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Regime change

A look at Washington's methods - and degrees of success - in dislodging foreign leaders.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 2003

In the past half century, US military boots have "hit the beach" several times to overthrow unfriendly powers from Panama to Afghanistan, from Haiti to Somalia.

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Deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, however, would be Washington's most ambitious adventure in this tradition of intervention.

Short of outright seizure of territory, ousting a foreign government is the boldest intrusion one country can make on another. It sends tremors through the international order.

America's justification for violent regime change has swung over the years from halting the spread of communism to stopping ethnic cleansing and instilling democracy. Since Sept. 11, it has a new motive: the war on terrorists.

Washington has not always committed its own troops to these tasks. US administrations have funded rebel insurgencies, organized military coups, and encouraged popular nonviolent uprisings to overthrow foreign regimes - most recently in Yugoslavia.

In order to overthrow the Middle East's harshest and most durable tyrant, Washington has given little attention to seeding popular revolt. It is prepared to spend an estimated $100 billion and risk thousands of lives. And this may not be the last mission of this type.

"In the wake of 9/11, you can expect to see expanded covert as well as overt US military action," says Chappell Lawson, who teaches classes on regime change and democracy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The United States has a full toolbox of nonviolent methods for bringing an unfriendly leader to heel: diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, international boycotts, trade embargoes, and support for local political factions. But these tactics take time, and can produce limited results.

They have been "totally unsuccessful in Iraq," says Professor Lawson. "Iraq has faced the strictest economic sanctions in history, and they've had no effect on the political system. Yes, they've undercut its ability to make war. But that's not regime change."

Proponents of US military action in Iraq argue that the attacks of Sept. 11 justify a pre-emptive-strike policy when it comes to fighting terrorists, or to states that may give succor to Al Qaeda or threaten with weapons of mass destruction.

"We have to be proactive," says John Hulsman, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Terrorists don't want to negotiate; we don't have anything they want. They want to destroy us." Referring to Iraq, he says, "I don't want to wait to find a smoking gun; that means the guy has already shot me."

A new clarity of purpose

The focus on terrorism brings a clarity of purpose to the Bush administration that hasn't been seen in Washington foreign policymaking since the cold war. Time was, Latin America was the US "backyard," and the Monroe Doctrine was unambiguous: No foreign power would be allowed to gain a foothold in the region.

That meant that any sign of Soviet influence - real or perceived - would be fought. Left-leaning governments in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Grenada were targeted and all save Fidel Castro's regime fell to US-sponsored coups, rebellions, or outright invasions. Further afield, the fight against communist expansion led US troops into Korea and Vietnam.

Why is the US intervening?

Over the past decade, Washington has justified military interventions in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan on the grounds that human rights had to be defended and democracy promoted. Those explanations "were not organized in a rational way, and sometimes the US was forced into interventions by circumstances," argues Karin von Hippel, author of "Democracy by Force: US Military Interventions in the Post Cold War World."

In 1994, for example, the wave of Haitian boat people landing daily on the Florida coast prompted President Clinton to launch "Operation Restore Democracy" to reinstall elected President Bertrand Aristide, who had been overthrown in a military coup. Clinton felt compelled, however, to justify the invasion on the grounds that the situation in Haiti caused "the total fracturing of the ability of the world community to conduct business in the post-cold war era."