Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2011

Forcing another country to change its regime, not only its policies, frequently has been a part of American history when a president decided to wage war.

Abraham Lincoln fought the civil war in the 1860s to crush the Confederacy and force the rebellious states to return to the Union. William McKinley sent troops to Cuba in 1898 to oust Spanish colonial rule from Cuba and support its independence.

20th century wars

When Woodrow Wilson sent forces to France in 1917 to fight Imperial Germany, he joined Britain and France in calling for the Kaiser's exile. In World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill insisted on Germany's "unconditional surrender" and removal of Adolph Hitler. But, although Washington also demanded the total surrender of Japan, it allowed its emperor to remain as a figurehead.

The Allies' victory over both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan established a mind-set among Americans that this country should go to war only to "win," and that a negotiated settlement means breaking faith with those who fought to defeat the enemy.

This may explain why the "limited wars" in Korea in the 1950s, and in Vietnam in the 1960s, proved so unpopular with the American public. In neither case was regime change a stated objective, of Harry Truman in 1950 or Lyndon Johnson in 1965, for going to war against North Korea and North Vietnam, respectively. In both wars, the fighting was ended by negotiations, to the great displeasure of those who wanted victory.

Three other wars, in the Persian Gulf (1991), Bosnia (1996), and Kosovo (1999), were fought for limited objectives: expel Iraqi troops (Kuwait), stop a civil war (Bosnia), and end ethnic cleansing by Serbia (Kosovo). In each case, the outcome was less than a clear victory, and Bosnia and Kosovo remain unresolved political issues even now.

Iraq and Afghanistan

When George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, regime change was the clearly stated objective. Even though that was achieved in a few months, the process of creating a new constitutional regime has proved extremely costly in terms of military casualties and financial drain. Nevertheless, a functioning, freely-elected government is now in charge, and most observers consider the outcome of the Iraq war to be a qualified success.

In Afghanistan,. regime change was also accomplished in a few months. but unlike in Iraq, a quasi-civil war drags on. Clearly, the American public is tired of this ten-year war and wants U.S. troops withdrawn sooner rather than later. Osama bin-Laden's assassination in Pakistan last week will surely heighten that sentiment. Although the trappings of a U.S.-sponsored democratic regime are present in Kabul today, few observers doubt that the weak and corrupt Karzai government will collapse when American forces withdraw.

Egypt and the Middle East

As violent political uprisings spread across the Middle East this spring, President Obama's foreign policy team faced a crucial decision: Should regime change be the goal of U.S. policy in that region?

On Egypt, they concluded that the massive demonstrations mounted against the Mubarak regime could not be suppressed by the Egyptian police and that Mubarak, even though a staunch U.S. ally, needed to step down. The Egyptian army's leadership shared this assessment and was instrumental in facilitating his resignation.

Libya is a different matter. Its dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, has refused to relinquish power and his army appears to remain loyal. Even though NATO launched air strikes in support of a U.N. resolution that authorized protection of civilians against his brutal army, there is no indication to date that Gaddafi is willing to relinquish power.

In March, Barack Obama stated that Gaddafi should either resign or be ousted from power. But the president also stated there would be "no U.S. boots on the ground" to do that. This gap between the goal of regime change and the denial of troops to achieve it has opened the president to much criticism

Syria presents an even more ambiguous situation . President Bashar al-Assad, who has the firm support of his army, uses it to brutally put down large demonstrations against his regime. Washington hasn't called for regime change in Damascus, as many experts predict this could set off a full-scale civil war and trigger a wider regional conflict.

Syria, unlike Libya, occupies a major strategic location in the Middle East, as a neighbor to Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, and Iran. This makes Syria it an immensely important country for U.S. interests in the entire area.

Here is a key question for U.S. policymakers: Is regime change in Syria necessary if Assad agrees to reconstitute his government, allows peaceful demonstrations, and steers his country away from its close association with Iran? In my view, that outcome would be far preferable to the potential costs and risks of regime change.

File last modified on Friday, 27-MAY-2011 10:05 AM EST

Feedback to Author