One probably wouldn’t have expected a radioactive concept like “regime change” to be so quickly again occupying a prominent place in top-level foreign policy dialogue, but lo and behold, the conundrum over Syria looks to be delivering precisely that. We were steadily fed a diet rich in regime change bravado in the early years of Bush II when ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan and subsequently, dethroning Saddam Hussein in Iraq seemed to be that administration’s compelling imperatives. Americans generally didn’t need much convincing about going after the Taliban, once intelligence linked them to 9/11. The Bushies’ obsession with Saddam was another matter. Although a sizeable portion of the American public initially bought the WMD propaganda, support substantially decreased after folks came to see the Iraq invasion and occupation as predicated on a giant con.
Given the backlash to this fraudulent pretext for committing American boots on the ground in Iraq, it really takes some chutzpah, one would think, to engage in unapologetic championing of regime change as a serious policy plank. To conclude that such nerve would be in very short supply in Washington’s corridors of power is to not cater for the likes of Senator John McCain. True to his hawk credentials, McCain has indicated that without some regime change intentions as part of the deal, his support for a U.S. response to chemical weapons usage in Syria is no sure thing. McCain, one gathers, doesn’t speak only for himself.
On this Syria question, President Obama finds himself in a bit of a pickle that had its origins, as we’ve contended here, in some ill-advised “red line” rhetoric that was the kind of tough talk much more befitting his predecessor. Now that the day of reckoning has arrived, the president is not only facing skepticism in the Democratic party ranks about an aggressive military response, but must try to win over hawkish Republicans itching for a much more robust display of American power. The demand by McCain and company that regime change has to be part of the action package for Syria is one Obama had better stick to his guns and outright reject. Regime change might have ready appeal for the new-age imperialists on the right but, as American foreign policy it was a terrible idea as applied to Saddam and Iraq and it’s just as terrible today with reference to Assad and Syria.
Which is not to suggest that the U.S. should be indifferent to instances of barbaric behavior by Assad or anyone else. But a tactical response in concert with key international players would always be preferable to a conveyed impression of America willing and ready to strike its best “bad sheriff” pose. Even worse, signaling that America would be bringing deliverance to a besieged people by way of the leadership change America thinks they need! Absent naked aggression from some quarter inflicted on the U.S., how does anyone get to advocating, in 2013, that changing regimes around the world is an appropriate exercise of American power?
Interference of that nature in the Arab world, in particular, has been dramatically shown to be so high-risk and almost certainly a no-win proposition, one cannot but look warily upon today’s stuck-in-the-mud regime change crusaders. The Bush-Cheney tandem and their confederates thought they had a good thing going in Iraq. A decade later, Iraq gives every indication that instability isn’t about to disappear anytime soon. Even in Afghanistan, where American efforts at reconfiguring the landscape had earned some justification, the net result, to date, is that American orchestration of political transition seems unlikely to change the country’s history of turbulence. Obama was last drawn into a regime change undertaking in Libya – a decision one wouldn’t be surprised to discover he probably regrets. And the jury is apparently still out as to whether that initiative to topple Gaddafi put Libya in a better place. It has become abundantly clear that American interjection into the tangled web of sectarian conflict is fraught with problems that are seemingly beyond the capabilities of America and the West to resolve.
It should have by now long run its course, this notion that it is properly America’s business to determine who passes muster for running the show in far-flung locations well beyond these borders. That there is still evidently an appetite among some for interventionist behavior on the part of the U.S. is bizarre, but no more so than some of the extremist positions we’ve had originate from the usual suspects over the years. We know from experience it matters little that this is an issue on which the people have spoken loudly. Tony Blair saw the British people’s love affair with him end ignominiously when he dared to be too dismissive of popular sentiment that looked with disfavor on his reluctance to rein in the warrior bit. In these parts, we’re quite familiar with a ready resort to tone deafness, ignoring of the people’s will.
This posturing by McCain and others of that ilk to demand that the president sign on to a Syria response inclusive of regime change is typical of the bluster for which their camp is known. It’s the kind of bone-headed recklessness one would expect of a guy who asked the country, with a straight face, to accept Sarah Palin as a duly credentialed president in waiting.