Regime Change Doesn’t Work

by Henry Farrell on September 29, 2011

Alex Downes, who has just become a colleague of mine at GWU, has a “great piece”: on this topic, with this title, in the new _Boston Review._ Key paragraph:

bq. Is the bloody aftermath of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq the exception or the rule? Does regime change work? The short answer is: rarely. The reasons for consistent failure are straightforward. Regime change often produces violence because it inevitably privileges some individuals or groups and alienates others. Intervening forces seek to install their preferred leadership but usually have little knowledge of the politics of the target country or of the backlash their preference is likely to engender. Moreover, interveners often lack the will or commitment to remain indefinitely in the face of violent resistance, which encourages opponents to keep fighting. Regime change generally fails to promote democracy because installing pliable dictators is in the intervener’s interest and because many target states lack the necessary preconditions for democracy.

The rest of the piece is a summary of political science’s findings on the (usually dismal) record of efforts by outside actors to change regimes. These findings:

bq. Despite what interveners hope, regime change implemented by outsiders is not a force for stability. More than 40 percent of states that experience foreign-imposed regime change have a civil war within the next ten years. Regime change generates civil wars in three ways. First, civil war can be part of the process of removing the old regime from power and suppressing its remnants. In Hungary in 1919, a Romanian invasion unseated the Communist regime of Béla Kun. His successor Miklós Horthy carried out a “White Terror” that killed roughly 5,000 supposed Communists, communist supporters, or sympathizers. Similar conflicts and purges followed the ousters of Arbenz in Guatemala and Allende in Chile.

bq. Second, regime change fosters civil war because it abruptly reverses the status of formerly advantaged groups. Remnants of the old regime’s leadership or army may wage an insurgency against the new rulers rather than accept a subordinate position. This happened in Cambodia following the Vietnamese invasion in December 1978. The Vietnamese army quickly defeated the Khmer Rouge in conventional battles, but Pol Pot, other top leaders, and many fighters escaped to remote jungle hideouts along the Thai and Laotian borders. Determined to regain power, the Khmer Rouge waged a decade-long insurgency against Vietnam’s puppet, Heng Samrin, and occupying forces. Similarly, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Sunni Ba’athist ex-soldiers took up arms to eject U.S. occupiers and restore Sunni rule.

are similar to Chris’s argument of a “few months ago”: that the Libyan intervention was unlikely to produce a stable government because

bq. Some Libyans may rally to the Gaddafi regime out of a sense of wounded national pride at outside interference. And even if Gaddafi falls (which I hope he will) the successor regime will lack the legitimacy it might have had, and will no doubt be resented and undermined by nationalist Gaddafi loyalists biding their time and representing it as the creature of the West.

Chris got some ill-considered flak for purportedly making a normative claim that any new regime would be ‘illegitimate,’ when he was in fact making an empirical argument which accords well with the state of the art among political scientists who study these issues.