A look at Washington's methods - and degrees of success - in dislodging foreign leaders.
By Peter Ford | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
In the past half century, US military boots have "hit the beach" several times to overthrow unfriendly powers from Panama to Afghanistan, from Haiti to Somalia.
Deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, however, would be Washington's most ambitious adventure in this tradition of intervention.
Short of outright seizure of territory, ousting a foreign government is the boldest intrusion one country can make on another. It sends tremors through the international order.
America's justification for violent regime change has swung over the years from halting the spread of communism to stopping ethnic cleansing and instilling democracy. Since Sept. 11, it has a new motive: the war on terrorists.
Washington has not always committed its own troops to these tasks. US administrations have funded rebel insurgencies, organized military coups, and encouraged popular nonviolent uprisings to overthrow foreign regimes - most recently in Yugoslavia.
In order to overthrow the Middle East's harshest and most durable tyrant, Washington has given little attention to seeding popular revolt. It is prepared to spend an estimated $100 billion and risk thousands of lives. And this may not be the last mission of this type.
The United States has a full toolbox of nonviolent methods for bringing an unfriendly leader to heel: diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, international boycotts, trade embargoes, and support for local political factions. But these tactics take time, and can produce limited results.
They have been "totally unsuccessful in Iraq," says Professor Lawson. "Iraq has faced the strictest economic sanctions in history, and they've had no effect on the political system. Yes, they've undercut its ability to make war. But that's not regime change."
Proponents of US military action in Iraq argue that the attacks of Sept. 11 justify a pre-emptive-strike policy when it comes to fighting terrorists, or to states that may give succor to Al Qaeda or threaten with weapons of mass destruction.
"We have to be proactive," says John Hulsman, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Terrorists don't want to negotiate; we don't have anything they want. They want to destroy us." Referring to Iraq, he says, "I don't want to wait to find a smoking gun; that means the guy has already shot me."
A new clarity of purpose
The focus on terrorism brings a clarity of purpose to the Bush administration that hasn't been seen in Washington foreign policymaking since the cold war. Time was, Latin America was the US "backyard," and the Monroe Doctrine was unambiguous: No foreign power would be allowed to gain a foothold in the region.
That meant that any sign of Soviet influence - real or perceived - would be fought. Left-leaning governments in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Grenada were targeted and all save Fidel Castro's regime fell to US-sponsored coups, rebellions, or outright invasions. Further afield, the fight against communist expansion led US troops into Korea and Vietnam.
Why is the US intervening?
Over the past decade, Washington has justified military interventions in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan on the grounds that human rights had to be defended and democracy promoted. Those explanations "were not organized in a rational way, and sometimes the US was forced into interventions by circumstances," argues Karin von Hippel, author of "Democracy by Force: US Military Interventions in the Post Cold War World."
In 1994, for example, the wave of Haitian boat people landing daily on the Florida coast prompted President Clinton to launch "Operation Restore Democracy" to reinstall elected President Bertrand Aristide, who had been overthrown in a military coup. Clinton felt compelled, however, to justify the invasion on the grounds that the situation in Haiti caused "the total fracturing of the ability of the world community to conduct business in the post-cold war era."
After initial success, democracy has not taken hold in Haiti - nor has it been in many of the places where America has intervened, says Minxin Pei, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Aside from the post-World War II success stories - Germany, Japan, and Italy - "the US record of installing democracy is very dubious, with less than a 20 percent success rate," he adds.
That record bodes ill for Iraq, says Dr. Pei, should US troops invade that country to overthrow Hussein.
Panama, where US forces overthrew and captured Gen. Manuel Noriega in 1989, offers some parallels with Iraq: a dictator sitting on a strategic asset (in that case, a canal), who had previously enjoyed US support, falls afoul of Washington and defies the authorities there. General Noriega was also offered an exile deal but refused. Still, Panama, where America restored a relatively democratic regime, is a tiny, relatively homogenous country within the US sphere of influence.
Iraq is none of those things. There are three major factions - Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites - with no tradition of democratic rule. "On the basis of past experience, I would predict that the US will fail miserably at building democracy in Iraq because America's heart is not in it," warns Pei. "The primary goal is getting rid of a very brutal dictator."
Most experts agree that the US record of building a democratic regime after ousting a leader is poor. "If we replace Saddam, the biggest unresolved question is: What do we do afterwards?" says Lawson. "We've only succeeded when we're willing to occupy the country and make fundamental changes from the bottom up, as we did in postwar Japan and Germany," he says. "It required an enormous investment of resources and a decade of occupation. We have yet to find a less costly formula for stability, let alone building a democratic, free-market state."
Iraq is not Haiti
But some say Iraq has better prospects than countries such as Haiti or Afghanistan. "Iraq is not a poor country. It has the second largest oil reserves in the world," says Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The US Congress will see Iraq as a better investment than, say, Haiti, Bosnia, or Afghanistan, he says. "It has an educated populace, lots of technical skills, and the potential to have good relations with Washington and international financial institutions."
Some scholars argue the US shouldn't be trying to transplant Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq or elsewhere. Grafting might be a better approach.
"First, you have to ask what the basic unit of politics is," says Hulsman at the Heritage Foundation. "In Afghanistan, it's the tribe. You can't have a successful central government without including a tribal role. In Iraq, you have three groups that must be part of any government. If you take the top- down approach - bringing in viceroys from abroad, trying to impose a new government on the masses - that's not going to work. "This should be about stability first," says Hulsman. "If we aim lower, we can hit the target."