by Helena Cobban
Two detailed accounts have appeared recently of cloak-and-dagger operations undertaken by Western intelligence agencies to effect the defection of high-level officials of governments targeted for regime change. In his new book, Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria, journalist Sam Dagher recounts how, in 2012, French agents spirited high-ranking Syrian general Manaf Tlass out of Syria. The other account is Anthony Faiola’s recent report in The Washington Post of how U.S. agents persuaded Venezuelan spy chief Gen. Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera to side with the regime-change plot launched on April 30—and then, when the plot failed, how they got him out of Venezuela.
These accounts make often riveting reading. But they also highlight the extent to which, behind a public façade of supporting mass movements and “democracy promotion,” a great portion of the regime-change efforts undertaken by Western governments still relies on fomenting the kind of “palace coups” that were a staple of CIA operations during the Cold War—as detailed in, for example, Tim Weiner’s great 2008 book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.
The accounts of the Tlass and Figuera defections are also notable because in both these men’s countries, the massive investment that Western officials made in projects to bring about regime change (or regime collapse) have thus far failed. The civilian populations of both Syria and Venezuela—and of half a dozen other countries targeted by Western government for regime change—now find themselves trapped in crises of deep impoverishment, displacement, and infrastructure collapse from which no easy exit is in sight. The governments that launched or supported all these regime-change efforts bear some responsibility for this suffering. The citizens of Western countries whose governments are pursuing these policies need to act speedily to end them.
The encouragement of high-level defections is, of course, just one of the tools in the regime-change toolbox. Others that have been deployed in different combinations in recent years against targeted governments such as those of Iran, Cuba, North Korea, or Gaza (along with Syria and Venezuela) include:
- Ever-tighter economic sanctions, the effects of which (despite claims of “targeting”) are nearly always devastating for citizens of the sanctioned country—as Barbara Slavin has recently, and very powerfully, argued.
- The creation of new “mass protest movements” in these countries, or the co-optation of existing ones.
- The intense use of information ops and communications ops intended to bolster the “opposition” and to discredit the targeted government. (This was a Cold War staple, too.)
- Cyberattacks, including on infrastructure vital to civilians’ wellbeing.
- Deployment of highly politicized “humanitarian” activities aimed at relieving the suffering only of populations opposed to the targeted government and not those still loyal to it. (This politicization of humanitarianism violates the long-held precept of the political neutrality of humanitarian action and thus diminishes the chances of real humanitarian action being possible in the future.)
- On occasion, as in Gaza and Syria, the use (and support of use by others) of actual military force.
Regardless of the intention of Western governments that have deployed these tools, the effects of their deployment have in all the above-listed cases been to inflict huge suffering on civilian populations.
Just War Doctrine
In the case of actual military action, there has existed since the fifth century CE a fairly robust way for leaders (and citizens) to judge both the justifiability of any particular war (in Latin, jus ad bellum), and the justifiability of the tactics used in that war (jus in bello.) The North African cleric St. Augustine introduced this “just war” theory into the canon of the previously pacifist Christian religion, and it has come to represent a widely respected touchstone for people of many religions.
Augustine’s intervention came at a point when Christianity had only recently become the state religion of the Roman Empire, and Christian clerics for the first time had to wrestle with issues of how state power might be ethically wielded. It was also a time riven by fighting on the north shore of the Mediterranean, where Augustine had gone to preach and work. So, when he retired to his North African home to think about issues of justice and war, he understood a lot about what war entails.
The “just war” doctrine features a robust understanding that war always harms civilian populations and thus should only ever be considered as a last resort, if the probability of success is great, and if it is waged by a duly recognized, legitimate body. The entire list of conditions for a war to be deemed just under this theory can be found here.
Since 1945, these criteria for a “just war” have been largely superseded by the establishment of the United Nations and the strong stress it places on the avoidance of military conflict in all circumstances except a tiny, well-defined number of cases. Current international law allows for force to be used only in strict self-defense, to resist and reverse foreign military occupation (as in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1990-91), or, since 2005 and more controversially, when the Security Council deems that a national government has not abided by its “responsibility to protect” civilians under its control from atrocities like genocide or ethnic cleansing. This provision is called “R2P.”
In March 2011, the Security Council passed a key R2P resolution authorizing member governments’ use of force to help protect allegedly endangered civilians in the Libyan city of Benghazi. But NATO and some Gulf state allies used that authorization to continue fighting Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi’s forces until they were completely defeated. Russia and China, which had allowed the initial resolution to proceed by not vetoing it, felt badly suckered by the liberties NATO took with its terms and vowed never to allow a similar R2P resolution to pass again. (In 2016, an in-depth British parliamentary enquiry found that the threat to civilians in Libya had been overstated during the crucial UN discussion on the R2P resolution.)
