Regime change. It sounds so bland, so calm. So scientific. So bloodless.
Here’s what it means: using force to take over another country and then impose a new set of leaders on it or a process guaranteed to produce a new set of leaders. It’s different from a revolution, in which an entire people overthrows the rule of government, which is what happened in Egypt in late 2010. When a small group takes over its own country, that’s a coup d’état, as in Egypt this year.
Some revolutions are good like the American revolution, and some don’t work out so well, and sometimes it starts well until someone bad seizes control of the revolution, e.g., France in 1789 and Russia in 1917.
But no matter what the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and now Obama administrations may say—no matter how tortuous their reasoning—a coup d’état is never good and regime change by external forces is never good.
Some argue that all we have to do is make a pre-emptive strike and dismantle all of Assad’s jet fighters and his chemical arms capabilities. First of all, that’s easier said than done. Nicholas Jahr emailed me earlier today with this quote from CBS News: “The U.S. has huge military advantage, so there is little doubt cruise missiles could destroy targets ranging from command centers to launchers used to fire chemical weapons” and a sarcastic statement. It all sounds so familiar—didn’t we use similar words to underestimate the resources and overestimate the positive impact of a military move in Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Consider, too, that even if we could execute a surgical attack that wipes out Assad’s air force in a matter of hours, wouldn’t Assad rearm with the help of Russia, which certainly could use a foreign market for its military goods?
I’ve also read the argument that Assad is backed by Iran, so we can’t back down. This idea that invading or attacking Syria is a proxy for war with Iran is just crazy. A much better approach is to deal directly with Iran and in a series of horse trades get them to drop Assad like a hot potato. There is much Iran and the United States could accomplish together if we were somehow able to repair the relationship. But if it can’t be repaired, shouldn’t we squirrel away all the resources we can for potential hostilities with Iran? Why dissipate resources on Iran’s proxy?
Using chemical warfare is horrible. But so is the use of drones and carpet bombing. So is torture. So is mowing down innocent citizens who have gathered to protest. Where do you draw the line in terms of unacceptable behavior by government, behavior so heinous that it requires the world to invade and seek regime change? We knew about the forced famine in the Ukraine and did nothing. We knew what happened in Chile and not only did nothing, but provided aid to the perpetrators.
Then there is the question of what a U.S. led action will do to Syria. Many of those Syrians sitting on the fence about Assad may start to support him on principle. And we all know that the most likely leaders to replace Assad will be anti-American or will support a turn to conservative Islam or both. What could we possibly win? Is there any scenario with any possibility of coming true in which the U.S. comes out ahead or in which a great deal of innocent blood is not shed? Keep in mind that the current borders of Syria contain large populations of Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Turks, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shias and Arab Sunnis. Remember what happened to both Iraq and Yugoslavia after the demise of “strong man” government.
There must be some mix of economic sanctions we can still impose. The news that Assad used chemical weapons on his own people may move Russia finally to pressure the Assad regime. Even showering various rebel groups with weapons and money is a preferable option to attack or invasion.
I’m not up on the theories of the just war, but surely one criterion must be that the war has a possibility of achieving an outcome in keeping with the idea of justice and morality: to the western world, including the United States, that currently means a secular, free-market democracy ruled by mostly benevolent parties and leaders. There is absolutely no chance of such an outcome if the U.S. or a U.S. led ad hoc army invades or attacks Syria.