How regime change, with modifications, has new life under Trump

Why We Wrote This

How to deal with rogue nations? Recent US experiments with "regime change" in Iraq and Afghanistan appeared to delist the policy as an option. But in the latest iteration of the Trump administration, a freshened "troop-less" version is getting a look.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
From left, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and national security adviser John Bolton listen as President Trump meets with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House, May 17, 2018.

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Despite a spotty record, addressing problematic foreign governments simply by ousting their leaders is getting fresh US consideration, especially regarding Iran and North Korea. President Trump has convened a hawkish national security team, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has endorsed regime change in the past but recently has stressed diplomatic solutions, and adviser John Bolton, one of the most ardent advocates of regime change. Kim Jong-un appears to have decided that the United States is dusting off the policy, as he criticized Mr. Bolton’s recent citing of Libya as the model he has in mind for dealing with North Korea. But if one of Mr. Trump’s foreign-policy “impulses” is a “reassertion of American power,” says Georgetown Prof. Robert Lieber, “there is no appetite in any case for a commitment of US ground troops.” That would appear to point toward a troop-less path to regime change: one that ramps up sanctions and other economic pressures to encourage change from within. Says a former Bolton adviser, “I don’t see the government saying that [regime change] is the policy. But extrapolating forward, it is the logical consequence of what we’re seeing.”

For those who thought that regime change as a policy for dealing with rogue states was dead and buried – think again.

Regime change may have largely fallen out of the national security lexicon after the policy’s application encountered years of violent resistance in Iraq and in Afghanistan has delivered the longest war in US history with few positive results. 

But with the arrival of a hawkish national security team in the Trump White House – and in particular with the rise of one of the most ardent and enduring advocates of regime change in national security adviser John Bolton – the old allure of addressing problematic governments and their threatening leaders by simply ousting them is making a comeback.

It is back concerning Iran in the wake of President Trump’s withdrawal from the international Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal. Mr. Trump “is as committed to regime change as we are,” presidential attorney and informal adviser Rudy Giuliani told his cheering audience at an Iranian opposition gathering in Washington this month.

And it is back and playing a role in the administration’s approach to North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to have decided the United States is dusting off the policy, as he publicly ripped Mr. Bolton’s influential presence – and Bolton’s recent citing of Libya as the model he has in mind for dealing with North Korea – in threatening to back out of a planned summit with Trump.

Mr. Kim no doubt grasps as much as anyone else the fact that former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi did not long survive his agreement with the US to give up every piece of his weapons-of-mass-destruction program. Trump himself invoked the Qaddafi example Thursday in remarks at the White House, saying “that model would take place if we don't make a deal.” However if a deal is made, he continued, "Kim Jong-un is going to be very, very happy.”

In the eyes of some US foreign-policy historians and analysts, any association with Trump of a policy the US has occasionally turned to since at least 1953 – when it engineered a government overthrow in Iran – would have to be qualified as a kind of regime change lite. That’s because of the president’s aversion to engaging large numbers of ground forces, as occurred in the case of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Trump himself does not have any kind of foreign policy strategy, what he has is a series of impulses, one of which is a reassertion of American power in response to what can only be called the [wimpiness] of the Obama administration,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.

“But at the same time, there is no appetite in any case for a commitment of US ground troops,” he adds. “So we can wish for regime change, but it’s not going to happen any time soon.”

Sergei Grits/AP/FILE
Shortly before he became national security adviser, John Bolton told Radio Free Asia that nuclear negotiations with North Korea should be similar to past discussions with Libya, and Kim Jong-un no doubt grasps the fact that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, here attending a ceremony in Minsk, Belarus, in November 2008, did not long survive his agreement with the US to give up every piece of his weapons-of-mass-destruction program.

If the temptation of regime change as a policy prescription is only arising now, a year-plus into Trump’s presidency, it’s because the president’s first national security team, led by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former national security adviser H. R. McMaster, were more focused on diplomacy – and engaging even adversarial regimes rather than toppling them. The arrival of Bolton and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Mr. Tillerson as secretary of State put the administration on a different “wavelength,” as Trump said in forming his new team.

