not ousted. So the US lent its support for a coup. The coup “worked” in the sense that we helped get rid of Mosaddegh and empower Shah Reza Pahlavi. But it undermined Iran’s prospects for democracy, empowered a brutal and repressive autocrat, and ultimately contributed to the 1979 revolution and decades of anti-American hostility.

    This 1953 Iran coup also offers a warning about the risk of pursuing maximalist objectives instead of more realistic ones (a bit like the Trump administration’s current approach to Iran). The Iranians actually had proposed to the British a workable compromise solution on sharing oil revenues — roughly equivalent to our 50/50 split with the Saudis and others. But the Brits wouldn’t hear of it. They wanted everything. And by demanding everything, they ended up with almost nothing.

    Specifically for the regime that then did take power in 1950s Iran, what does “If only the Shah had governed better…” thinking fail to recognize about how, once we establish our political proxy in office, we tend to become beholden to this proxy, rather than vice versa?

    In every case of failed intervention, proponents of regime change argue “if only” we had done it differently it would have worked out better. In this case, that often takes the form of “If only the Shah had not been so repressive…” But it was naive to think the Shah would turn out to be a tolerant democrat. And once such leaders are put in power by the US, our leverage to influence them diminishes.

    In fact, we’d learn over and over again in Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya that the leaders we install tend to pursue their own political and national interests, not ours. To gain domestic legitimacy, they actually feel compelled to stand up against us, and they know there’s not a lot we can do about it. Because what are we going to do, overthrow them too?

    Our various Afghanistan interventions reveal so much folly that I’ll try to break this down into a few different presidential administrations’ approaches. So first, under Ronald Reagan (but with bipartisan support), how did cost-effective tactical interventions in Soviet-dominated Afghanistan begin transforming into an emotional identification with supposed freedom fighters advancing religious liberty across the planet? And once we went that far, how do any “If only we hadn’t disengaged after the Soviets left…” conjectures fail to acknowledge the degree of localized destruction and globalized jihad that we’d helped to fuel and unleash?

    We’ve seen similar kinds of mission creep in a lot of cases. But the gradual escalation in our Afghanistan interventions does make this especially clear. When the Soviets invade in December 1979, President Carter starts delivering arms to the opposition, to increase the pain and cost for the Soviets. But even National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, seen as a Cold War hawk, doesn’t think we have a realistic possibility of actually driving them out of the country and toppling the regime, and the CIA agrees.

    When Reagan enters office, he expands the goal to actually expelling the Soviets, and increases weapons provisions to the rebels — including, in 1986, the lethal Stinger missile that can shoot down Soviet helicopters. This does help force the Soviets to withdraw, in February 1989, but then you have chaos in Afghanistan, with various warlords competing to take Kabul from the communist government that is still trying to hang on. By this point we’re stuck on the path to regime change, and we keep supporting the opposition until the Afghan regime is finally overthrown in 1992.

    In the book, I make clear that Afghanistan’s Mujahideen were courageous, determined, and effective. But they weren’t the virtuous “freedom fighters” that we made them out to be. They were ruthless Islamic extremists.

    And newly galvanized to take on global superpowers.

    Precisely. We appreciated having the Soviet Union as the targeted superpower. But these fighters then quickly turned their sights on another superpower: us. And here again we see the unintended consequences of regime change. The war in Afghanistan did help weaken the Soviet Union. But it also leads to a decade of savage civil war, millions killed and displaced, the advent of the brutally repressive Taliban, and the growth of the global jihadist movement. The Taliban provides refuge for al-Qaeda, which then goes on to strike the US on 9/11, leading us to invade the country again. 20 years and a trillion dollars later we’re still there, with the Taliban threatening to come back to power. From that longer-term perspective, the “success” in Afghanistan in the 1980s starts to look quite different.

    Your “Losing the Long Game” title actually points to the fact that in each of this book’s dismal scenarios, the US does receive shorter-term signals that its regime-change strategy has succeeded.

    Yes, I call that the “mission accomplished” phenomenon. In the case of Afghanistan, when the Soviets finally left in 1989, Milton Bearden, the station chief in Islamabad, faxed back (we had faxes in those days) a cable that just said in big block letters “WE WON.” Each time, we celebrate the fall of the regime as if the job were done, but it’s only later that the problems become clear.

