Power, Regimes, and the US World Order
Summary: A brief history of intervention by the United States in order to facilitate or lead regime change.
The United States’ intervention in Syria has, until very recently, been based on one thing: the removal of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, from power. From President Obama’s call for Assad to step down to present, the insistence for regime change on the part of the U.S. has often been at the expense of peace.
This policy of regime change is nothing new to the U.S. government and has often contributed to the instability that that they were attempting to eliminate. During the Cold War, the United States engaged in blatant orchestrations of regime change, such as those in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Brazil in 1964, with the justification of ensuring democracy abroad. A fear of communism from the Soviet Union gave these interventions a guise of necessity and justice. Today the U.S. government has declared a similar, intangible enemy- terror. Here is a brief list and history of the countries in which the United States has contributed to regime change in the past few decades:
1. Panama, or Operation Just Cause (1989)
Why? In 1977, Jimmy Carter signed the Torrijos-Carter Treaties to start the process of giving the control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government, as its necessity for trade and military operations had long been declining. These treaties, though, were passed with a provision that the United States was allowed to defend the Canal should there be any interference with its operation.
Flash forward to the late 1980s and we see Manuel Noriega as Panama’s dictator and leader of the Panama Defense Force (PDF). President George H.W. Bush began to recognize the evidence of fraud and involvement of drug trafficking in Noriega’s regime. There was also evidence of Noriega shifting his alliances towards the Soviet Bloc, where they had before been with the U.S. Though more complicated than this, the last straw for the United States was Noriega’s nullification of the results of the May 1989 elections in Panama.
How? The U.S. launched a military invasion of Panama in late December of 1989. Estimates vary, but between 500 and 1,000 people were killed in the invasion. Though the U.S. military sank his boat and shot down his jet, Noriega remained at large for several days, seeking refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City. How did the military manage to draw him out? Operation Nifty Package. Turning to psychological warfare, the U.S. Army blasted rock music through loudspeakers in order to facilitate Noriega’s surrender.
Justification? The U.S. gave four points of justification for their invasion of Panama. The first was the protection of the some 35,000 U.S. citizens who lived in Panama. Second, the protection of human rights and democracy. Third, attempts to limit drug trafficking. Fourth, adherence to the Torrijos-Carter Treaties and protection of the Panama Canal. After all, these treaties gave the United States military the ability to interfere when the Canal’s operation was threatened.
Afterwards? Noriega was sentenced to around forty years in prison at trial in the United States. Guillermo Endara was sworn in as president in Panama, though he continuously denounced the U.S. invasion.
2. US Intervention in Afghanistan, or Operation Enduring Freedom (2001)
Why? The Taliban gained power in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces in the late 1980s. Based on an extreme interpretation of Islamic law, the Taliban led a government intolerant towards many personal liberties. After the 9/11 attacks in New York, the U.S. launched Operation Enduring Freedom. The goal of the operation was to remove the Taliban government from power in Afghanistan, who they believed was granting asylum to al-Qaeda members like Osama bin Laden.
How? Operation Enduring Freedom lasted from 2001 to 2014 and involved massive U.S.-led airstrikes on Afghanistan, as well as other various types of warfare.
Justification? The war in Afghanistan and the attempts to overthrow the Taliban-led government were considered counterterrorism efforts.
Afterwards? The Taliban government was ousted within 102 days of the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, though the war continued. The United States government fully supported the new government of President Hamid Karzai and maintained military presence in the country in order to help his regime stabilize and continue the fight against the Taliban. More than 26,000 civilians are estimated to have died as a direct result of the war in Afghanistan. The economic and political turmoil continues, to this day, to affect the lives of those in Afghanistan.
3. Invasion of Iraq (2003)
Why? Signed in 1998, the Iraq Liberation Act stated the official U.S. policy of supporting “efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.”. This came after growing evidence of Hussein’s use of chemical warfare and concealment of weapons of mass destruction. Following 9/11 and Bush’s announcement of the “War on Terror,” efforts to destabilize Hussein’s regime increased. Supposed connections between Hussein and al-Qaeda furthered the Bush administration's push towards regime change.
