Sunday, August 13, 2017

Can We Please Abandon All Policies of Regime Change

For a change, I am not directing this post at Donald Trump, but at the "Blob" in general.  And speaking to the Blob, I can only say -- for the love of Mike, can we please drop all policies of "regime change"?

And just for the record, I have not gone full-on Jeanne Kirkpatrick, saying that no revolution can ever be justified, that would should go to any lengths, no matter how bloody and savage (and certainly not limited to, say, 500,000 troops in South Vietnam), to prop up friendly dictators.  But I have come to the conclusion that she has a point about revolutions being a horrible, bloody business, and the mere overthrow of a bad ruler not being any guarantee that anything better will replace him.  But it has become clear that most rulers facing overthrow will dig in and resist and cannot be dislodged without overthrowing the entire state. And that the overthrow of the state leads to a power vacuum that is typically filled by very nasty rival armies, with the nastiest of all most often winning out.

This folly appears to have grown out of our victory in the Cold War.  It was obvious to all that the Communist governments of Eastern Europe were completely without domestic support or legitimacy, propped up only by the threat of Soviet intervention.  Unsurprisingly, once that threat was removed, all Communist governments in Eastern Europe quickly toppled without a shot being fired (except in Romania).  What was surprising was easily Communism was ultimately toppled even in the Soviet Union.

What American conservatives, especially neoconservatives, missed was the long, slow grind that had been wearing down the Soviets since then end of WWII, the profound internal weakness that was present even as they feared the Soviets were on the verge of world conquest, and the utter rottenness and corruption that had been undermining the system for decades.  Recognizing that the whole system was held up solely by repression, they failed to recognize just how quickly it would break down once the repression was even mildly relaxed.

Neocons were in the position of having greatly feared Soviet power and been convinced that the Soviet Union was much stronger and more ambitious than we feared, much militarily stronger than we were, and on the very verge of -- well, it was not quite clear what they were on the verge of, except that it was going to be very, very bad.  They eagerly threw themselves behind Ronald Reagan, the only politician who seemed to share their alarm, and in the early days of his Presidency, he not only lead a major military buildup, but gave a lot of scary talk about the Soviets being on the march.  By the end of his second term, the Soviets were in full retreat, although Communism did not actually fall until his successor's time.*  Having greatly overestimated Soviet power, conservatives in general and necons in particular, concluded that the Soviet Union had been a vast colossus striding across the world on the verge of conquest, only to be beaten back by Ronald Reagan's toughness, and to assume that any other government could be just as easily overturned.

What Americans broadly across the political spectrum did not see was just how much of a disaster the fall of Communism was for the former Soviet Union.  That it lost its hegemony in Eastern Europe; that the non-Russian Soviet Republics broke away; that the European countries it once had dominated and even former Soviet Republics Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania jointed a hostile alliance; that revolt broke out even in the Russian province of Chechnya most Americans understood and saw as cause for celebration.  Might we perhaps understand why the Russians might disagree?  What Americans were also too self-centered to miss was also just how disastrous the fall of Communism was in Russia -- massive decline in economy and living standards, a significant drop in life expectancy, the rise of an oligarchy of gangsters, 70% of the male population becoming alcoholics under the stress and so forth.  The rise of Putin was a response to this disaster, because at least he restored order and began some economic recovery (much of it driven by high oil prices).  As for Putin -- well, he is not certainly not as bad as Stalin or Mao, and I will defer to people who know more on how he compares to later and more decadent Communists.  The point here is not that it would have been good for Communism to stay in power, but that its fall was more complex and messy, and less the result of pure willpower on our part, than the Blob may widely believe.

I move on to George H.W. Bush (the Senior Bush), one of our most successful foreign policy Presidents, but not without his mistakes.  Critical among his mistakes -- he assumed that losing the war in Kuwait would bring down Saddam Hussein. That was a reasonable assumption.  Many dictatorships have been brought down by losing wars; it was not unreasonable to assume that Saddam Hussein would be among them, particularly when his army was shattered and his ability to maintain power by repression severely diminished.  And, in fact, Shiite and Kurdish revolts broke out against him, but Saddam's army proved strong enough to crush them, and he remained in power.**  Bush, Sr. then made the critical decision to declare that Saddam Hussein was equally dangerous whether he had a functioning army or not and therefore to commit himself to a policy of regime change in all but name.

This led to a long, painful standoff with Saddam Hussein, sanctions on his country that led to a major decline in living standards and rise in infant mortality, and a seemingly intractable standoff that the Blob feared would ultimately end with the sanctions breaking down and Saddam reconstituting his weapons program and once again becoming a threat.  This, in turn, led to a conventional wisdom widely held in the Blob that if only our forced had gone ahead and removed Saddam from power, we could have removed this threat and all would have been well.  Like all counterfactuals, this one was impossible to prove or disprove.  Other people spun other alternative scenarios.  For instance Dick Cheney in 1994 defended the failure to depose Saddam:
Because if we'd gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone. There wouldn't have been anybody else with us. There would have been a U.S. occupation of Iraq. None of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq. Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place? That's a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off.
The Bush, Jr. Administration decided to correct this perceived mistake by invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. This is as near as one can get to a controlled experiment to see what would have happened if the US had decided to go all the way, and it soon turned out exactly the way Cheney had predicted nine years earlier.

