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.
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."
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.
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."
After initial success, democracy has not taken hold in Haiti - nor has it been in many of the places where America has intervened, says Minxin Pei, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Aside from the post-World War II success stories - Germany, Japan, and Italy - "the US record of installing democracy is very dubious, with less than a 20 percent success rate," he adds.
That record bodes ill for Iraq, says Dr. Pei, should US troops invade that country to overthrow Hussein.
Panama, where US forces overthrew and captured Gen. Manuel Noriega in 1989, offers some parallels with Iraq: a dictator sitting on a strategic asset (in that case, a canal), who had previously enjoyed US support, falls afoul of Washington and defies the authorities there. General Noriega was also offered an exile deal but refused. Still, Panama, where America restored a relatively democratic regime, is a tiny, relatively homogenous country within the US sphere of influence.
Iraq is none of those things. There are three major factions - Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites - with no tradition of democratic rule. "On the basis of past experience, I would predict that the US will fail miserably at building democracy in Iraq because America's heart is not in it," warns Pei. "The primary goal is getting rid of a very brutal dictator."
Most experts agree that the US record of building a democratic regime after ousting a leader is poor. "If we replace Saddam, the biggest unresolved question is: What do we do afterwards?" says Lawson. "We've only succeeded when we're willing to occupy the country and make fundamental changes from the bottom up, as we did in postwar Japan and Germany," he says. "It required an enormous investment of resources and a decade of occupation. We have yet to find a less costly formula for stability, let alone building a democratic, free-market state."
But some say Iraq has better prospects than countries such as Haiti or Afghanistan. "Iraq is not a poor country. It has the second largest oil reserves in the world," says Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The US Congress will see Iraq as a better investment than, say, Haiti, Bosnia, or Afghanistan, he says. "It has an educated populace, lots of technical skills, and the potential to have good relations with Washington and international financial institutions."
Some scholars argue the US shouldn't be trying to transplant Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq or elsewhere. Grafting might be a better approach.
"First, you have to ask what the basic unit of politics is," says Hulsman at the Heritage Foundation. "In Afghanistan, it's the tribe. You can't have a successful central government without including a tribal role. In Iraq, you have three groups that must be part of any government. If you take the top- down approach - bringing in viceroys from abroad, trying to impose a new government on the masses - that's not going to work. "This should be about stability first," says Hulsman. "If we aim lower, we can hit the target."
While far from the only country that intervenes in other countries' affairs, the US has a long history of seeking to change unfriendly governments abroad. Here is a selection of major US interventions - direct and indirect - since World War II.
Iranian President Mohammad Mossadegh is ousted by a coup organized and directed by the CIA with help from British Intelli- gence. He's tried in a military court and sentenced to death, a sentence later commuted to three years in jail and lifetime house arrest. The US-friendly shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, is returned to power and rules until Islamic fundamentalists drive him into exile in 1979.
A CIA-organized coup topples the nationalist reformist government of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in favor of a military government that suppresses opposition until the return of democracy in 1986. Civil war effectively continues until 1996.
African nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba, elected in June 1960 as the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is assassinated following a US/Belgian-organized coup designed to remove the Soviet-backed government. Succession by Mobutu Sese Seko ushers in 32 years of dictatorial and corrupt rule.
The US-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs fails. The US earlier broke off relations with Cuba after Fidel Castro took power and nationalized along Soviet lines. Cuba declared itself Marxist-Leninist, and the US responded by instituting an economic and political blockade more or less in place to this day. Castro remains in power.
US military forces invade the Dominican Republic after a coup returns to power ousted president Juan Bosch. Fearful of another Cuba-style Communist takeover, the US supports Joaquin Balaguer who is elected president and serves intermittent terms until 1996.
The CIA secretly funds a coup against Marxist President Salvador Allende which brings Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power for 17 years. (General Pinochet later faced charges for human rights abuses committed during his years in power, but the Chilean Supreme Court dismissed the case last year, ruling the former dictator unfit to stand trial.)
The Reagan Administration mounts an invasion of Grenada, with token backing from several Caribbean states, to depose Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, the charismatic leader of the socialist National Jewel Movement. The US viewed Bishop's growing links with Castro's Cuba as a threat. In his place, the US establishes and aids a friendlier administration.
The US encourages a presidential election, which President Ferdinand Marcos attempts to steal. The results are disputed, and Army commanders led by Gen. Fidel Ramos back Corazon Aquino, widow of assassinated ex-Liberal Party leader Benigno Aquino. The US pressures Marcos to accept exile in Hawaii. In 1992, Ramos is elected president, and the US withdraws from its military bases in the Philippines.
US bombers attack Libya, killing 101, but missing their intended target: Arab nationalist leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi, who first seized power in a 1969 revolution. Parts of Qaddafi's Tripoli compound are destroyed. Two years later, when a Pan Am airliner explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland, the US and Britain allege Libyan complicity; one suspect is convicted (in 2001) of the bombing.
US military forces invade Panama and its ruler, Gen. Manuel António Noriega, is arrested and flown to the US to stand trial for smuggling drugs. In his place, Guillermo Endara, who won an earlier election, is installed as constitutional president. The country makes a relatively successful transition to democracy, though elected leaders' economic reforms prove unpopular.
American troops lead A UN peacekeeping force but begin withdrawing a year later after a failed attempt to capture warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid leaves 18 US soldiers dead.
A military regime relinquishes power in the face of an imminent US invasion; US forces land peacefully in Haiti to oversee a transition to civilian government. Jean-Bertrand Aristide returns to power.
President Slobodan Milosevic's policies of "ethnic cleansing" precipitate a mass exodus from Kosovo. NATO begins an aerial bombing of Yugoslavia. In October 2000, Milosevic is ousted in a popular uprising and extradited to face charges of war crimes.
a US-led invasion topples the Taliban government after it refuses to detain suspects or provide information regarding recent terrorist attacks on the US. The country's interim president, Hamid Karzai is later chosen by a tribal council to lead a semi-democratic government. But law- lessness and chaos still reign outside the capital, Kabul.
Compiled by Mary Wiltenburg and Seth Stern.
Text Sources: Financial Times World Desk Reference, Iran National Front, Afghanistan Online, Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.