Originally published July/August 2003 in Foreign Policy.
Having successfully driven Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power, President George W. Bush and his top advisors appear to hope that the threat of regime change may also dislodge hostile Syrian, Iranian, and North Korean regimes that support terrorism or are otherwise inimical to U.S. security interests. The decisive U.S. military action in Iraq may well intimidate some unfriendly tyrants and induce them to modify some of their adverse policies. So much the better. However, the example of Iraq is unlikely to produce sudden regime change in the Middle East or elsewhere, even when combined with new, menacing noises from top U.S. officials.
The experience of recent decades shows that while the direct application of military force can certainly oust defiant dictators, military threats and bluster almost never do. While rapid regime change seemingly offers a quick fix for knotty problems, the U.S. government will still need sustained diplomatic solutions to its security problems, as well as to pursue a broad range of nuanced, nonmilitary efforts to empower the domestic opponents of hostile dictators over the longer term.
In the late 1980s, President George H.W. Bush tried all sorts of measures-military pressure, attempted coups, and harsh economic sanctions-to get rid of Panama's sordid strongman, Gen. Manuel Noriega. It took military intervention to drive Noriega out. Former President Bill Clinton labored mightily in the early 1990s to pressure Haiti's ruling generals to allow deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to take back the presidential reins. Yet the generals resisted increasingly pointed military threats and agreed to leave Haiti only when they were sure that the warplanes spearheading a U.S. military intervention were actually in the air. Afghanistan's Taliban rulers rejected efforts by third parties in September and October 2001 to persuade them to cede power despite a highly credible U.S. threat of imminent force. Saddam rebuffed similar entreaties earlier this year, even when President Bush's readiness to act militarily was crystal clear.
Dictators cling to power, even in the face of a threatened outside military intervention. For them, stepping down is not just a political concession, it represents total defeat-the loss of a lifetime's accumulation of power and wealth, as well as the complete deflation of what is often a megalomaniacal sense of pride and self-importance. Giving in to anything less than complete military defeat becomes unthinkable. Closed off from reality and surrounded by sycophants, such leaders frequently engage in self-delusional fantasies-that the intervention will not really occur, that some third force will halt the standoff before it runs to its logical conclusion, or that their own military forces will somehow deter the enemy.
Moreover, external military threats often strengthen dictators' hold. They inflate autocrats with a renewed sense of purpose and determination. The specter of foreign takeover allows swaggering strongmen to play the nationalist card at home and claim the mantle of heroic defender of the nation's honor and territorial integrity. In the intensifying state of siege, they can smear domestic opponents as pawns of sinister foreign aggressors and distract public attention from the failings of their own rule.
Likewise, neighbors of an autocrat deposed by external military action will not necessarily face emboldened challengers at home. "Domino democratization" has sometimes occurred, such as in Eastern Europe in 1989 or in Latin America across the 1980s. But the power of example in those cases was that of citizens mobilizing to overthrow their own repressive rulers, not outside intervention. U.S. military actions against foreign strongmen are unquestionably powerful events that resonate loudly on the international stage. But none of the interventions of the past two decades-whether in Grenada, Panama, Haiti, or Afghanistan-has produced democratic waves in neighboring countries.
Dictators do not last forever. They are not immune to pressure. And efforts by external powers to foster democratic change in dictatorial settings are not fruitless. But it is crucial to realize that dictators usually fall when they are pushed out by their own people. Short of outright invasion, outside attempts to advance regime change are most effective when they strengthen internal dissenters and democrats rather than stand in for them.
When strongmen allow some limited political space, the United States and other countries seeking to promote democratic change can usefully support those forces within the society that oppose the regime-usually a mix of opposition political groups, civic actors, unions, and independent media. External support for such groups has played or is playing a helpful role in many cases: in Indonesia before President Suharto's fall, in Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, and in Belarus today under Aleksandr Lukashenko. When an authoritarian leader gambles on elections to legitimate his rule, then outside aid to help make the elections as free and fair as possible can be valuable, as in the 1988 Chilean plebiscite on Augusto Pinochet's continued rule or last December's Kenyan elections, in which former President Daniel arap Moi's handpicked successor was defeated.
Where dictators allow no or next-to-no political space, the ability of outside groups to encourage change is much more limited. Typical measures include beaming in television and radio news from outside the country's borders, supporting pro-democratic exile groups, and imposing economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. But as demonstrated by the long-term survival of dictators such as Cuba's Fidel Castro, Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, and the Burmese generals, the impact of such measures is often regrettably limited.
The United States can and should vigorously pressure noxious dictators and support their opponents. Yet Americans should be careful not to pin too much hope on the power of military threats and bluster to dislodge dictators, despite the example of Iraq. And more U.S. military interventions in the Middle East or elsewhere will come only at a very high cost economically, diplomatically, and possibly militarily. For all the United States' military might, history suggests it will also be necessary to keep engaging in the messy, slow business of constructing diplomatic, and usually multilateral, approaches to dealing with hostile dictatorships and other troublesome regimes.