Alas, the Blob did not learn anything from that experience and persists in its assumption that intervention always works out well.  If they have learned anything from the Iraq War, it is that when you topple a government, you should have a plan in place to replace it.  That is worth something, I guess.

Well, then, the Blob is confident that Obama's foreign policy was a disaster because he did not act more forcefully to topple the Assad government in Syria.  What were their plans to replace it?  While the Blob is certain that Obama should have done something.  They are somewhat divided on whether "something" means to have armed the "moderate" opposition sooner or to bomb Assad after he used chemical weapons.  What exactly Obama would have achieved by bombing Assad is far from clear.  Possibly he would have convinced the Russians that direct intervention in Syria might risk a direct confrontation with the US and thereby dissuaded them from propping up Assad.  If so, then bombing the Assad government might have led to its defeat. Arming the opposition more thoroughly and earlier might also have brought him down.  But did we then or do we now have any plans for what was supposed to replace the Assad government once it was gone?  In all probability, if we had successfully toppled Assad, what would have followed would be anarchy and fighting among the multitude of rival factions taking his place.

Certainly that was the case when Obama successfully toppled Qaddafi in Libya.  The country disintegrated into anarchy.  To the extent that the Blob cares, its answer is that we should have done more to plan for the post-Qaddafi future.  The Blob is notably unclear what that would have consisted of, other than putting boots on the ground.  Is that what they favor in Libya?  In Syria?

The same goes no less for North Korea. Plenty of people call for regime change.  No one talks much about what is to follow.  Living on the other side of the world, we can afford the luxury of trusting that if the North Korean government falls, all will be well.  China and South Korea, living on North Korea's borders, are not so optimistic.  Both assume that if the North Korean government falls, the results will be anarchy, an imploding failed state, and massive a massive refugee crisis. Given what we have seen of falling dictatorships so far, that seems highly plausible.  To the extent that advocates of regime change in North Korea have any plans, it is that North Korea would be annexed by South Korea.  There are two obvious problems with that plan.  One is that China views South Korea as ultimately hostile and fears hostile troops along its border.  That might be overcome by an agreement to withdraw US troops (with North Korea gone, what need for them?) and appropriate security guarantees for China, a policy of "Finlandization" of South Korea, etc.

At least as much to the point, how could South Korea possibly digest North Korea?  When West Germany annexed East Germany, both were modern, industrial states.  East Germany had lived for nearly 50 years under Communism, but East Germans had been well aware of better conditions in West Germany and aspired to them.  Yet there were ample problems.  Bringing East German's economy up to Western standards proved expensive and burdensome. Training people up people without practice in democratic norms was a challenge.  East Germans had never really faced up to their country's past and developed the capacity for self-criticism of the West Germans.  Economic hardship, anger, resentment, radicalism, and even a neo-Nazi movement arose in the East.

But the divergence between East and West Germany was a mere gap; between North and South Korea is a vast gulf.  Granted that the people of both countries share a common ethnic background, the differences of the past 70 years make them foreign to each other to a mind-boggling degree.  North Koreans are nowhere close to ready for integration into a modern, industrial, democratic country.  Existing as a dependent protectorate of South Korea will lead to resentment (probably on both sides).

All of which circles back to my original comment.  Jeanne Kirkpatrick was right in warning that revolution and the overthrow of the state is a massive and catastrophic social upheaval.  What she failed to consider is the extent to which the old government is responsible for these horrors.  And not just because it is the badness of the old government that precipitates revolution.  Bad government cause serious damage to the countries they govern.  Getting rid of the bad government does not repair the damage that it caused to the larger society.  It removes the thing that was causing the damage, but also what was holding society together all damage notwithstanding.  Kirkpatrick said that "authoritarian" (to her, non-revolutionary) governments could gradually democratize with revolutionary governments could not.  A better way to look at it is to see freedom not as an either-or but on a sliding scale.  And to recognize that very few countries are able to make the leap directly from "not free" to "free."  Most need an intermediate period of "partly free," while moving (at the speed they are able) toward freedom.  Moving in the right direction is often better than arriving too soon, only to see everything break down.  Revolution does not absolutely short-circuit this process forever, but it more likely to set it back than to advance it.  Pushing regime change is more likely to lead to anarchy, ruin, and a restart from even further back, while positive change is more likely by slowly coaxing a country back into the community of nations.

*And, in fairness to Reagan, he was well ahead of the curve in recognizing what was happening and was often derided as gullible by neocons who were the absolute last to see it.
**Bush, Sr. did somewhat tardily and under pressure intervene to stop Saddam's forces from invading Kurdistan, allowing the Kurds to achieve de facto independence.  The first thing they did with their independence was to wage a civil war between rival factions, one side actually seeking the aid of Saddam Hussein!  But ultimately the factions partitioned Kurdistan between them and managed a reasonably well-functioning semi-country.

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