Indeed what characterizes this new team perhaps more than anything else is its harking to the “siren song” of regime change, says Stephen Walt, a Harvard University international relations professor and author, in a recent Foreign Policy column.

Moreover, the revival of regime change in White House national-security thinking appears to be one element in a brewing clash between Bolton and Secretary Pompeo – another hawk, but one increasingly exploring diplomatic options.

As a Kansas congressman, Pompeo took a backseat to no one in promoting regime change as the only solution in cases of rogue regimes like those of Iran and North Korea. But as CIA director and so far in his brief tenure as the nation’s top diplomat, Pompeo appears to have modified his thinking.

Upon becoming secretary of State, Pompeo plunged directly into talks with European partners on a fix for the Iran nuclear deal that would meet Trump’s conditions for staying in the agreement with the Iranian government. Pompeo let it be known that with a little more negotiating time he thought a solution could be reached. But Bolton, a fierce opponent of international agreements that limit the US exercise of power, was gleeful over the US pullout from the deal.

Assurances to Kim

And in the case of North Korea, Pompeo reportedly assured Kim in pre-summit talks in Pyongyang this month that the US is not gunning for his regime as part of its demands for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, Pompeo said he told Kim “that what President Trump wants is to see the North Korean regime get rid of its nuclear weapons program completely and in totality. And in exchange for that,” he added, “we are prepared to ensure that the North Korean people get the opportunity which they so richly deserve” – ambiguous wording to be sure, but wording Pompeo went on to explain meant a lifting of economic sanctions and facilitating the flow of private capital into the country.

Brian Hook, director of Pompeo’s policy planning staff, said the secretary will outline, in a speech on Monday, “the diplomatic way forward … to address the totality of Iran’s threats."

Yet regardless of how the looming differences between Bolton and Pompeo play out, clues are already surfacing suggesting that any application of regime change policy in the Trump era is unlikely to resemble the model pursued by former President George W. Bush.

One such hint came from Bolton himself. Within minutes of Trump’s May 9 announcement of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, a clearly energized national security adviser told journalists that “they would be badly mistaken if … they thought” – as one journalist posited – that abandoning the deal was a “precursor” to the US putting boots on the ground in Iran.

But what the Trump model does appear to at least contemplate is a troops-less path to regime change – one that ramps up sanctions and other economic pressures to such a degree that the Iranian people, for example, rise up and take care of the regime changing on their own.

Some supporters of the administration who also advocate a campaign of measures to weaken and eventually topple the Iranian regime say it’s just too early to tell if that is also what the White House is aiming for.

“Sanctions could become increasingly harsh, and could lead to economic collapse,” says David Wurmser, a foreign policy specialist who served as a special adviser to Bolton when he was at the State Department. “I don’t see the government saying that [regime change] is the policy. But extrapolating forward,” he adds, “it is the logical consequence of what we’re seeing.”

New Iran sanctions

The Trump administration is already using the exit from the Iran deal to begin imposing new sanctions on Iran, having moved this week to complicate Iran’s international trade by imposing new sanctions on the country’s central bank.

Yet critics see little chance of “regime change lite” working any better than the muscular military version. They cite the cases of Cuba and Venezuela, and say sanctions have done little to weaken the regimes there, even as they deepen the misery of the general population.

“The belief that ever-tighter sanctions will cause the regime [in Iran] to collapse is wishful thinking,” Dr. Walt says.

Georgetown’s Dr. Lieber is all for a more assertive exercise of American power – which he says should mean utilizing all the tools in the diplomatic toolbox. But when it comes to regime change as policy, he generally lumps it in the “wishful thinking” basket – though with one caveat.

“One could hope for regime change working in Iran and North Korea, and certainly we know in the Iranian case that the population is very restless and would love regime change,” he says. “But the levers of power are held by the regime in such a way as to make that unlikely. The same holds for North Korea, where the levers of power are firmly in the hands of Kim and his buddies.”

But then Lieber offers the exception – the slim-but-plausible-chance thinking that is probably what keeps the allure of regime change alive.

Regime change in Iran and North Korea “certainly doesn’t seem to be in the cards right now,” he says, “but we also shouldn’t forget the lessons of a case like Eastern Europe. What that taught us is that when regime collapse comes, it can happen swiftly and can come quite unexpectedly.”

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