    So then with George W. Bush’s more direct and expansive 2001 Afghanistan regime-change operation, what kinds of wishful thinking again allowed us for far too long to view this mission as a success — even providing misguided confidence that we could “succeed” likewise in Iraq?

    After 9/11, the Bush administration quickly decided to take out the Taliban, which proved to be a quick mission. Regime change in Afghanistan in the 1980s took more than a decade. In 2001 it took a couple of months.

    But the fact that we’re still there two decades later suggests that we underestimated what it would take to put a more stable Afghan regime in place. Worse, the quick “success” in Afghanistan led the Bush administration to think it could do something similar in Iraq. That of course turned out to be even more difficult. Within a few years we were stuck in a deep quagmire, losing thousands of American lives and spending 300 million dollars per day just to keep a lid on things.

    Returning again to Afghanistan, Obama then comes into office making the astute-sounding case that if only Iraq hadn’t diverted us, we could truly succeed in this smarter, more justifiable, more precisely delineated Afghanistan campaign. What distinct patterns of wishful thinking emerge though even from this sober and shrewd approach — say in terms of a susceptibility to “We’ve started to turn the corner” rhetoric?

    This whole turning-the-corner mindset takes us back to broader cultural points about a can-do attitude and belief that America should succeed every time. Some of that is understandable. When you lead a mission, especially in the military but also in government, you have to believe in your own capacities, right? You can’t devote your life (maybe even risk your life) to these missions if you don’t believe they can succeed. But this creates a tendency to see what you want to see, rather than what’s actually happening.

    In Afghanistan, this took the form of repeated public pronouncements about our military efforts finally having turned a corner. This actually started under George W. Bush, but it continued under Obama. The tendency became much more comprehensively clear and documented and public when the Washington Post published a 2019 investigation that showed how military and civilian officials had misled the public, constantly overstating what was being accomplished.

    It almost reads like the Pentagon Papers. Two decades on, we actually face a situation not so different from the early phases of this war, with the Taliban controlling large parts of the country — and with the government weak, corrupt, and unstable.

    Obama’s own aspirational streak then pushes him to get “on the right side of history” when it comes to Egypt, with this professed foreign-policy realist forgoing any gradual path of political evolution, and endorsing political revolution. But how does this regime transition “running off the rails” soon exacerbate conditions for most Egyptian civilians, while catalyzing authoritarian crackdowns across the region?

    Here again we have this great irony of Barack Obama himself as President pushing for and even undertaking regime change. Obviously, pressing for a political transition in Egypt is not the same as invading Iraq. And the fall of Tunisia’s dictator Ben Ali had led to assumptions that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak would fall soon after. But Egypt still offers a case of the US trying to bring about a different kind of regime, and ultimately being disappointed.

    When the Egyptian people rose up against Mubarak, Obama sided with some of his younger advisers, who said he should support those at the forefront of change, and call on Mubarak to step down. The result, however, was not a transition to democracy, but divisive Muslim Brotherhood rule, followed by a military coup in summer 2013. And now the Egyptian government under General Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi is even more repressive than Mubarak.

    Well if any of this book’s Middle East interventions does look likely to succeed, it happens just next door in Libya. For the first time since the 1990s, the US has a strategic, disciplined, broadly credible administration starting from scratch to marshal a global coalition for the irrefutable-seeming objective of preventing eminent civilian slaughter. But what makes this particular goal (again, perhaps inevitably) more expansive than the official agreed-upon plan? And how does even the principled deterrence of a ruthless dictator here create its own problematic moral hazards?

    Libya gives another good example of slippery-slope concerns. The mission didn’t start out as regime change, but that’s where it led. We got a UN Security Council resolution authorizing a mission to save civilian lives, but that quickly led to a syllogism: “The mission is about saving lives. The only way to save lives is to get rid of Muammar Gaddafi. Therefore, we have the mission of getting rid of Muammar Gaddafi.” And that’s essentially what we did.