Since 2011, the United States and its allies have used military force against the Syrian government in a number of ways—though these attacks never had any legitimizing authority from the United Nations. Israel’s attacks against the elected government in Gaza, supported by the United States, fell into a legal grey zone because the UN has all along deemed Gaza as “Israeli-occupied territory.” And in the rest of the territories listed above, Washington and its allies have not used direct military force, choosing instead to seek regime change using other tools from their regime-change toolkit.
Application of Just War Doctrine
To what extent can the principles enunciated in “just war” doctrine be applied to campaigns to win regime change through other means? Only a few institutions and thinkers have addressed this question—and nearly all of these have focused on the ethics only of economic sanctions, not on the other regime-change tools.
In 2000, a landmark UN study laid out six questions (“prongs”) that should be addressed to assess the legitimacy of any proposed use of sanctions. These are:
- Are the sanctions imposed for valid reasons?
- Do the sanctions target the proper parties?
- Do the sanctions target the proper goods or objects?
- Are the sanctions reasonably time-limited?
- Are the sanctions effective (that is, in reaching the desired political improvement, not simply in inflicting pain)?
- Are the sanctions free from protest arising from violations of the “principles of humanity and the dictates of the public conscience?”
The UN body that produced this report considered three case studies in some depth. These were the multi-year sanctions regimes that the UN imposed on Iraq (“points to serious problems in the traditional theory of economic sanctions…”), that a group of African nations imposed on Burundi (“another sad example of the immensely deleterious effects comprehensive economic sanctions can have on all aspects of a society”), and that the United States unilaterally imposed on Cuba (“violates human rights law in two distinct ways”).
In 2014, a Catholic monsignor, Stuart Swetland, opined that “the ‘tranquility of order’ is usually better served by the judicious and targeted use of economic sanctions than the brutality of war. An even better way is to work for genuine economic and social development and true justice, so that neither sanctions nor war is necessary.” British ethicist Elizabeth Ellis concluded a broad survey of the ethics of sanctions by noting that “The existing literature on the ethics of economic sanctions, whilst important and illuminating, barely scratches the surface of the subject. Further research in this area is required.”
Several of the techniques in the regime-change toolkit provided above (#1, #4, and #5) clearly violate the jus in bello principle that anyone fighting a war must take care to discriminate between actions that validly aim at military targets and those that unjustly inflict damage on civilians. (In the case of #5, the humanitarian aid may help some civilians, but it unjustly discriminates against others.) Regarding #2, when outside parties “intervene” to create or co-opt mass protest movements—as happened on a massive scale in Syria and Venezuela, and during the Saudi/Emirati-supported counter-revolution in Egypt in 2013—they undermine the viability of authentic, indigenous mass movements and the possibility that these can negotiate a better future with their own governments. Such interventions often pave the way for much greater confrontation, instead.
Regarding tool #3, lying is really never a good idea, whoever does it—though as David Swanson has amply demonstrated, and as we saw during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, nearly every war effort is based on a whole tissue of mendacity.
But rather than looking solely at the means used to pursue regime-change projects (jus in bello), let’s look at the ethics of engaging in any project to change other peoples’ governments. Here, the strictures of jus ad bellum come in very useful. When a Western government launches a regime-change project in another country, does it do this only as a last resort? Does it do so only if the probability of success is great? And does it do it only if authorized to do so by a recognized, legitimate body such as the UN?
The answer, in the Trump era and for some considerable time before that, has overwhelmingly been “no” on all counts. Ever since the failure of John F. Kennedy’s April 1961 attempt to overthrow the government of Cuba by force, the United States has been using economic sanctions and other tools to effect regime change in Cuba—and in other countries. In the vast majority of these cases, it has had no legitimizing authority to do this from the UN or any other supranational body. In recent years, Washington’s operatives and their close NATO allies have even returned to the kinds of cloak-and-dagger operations that marked the height of the Cold War, especially in the heavily contested region of the Middle East.
When the UN adopted R2P in 2005, many supporters of the new provision crowed that the permission it presumably gave to various “interventions” around the world would bring an end to the “bad old days” of the nearly unlimited sovereignty of nation-states. Their cheering was almost certainly premature. The greatly stressed countries on Washington’s regime-change agenda certainly aren’t exulting.