NEWS | March 31, 2021

Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East

By Colonel Thomas C. Greenwood, USMC (Ret.) Joint Force Quarterly 101

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Losing the Long Game:
The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East
Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East
Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East
Photo By: Philip H. Gordon
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Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East

By Philip H. Gordon
St. Martin’s Press, 2020
368 pp. $26.49
ISBN: 978-1250217035

Colonel Thomas C. Greenwood, USMC (Ret.), is a Research Staff Member in the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Few authors are more qualified to write on U.S.-sponsored regime change in the Middle East than Philip Gordon, who worked as Special Assistant to President Barack Obama for the Middle East (2013–2015) and as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (2009–2013). His book, Losing the Long Game, is elegant, thoroughly researched, and comprehensible; it belongs on the syllabus of every war college and policymaker’s desk for two reasons. First, the author shines a spotlight on the opaque (sometimes secretive) history of U.S.-sponsored regime change in the Middle East and, in so doing reveals many rich insights. Second, Gordon dispels the misguided notion that American exceptionalism endows the United States with unmatched foresight and wisdom to effectively reengineer Middle East governments in a way that advances U.S. national security interests, promotes regional stability, and strengthens the international order.

Gordon examines seven cases of regime change over the past 70 years: Iran (1953), Afghanistan (1979–1992), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Egypt (2011), Libya (2011), and Syria (2011). They all failed to deliver the policy outcomes desired by Washington, made the Middle East more volatile, and more recently, were a strategic distraction from other emerging threats such as China and Russia.

The author explains that these failures did not result from impure U.S. motives (for example, take the oil and run) or even an unwillingness to double down by increasing troop levels and funding, which failed to save the day in either Iraq or Syria. Rather, once policymakers decide on regime change as their preferred option, “they overstate the threat, underestimate the costs and risks, overpromise what they can accomplish, and prematurely claim success if and when the targeted regime falls.” Yet Gordon does not ignore the possibility that the costs of inaction (that is, of not intervening and undertaking regime change) could have been higher and more harmful over the long run.

Two of Gordon’s most riveting ideas, however, are that regime change frequently fails because of the security vacuums it creates (filled by actors who are often more repressive than the toppled regimes), and the unanticipated consequences that escape rigorous analysis by policymakers before they act: raising tension between armed opposition groups, disrupting the distribution of scarce resources, fostering long-term dependency on outside powers, and perpetuating the harmful optic that the United States is the self-appointed global cop.

Gordon uses the example of Libya to illustrate just how dangerous security vacuums can be. When Muammar Qadhafi’s successor, Abd al-Hakim Belhaj—former head of the al Qaeda–affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group—declared himself the leader of all liberation forces, other Western-oriented opposition leaders became infuriated and competing militias began killing each other. By June 2014, Libya had two competing governments backed by competing militias, and the country had descended into a multisided civil war with no end in sight.

Gordon is also equally damning about the ripple effect the moral hazard created in Libya had on Syria’s rebel groups. The latter believed that by escalating violence, the world’s most powerful militaries would intervene on their behalf. Sadly, instead of leading to Bashar al-Asad’s ouster, it caused, “the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II, a refugee crisis, the destabilizing of Syria’s neighbors, the growth of the [so-called] Islamic State, and political spillover into Europe and beyond.”

Gordon believes the following factors contribute to regime change failures: inadequate planning for what comes after regime collapse; U.S. forces being viewed as occupiers instead of liberators; not recognizing that local actors will pursue their interests first; regional neighbors seeking to destabilize new regime leadership; moral hazard created elsewhere; a general lack of U.S. knowledge about the Middle East; the difficulty of staying committed after intervening; unrealistic expectations about transplanting democratic values abroad; and a mistaken belief that throwing more money and troops at a problem will make it better. Unfortunately, these factors can become intertwined and unleash their own dynamics that neither the White House nor Pentagon can control.

The book’s overall thesis would have been strengthened had Gordon discussed the limitations of regime change—a means to a higher end—within the context of U.S. grand strategy. Here, introducing G. John Ikenberry’s idea of a “liberal hegemonic order” would have helped readers better understand why U.S. leaders of all stripes feel the messianic urge to spread democratic values around the globe—even if they can only be imposed by force and by violating other countries’ sovereignty and right to self-determination.

After taking the reader on a journey of tears, the author recommends a policy alternative to regime change. It is a hybrid approach of practical measures including a mix of containment, deterrence, diplomatic engagement and support for partners, selective military action, arms control, and economic investment and “the restoration of the United States as a respected, prosperous, and democratic alternative [that] will produce better results than the pursuit of costly, quixotic and unrealistic campaigns to overthrow regimes.”

Perhaps. But even if policymakers adopt the author’s more robust menu of soft and smart power policy options, the temptation to undertake regime change will remain irresistible as long as America fails to internalize the hard lessons of the Middle East and remains wedded to a misguided sense of exceptionalism. JFQ