    At first, it seemed like a great success. We prevented a potential massacre in Benghazi, and ultimately removed the Gaddafi regime. In October 2011, when Gaddafi is killed, everyone wants to celebrate and declare victory. But it’s not long before the various factions that had lined up against him start to fight with each other, and chaos ensues. It proves impossible to find and train Libyan security forces. No Western powers are willing to put in peacekeepers after Benghazi. Regional players (Egypt, Russia, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and others) start fighting a proxy war. That war is still going on today.

    The Libya intervention had many unintended consequences. Refugee flows out of Libya undermined stability in neighboring Mali and Chad. Weapons flooded out of Gaddafi’s arsenals across the Middle East. The NATO intervention’s mission creep into regime change led the Russians to vow never again to allow the UN Security Council to authorize such an open-ended intervention. And far from deterring dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from using force against protesters, it led authoritarian states to crack down even more brutally.

    You also brought up moral hazard, the notion that people take on more risk if they feel themselves hedged against this risk. Moral hazard appears often in international politics, but comes across especially clearly through this example of regime change in Libya. Opposition forces, in multiple Middle East countries, see the world’s most powerful military alliance come to the rescue of Libya’s rebels. They sense that, if they provoke a conflict with their own local dictators, they’ll receive similar support. You can understand the logic, right? Attempting on your own to overthrow a brutal regime might not sound like a great idea. But if you have reason to believe that the US and its allies will cover your back and even support your efforts, then that changes the equation.

    Of course I’m talking about Syria first and foremost now. When Gaddafi falls, graffiti starts appearing on Syrian walls that says: “It’s your turn, Bashar.” Our Libyan intervention does seem to have motivated the Syrian opposition into believing it could overthrow its own dictator, with NATO and the US coming to its rescue. That’s obviously quite tragic, because neither NATO nor the US in fact has the will to come to the Syrian opposition’s aid in this way.

    First though for Syria, could you dispel “If only we had really intervened…” conjectures by clarifying the extent to which we did intervene? Could you then outline the inadequacies even of this substantial intervention? And given the nightmare humanitarian outcomes, could you make the case for why the US very well might have left the Syrian people better off by never signaling to them (and never fooling ourselves about) our willingness to take on various costs and consequences of regime change?

    Anyone involved in our Syria policy has to look back with deep regret, and to recognize the horrible outcomes for the Syrian people, for Syria’s neighbors, and for us. But we have to learn the right lessons. First, as all the previous cases of regime change demonstrate, there’s no reason to believe that a limited military intervention, or more support to the opposition, would have led Assad to fall — and would have then produced a better and more stable government. When we did increase support for the Syrian opposition, our escalation led to counter-escalation by the regime and its backers in Russia and Iran. Of course, we also could have launched a direct military intervention. We could have confronted Russia and Iran. We have the military power to accomplish all of that. But a scenario like this takes us right back to creating a giant security vacuum all across Syria. So how would we then have stabilized that situation? I just don’t see any good way to answer that question.

    Still, as your own question suggests, our ultimate policy of supporting Syria’s opposition enough to escalate and maintain a civil war, but not enough to win it, had deeply negative consequences. So unless we were truly willing to intervene with enough force to topple the regime, and then to take responsibility for imposing stability, we probably have to accept that it would have been better not to pursue regime change in the first place. In the book I paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous line about democracy: tragically, “living with the Assad regime might have been the worst possible policy, except for all the others.”

    Finally then, with our current presidential administration changing or at least updating itself quite soon, could you make the broader case (throughout the Middle East and beyond) for “more modest aims and measures…efforts to assist civilian populations, deterrence of external aggression, targeted sanctions, diplomatic pressure, humanitarian relief, or in some cases even doing nothing”? And could you offer a specific local context in which such modest measures might be especially appropriate and effective right now?

    Sure, consider our approach to Iran. The clear alternative to regime change would be returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, and seeking to contain Iran. That deal isn’t perfect, but it verifiably constrains Iran’s nuclear capacity, buys time, starts up a process of diplomacy, avoids a scenario where we strive to foment the opposition and to promote revolutionary change in this country of 80 million people — which could bring about the complete collapse of the state, civil war, or direct military conflict. Again, giving up fantasies of regime change doesn’t mean sitting back and doing nothing. It means pursuing a more realistic approach with a better chance of fulfilling our core interests, and avoiding making things worse for all concerned.


    Portrait of Philip Gordon courtesy of Joseph LeBlanc.