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August 03, 2011

On Rhetoric and Regime Change: This Is How I End Up Sucked In
Posted by Eric Martin

Syria

A recent piece by Micah Zenko highlights an aspect of the interplay between rhetoric and regime change that I want to offer a general comment on. First, the relevant excerpt:

On July 11, when asked about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answered: “From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy, he has failed to deliver on the promises he’s made,” adding that “we would like to see even more countries speaking out as forcefully as we have.”

Proponents of a low-cost regime change in Damascus seized upon Clinton’s use of the phrase “lost legitimacy” to press the case for the Obama administration to see through Assad’s removal. The Washington Post editorial board, in a piece titled “The U.S. has Gotten Tough with Syria; Now it Needs to Get Tougher,” noted that it was “good that the Obama administration has finally spoken that truth” but that “now it must act on its words.” [emphasis added]

As Blake Hounshell chronicles, in an article praising the Obama administration's more "cautious" approach, the calls for more forceful action have only grown louder since:

The latest example is Elliot Abrams, a former official in the administations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who rips Washington's response to the uprising as "slow and unsteady" in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. Danielle Pletka, in an overheated blog post Monday, argues that "finding ways to support the Syrian opposition, further isolate regime forces, cordon off Syria from the rest of the world, and begin the process of standing for freedom" in Syria is a "no brainer."

One of the problems with these entreaties is that, even if the Obama administration acted on them in earnest, they would still likely fall short of the desired goal - regime change.  As with the no-fly-zone imposed over Libya (a military operation that, thus far, exceeds what most are calling for in Syria), if these limited measures fail to bring about regime change, the Obama team would be confronted with the inevitable question: what next?

The options would be no more appealing than they are with respect to the stalled Libya campaign (boots on the ground? large scale arming of rebel factions?).  But that wouldn't silence the critics, or bring to a halt the impassioned pleas for greater US involvement, including the more robust use of military force.

This pattern of rhetorical escalation in response to the practical limitations of bringing about regime change from afar is a familiar dance, most deftly performed by those nclined to advocate for more and bigger US interventions abroad.  It can be mastered in five easy steps:



Step 1: How can the President not at least condemn [Regime X] publicly for its abhorrent actions?  A public condemnation is the very least the President can do.  It wouldn't cost much, but it would be an important show of our resolve and support for freedom!

Step 2 (with Regime X still in place): So what, the President condemned the regime publicly with some harsh words and called it "illegitimate."  Words are cheap and inconsequential.  We need sanctions and coordinated efforts to isolate the regime. That will do the trick!

Step 3 (with Regime X still in place): Sanctions? Regime isolation? Is that all the President is going to do in the face of Regime X's perfidy?  Those timid jabs will never work, and the President's dithering will make us look weak and lacking in resolve. Our enemies will be emboldened.  The President must use our military to deal a swift blow.  No one is advocating a prolonged occupation, just a decapitation maneuver, and then a rapid hand off to the indigenous forces for democratic change.

Step 4 (with Regime X toppled by our military):  Now that we've committed our military, and brought about regime change, we have a moral obligation to see the mission through to the end.  Besides, if we withdraw, chaos will erupt and our enemies will fill the vacuum.  We owe it to the locals, we can't afford to lose face, we can't show weakness and our credibility depends on staying until a relatively stable, friendly nation emerges from the rubble. 

Step 5 (repeat as needed): We've turned the corner, shifted the momentum and victory is within reach.  The next six months should prove decisive.

UPDATE:

Step 6: I was critical of the handling of this military action from the beginning. I would have conducted the operation differently.  Regardless, no one ever said it would be quick or easy. But the difficulties encountered don't discredit the policy!*

(Photo credit: AP)

*As suggested/authored by Matt Duss and Micah Zenko

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