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How ISIS Spells The End Of ‘Regime Change’


A few months ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Jack Matlock, the 85-year-old former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. He served in that post from 1987 to 1991 and retired from a 35-year career in the Foreign Service a few months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He knows whereof he speaks. Matlock’s talk was mostly about the Cold War, and he had a few pointed things to say about the popular notion that the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“That is quite wrong,” he said. “The Cold War had been over for two or three years before the Soviet Union collapsed.” He went on to explain—much to his dismay, as though it shouldn’t need explaining—that the Cold War was inextricably tied to the rule of the Communist Party in Moscow. Communism was the raison d’etre of the Cold War, from the post-WWII Truman doctrine of Soviet containment to the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of the “Evil Empire.”

From the U.S. perspective, the point of the Cold War was never to dissolve the Soviet Union and redraw the political map of the Eurasian continent from Estonia to Tajikistan. Reagan was no Woodrow Wilson. The point was to rid the world of Communism without waging an actual war against the Soviet Union. For American leaders, that meant finding a way to end the Cold War that also served the interests of the Soviet Union. Today, it’s commonly accepted that the USSR was fatally weak in the late 1980s, tottering on the brink of collapse. But many scholars agree that although it was stagnating in the mid-’80s, without the internal reforms that ultimately led to its dissolution the Soviet Union could have continued into the twenty-first century.

Letting Evil Empires Collapse Under Their Own Weight

I won’t slog through the details of Glasnost and Perestroika, but suffice to say that although U.S. defense spending weakened the USSR’s economy—which tried and failed to keep up—the proximate causes of the Communist Party’s loss of power came from the regime itself. Soon after Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 he introduced a series of rather modest political and economic reforms that precipitated, somewhat by accident, a process of broader democratization that eventually wrenched control of the apparatus of government from the Party. During that time, American leaders seized the opportunity to negotiate an end to the Cold War that would be in the mutual interests of both the U.S. and the USSR.

‘By ending the Cold War we gave Gorbachev—the leader of the Communist Party—the possibility to reform the country internally.’

“By ending the Cold War we gave Gorbachev—the leader of the Communist Party—the possibility to reform the country internally,” Matlock said. “It was therefore the opposite of bringing pressure to bear or removing a leader and thinking there’s going to come from that something better.”

I thought of Matlock’s argument while reading an excellent piece by James Poulos last week on the “puerile fantasy of regime change.” He argues that ISIS is not terrorist network like al Qaeda but a regime in full. As such, ISIS presents certain problems for the West, not merely because of its barbarity but also because of its complete disregard for international borders and political arrangements (to wit: the recent beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS on a beach in Libya). With the rise of ISIS, writes Poulos, “the era of regime change is over.” That is, we’re either going to have to destroy ISIS completely or learn to live with it:

There is no changing the ISIS regime. The Western establishment understands that the whole state must be, as the president says, ‘degraded and ultimately destroyed.’ This is an epochal shift in the way we conceptualize the use of force. And no matter how halting, depressing, or embarrassing, it is a blessing in disguise.

As a policy, regime change was a failure, rooted in fundamentally incorrect and misbegotten ideas about how the forces of economics and history could be leveraged in the post-Cold War world, and how the West could project power to achieve transformative victories with a minimum of blood and treasure.

He’s right about that. State Department flack Marie Harf’s quaint notion that we cannot “kill our way out of this war” and that we should instead go after the “root causes” that inspire Muslims the world over to join ISIS—like “lack of opportunity for jobs,” apparently—is delusional. As Ben Domenech noted this week, dealing with ISIS “does not require a Harf-style jobs program; it does not require nation-building; it requires killing a lot of people.”

Regime Change and the Soviet Union

It also does not require “regime change,” a term that now seems not only outdated but fundamentally flawed. Indeed, Poulos’ argument could be extended backwards through history, to the Cold War and the aftermath of World War II. During the Cold War, we never talked about “regime change” in the Soviet Union. We didn’t want regime change—we wanted the regime to change its behavior. Specifically, we want the regime to purge itself of the Communist Party, which it was able to do thanks to the skillful and painstaking diplomacy that ended the Cold War and thus gave Gorbachev the ability to pursue reform.

After WWII, we didn’t institute new regimes in Japan and Germany and go home.

It was a triumph for the United States when the Communist Party lost its monopoly over the political system of the Soviet Union, but the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union was an unexpected disaster. At the time, our leaders believed the Soviet Union was integral to international stability and feared its collapse would trigger the very kinds of smaller conflicts that broke out in the 1990s—the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing Bosnian War, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Kosovo War.

As Poulos notes, it’s only been in recent decades that we’ve toyed with the idea of “regime change” as a framework for pursuing our foreign policy goals. After WWII, we didn’t institute new regimes in Japan and Germany and go home; we formally occupied Japan for six years and Germany for ten, and up to the present day tens of thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in each country.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003 with the notion that we could take out Saddam Hussein without really occupying his country (the “light footprint” strategy), we wound up fighting a protracted insurgency that forced us into an unintentional and haphazard occupation. True, Iraq was stabilizing when Barack Obama inherited the occupation in 2009, and had his administration attempted to negotiate a status-of-force agreement Iraq might still be a country more or less at peace.

But Obama’s premature withdrawal of U.S. troops and the subsequent rise of ISIS demonstrates, in spectacular and shocking fashion, the dangers of post-Cold War regime change: if there isn’t the political will for a long-term occupation of the country whose regime you change, something much worse might just come along to replace it.