How? Bombing began on March 19th in Baghdad. Thousands of U.S. troops were deployed and met little resistance. On May 1, Bush declared an end to the major combat. Hussein was captured seven months later, effectively ending his regime in Iraq.
Justification? The U.S. cited humanitarian abuses in Iraq as well as Hussein’s supposed connection to al-Qaeda and production of mass weapons.
Afterwards? In the absence of Hussein, someone had to take over in the face of huge outbreaks of violence and crime that followed the invasion. The U.S. tried to be this force, though they were met with extreme resistance that amounted to civil war and the deaths of thousands of Iraqis. The United States occupation of Iraq is said to have left a vacuum in the country that created perfect conditions for new generations of terrorism and Islamic radicalism to grow. The U.S. did not officially withdraw from the country until 2011.
4. Honduran coup (2009)
Why? On orders of the Honduran Supreme Court, the army ousted and exiled President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. This came after Zelaya attempted to promote a non binding referendum on whether or not to call a constituent assembly rewrite the constitution.
How? The Supreme Court saw this as unconstitutional and forcibly removed Zelaya from office and from the country without trial, establishing a military-led interim government until the November 2009 elections. These were also overseen by the military. The United States’ involvement in this regime change came after the fact, mostly through its lack of condemnation of the military coup. In fact, Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, supported the efforts to keep Zelaya from office. In her book Hard Choices, Clinton writes, “In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico.” She admits that they “strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”
Justification? Political and economic interests that the U.S. held in Latin America may have influenced their reaction towards the coup, including Palmerola Air Base .
Afterwards? The fact that the United States backed the post-coup government gives it at least some of the responsibility for the state of Honduras after ousting Zelaya. Violence in the country, already high, skyrocketed. The homicide rate increased by 50%, drug and gang violence ran rampant, and government corruption was worsened by the complete collapse of the existing institutions. Though the U.S. did not stage this coup, the fact that they supported the post-coup regime speaks to priorities greater than freedom from military influence in Latin America.
5. Libya (2011)
Why? The Libyan Civil War began in 2011, inspired by the events of the Arab Spring taking place right next door. Protests against the government and its leader Muammar Gaddafi were the catalyst for a violent pushback from Gaddafi and the Libyan army. Rebel groups gained the support of NATO in the face of growing violence, including accusations of airstrikes against the rebel groups. Multiple states called for a no-fly zone over Libya.
How? The UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, authorizing military intervention in the country. A few days later, NATO launched huge airstrikes in Libya to oust the Gaddafi regime. After around seven months, the rebel forces gained the upper hand and brutally killed Gaddafi.
Justification? NATO and the U.S. cited the necessity to intervene on behalf of the Libyans who were subject to his violent suppression of protests.
Afterwards? Many believe that western intervention did more harm than good. For one, the U.S. and the CIA began advising Libyan rebel groups on weapons and tactics from the very beginning of the Civil War and secretly shipped them weapons through Qatar. These weapons, though, did not necessarily stay with the Libyan rebels and became a source of international contention when they fell into the hands of Islamic militant groups, opening the country up for more violence and the Islamic State.
This abridged history of the United States’ tendency to intervene in order to facilitate regime change, though it doesn’t include every example, is especially relevant now in light of their actions in Syria in order to get rid of Assad , including supplying Syrian rebel groups with heavy weapons from Libya and creating an opening for the Islamic State.
Jeffrey Sachs comments on the United States’ foreign policy tool of regime change in an op-ed:
"Removing a leader, even if done "successfully," doesn't solve any underlying geopolitical problems, much less ecological, social, or economic ones. A coup d'etat invites a civil war, the kind that now wracks Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. It invites a hostile international response, such as Russia's backing of its Syrian ally in the face of the CIA-led operations. The record of misery caused by covert CIA operations literally fills volumes at this point.”
Though his article comments specifically on Hillary Clinton’s role in this trend, one that is admittedly difficult to ignore, his comments make room for a discussion on the consequences of America’s foreign intervention in the Middle East. Perhaps the tendency of this pattern to repeat itself should act as a warning for the U.S. to tread carefully when dealing with the arming of rebel groups to topple an existing regime.