Biden Should Remember the Downsides of Regime Change
When Joe Biden ended his speech in Warsaw, Poland, with an unscripted declaration that Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power," he sparked a lively controversy. Some observers think that regime change in Moscow would be a great thing and that Biden was right to say so. Others think that regime change in Moscow would be a great thing but that Biden was wrong to say so.
The White House quickly clarified that Biden was not actually calling for Putin's removal. Biden said later that he "was just expressing my outrage" and is "not walking anything back." The administration position is whatever you want it to be.
Not many Americans outside the far-right fringe regard Putin favorably. Not many would weep to see him overthrown or otherwise removed from the scene. But we should know by now that unseating autocrats is not a reliable formula for peace and freedom.
In the case of Russia, the threat itself carries grave dangers. If Putin perceives that his position and life are in jeopardy because of this war, he may choose to use any means possible to achieve victory. That would include his huge nuclear arsenal.
But even success in regime change can mean failure. In 2001, we invaded Afghanistan to evict the Taliban, then fought a two-decade war that ended with a new government formed by ... the Taliban. In 2003, President George W. Bush decided that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had to go. We invaded, unleashing chaos and civil war on Iraq and miring us in a bloody occupation.
Thousands of Americans died in each country because the Bush administration had no answer for the obvious question: What happens after the regime change?
Barack Obama was more cautious in using force but no less enchanted by the idea of cashiering tyrants. When mass protests roiled Egypt in 2011, he indicated that President Hosni Mubarak should go, and Mubarak soon did. Islamist Mohammed Morsi was elected to replace him, but Morsi's policies spurred a new wave of protests. The military staged a coup -- creating a dictatorship indistinguishable from Mubarak's.
In 2011, Obama signed on to NATO's intervention in Libya, which led to the overthrow and murder of Moammar Gadhafi. What followed was nine years of civil war. Failing to plan for the aftermath, Obama said later, was probably his worst mistake.
In his new book "Catastrophic Success," Alexander Downes, co-director of the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University, notes that foreign-sponsored regime changes often lead to civil war -- an alarming prospect in a country with nuclear weapons.
Dictators don't arrive on meteors from outer space; they sprout from the unique history and circumstances of the countries they rule. Evicting an evil ruler does not improve the conditions that helped bring him to power.