The Foolishness of Regime-Change Fantasies

by Stephen Miles

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s an out-of-control regime run by a madman halfway around the world, and if the U.S. government doesn’t topple it ASAP, a lot of people are going to die.

The United States has tried its hand a lot at regime change. By one count, the US tried to overthrow 72 different governments during the Cold War alone—and that’s before the most recent misadventures in Iraq and Libya. It’s not exactly a track record of success: the United States failed most of the time to accomplish the fundamental goal of toppling the target. And a quick glance at Iraq is enough to remind you that even when America “succeeds,” it often really fails.

Despite this track record, the Wall Street Journal opinion pages called for US-led regime change in North Korea and Iran on the same day. That’s the same Wall Street Journal that championed the Iraq War over and over again with tales of Saddam Hussein’s phantom nuclear weapons and millions of “cheering Iraqis” who would greet the U.S. military as liberators.

But the Journal is hardly alone in its regime-change giddiness. Calls to topple Kim Jong-un regularly emanate from news outlets like Fox News and then make their way to the right-wing echo chamber. And in Washington, champions for regime change in Tehran are as regular as a delay on the DC Metro’s Red Line.

Let’s imagine for a second that I convinced you to let me invest $1,000 of your money. Sure, I was making some risky bets, but other serious people seemed to think I was great at investing, so you set your worries aside and gave me a chance. And then I lost every last penny you gave me. I come back to you with a surefire investment. I just need another $1,000 but this time I’ll double your money. And then I lose every last penny again.  If I came back and asked you for another $1,000 to try again, would you give it to me?

Of course not. Yet that’s exactly what Washington’s regime-change chorus wants you to do. Trust them. This time it’s going to work. This time it’s going to be different.

Losing a few thousand dollars would be bad. These guys have lost trillions of our tax dollars on one military boondoggle after another. The deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan have sucked up $4.8 trillion alone, a price tag set to rise by trillions more when all’s said and done. To put that into context, instead of 16 years of war, the U.S. government could have spent that money on providing 10 million needy children with health care, giving 10 million college students Pell grants, creating one million jobs in infrastructure and another million in clean energy jobs, and put another million teachers to work in elementary schools. And there still would have been more than $100 billion left over.

Which do you think would have been the better investment?

Of course, far more important than the costs in treasure are the ones measured in blood. By any measure of the human toll, America’s recent history of regime change is a horrific failure. The past 16 years of war have cost 6,931 Americans in uniform their lives, another 52,579 were wounded in battle, and an unknown number came home suffering the invisible wounds of war. It’s difficult to know exactly how many innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have lost their lives since 2001, but it is in the hundreds of thousands. Millions more have seen their lives upended by years of conflict as they’ve become refugees or been forced to live with near constant insecurity.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Washington regime-change chorus almost always neglect to mention this staggering amount of human suffering.

Yet any policy debate must entail benefits, not just costs. The costs of regime change, according to its advocates, are the price paid for U.S. security and for making the world safer. And here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, lies the moral bankruptcy of Washington’s regime-change champions. For the trillions spent, for all the lives lost, America—not to mention Iraq—is far worse off today. Terrorism is a bigger challenge today, with threats emanating from multiple terrorist organizations in a variety of countries. Iraq and Afghanistan are unstable, insecure countries that cost Americans billions of dollars, still host American soldiers, and are run by corrupt governments with deep and unresolved political divisions—with no end in sight. It would take a particular type of derangement to call this “success.”

And yet, the phoenix of horrible ideas rises again from the ashes. The Wall Street Journal continues to insist that regime change will work: in North Korea as in Iran. You’ve got to admire the chutzpah.

As bad as America’s recent history with regime change has been, it pales in comparison to the horrors that await in North Korea and Iran. A war with Iran would be like Iraq and Afghanistan combined. A war with North Korea would be unlike anything since World War II, and that’s before factoring in the potential of a mushroom cloud over Seoul, Tokyo, or Honolulu.

When proponents of regime change focus on the best-case scenario, remember what the worst case is. When they try to scare you with talk of madmen and weapons of mass destruction, remember the blood on their own hands. And when they try to tell you that, no matter how bad it went before, this time it will be different and regime change will work, remember the wise words George W. Bush couldn’t:

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Stephen Miles is the director for Win Without War, a national coalition of diverse member organizations that works to advance a more progressive foreign policy for America. He has more than a decade of experience in progressive politics and grassroots campaigning and holds a M.Sc. from the London School of Economics and a B.A. from Tulane University.

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  1. North Korea just asks for a promise that the USA won’t attack it-it can see what happened to Libya, Iraq who gave up nukes. Look at all the countries in South America who finally escaped into democracy AGAINST the will and efforts of the USA, and now are still under threat eg Venezuela, Honduras, even Brazil. Wht good has the US “help” done for normal humans in the region? Teh rich are delighted, as they are in the USA.
    Kathy Kelly’s articles- recently on the “vale” of war, are worth reading.

  2. “…instead of 16 years of war, the U.S. government could have spent that money on providing 10 million needy children with health care, giving 10 million college students Pell grants, creating one million jobs in infrastructure and another million in clean energy jobs, and put another million teachers to work in elementary schools. And there still would have been more than $100 billion left over.”

    Unbefukinlievable. Who’s running that stupid country anyway? (Note to Paul Pillar: You’d better rethink your position on the existence of an American Deep State that exists only to perpetuate its own existence — because the USA certainly ain’t governed by government by the people, for the people, of the people which perished from the Earth several dozen regime changes ago.)

  3. It easier to fool somebody, than to convince somebody they’ve been fooled. I hate to say it but this country is full of fools.

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