Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, June 24, 2005
So two articles caught me eye recently, and they make an interesting combination.

First, a piece by Fareed Zakaria about regime change and how we appear to stink at it. After all, we've been trying to topple Castro for decades without luck; we've isolated Iran for decades as well without noticeable effect on their behavior; and, most notably, we quite aggressively tried to strangle Saddam Hussein to death, and in the end we still had to invade if we were determined to get rid of him - and years of sanctions had made the post-war much more difficult than it would have been ten years earlier. Burma, North Korea, maybe Venezuela if they keep up their recent behavior - it's hard to find many good examples where our default policy of isolation and sanctions has achieved its stated objection of regime change. And Iraq is certainly a cautionary tale about the costs of imposing such change by force.

Zakaria contrasts this approach with the more diplomatic route. We negotiated a return of Libya to the "family of nations" recently, even though they used to be a rogue state and a major sponsor of terror (as well as a major cheater on anti-proliferation treaties). We've normalized relations with Vietnam, and that society is certainly healthier, stabler and more friendly towards America than, say, North Korea. He also notes that recent events in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan support his point: we had no policy of isolation before the Orange, Rose and whatever color Kyrgyzstan is (Chartreuse?) Revolutions, and indeed our open relations with the previous, less-savory regimes - and their people - may have helped make these revolutions possible.

All well and good, and his criticisms of our knee-jerk policy of isolation are entirely on-point. But with respect to the other side of the ledger - how engagement has promoted liberalization - there's a bit of a chicken-or-egg problem. Libya, after all, turned to us, for a variety of reasons. Among them: they had plainly lost their bid for leadership in the Arab world, and were shifting to an African orientation; the wacky cult presided over by Qaddafi is not exactly what the Islamists want in power, so to some degree we have common enemies; and Qaddafi saw what happened to Saddam Hussein. Vietnam is a similar story: China is more a threat to them now than we are, and we frankly have no real opposing interests anymore. Why not reconcile?

The real problem is not whether to engage or not to engage with regimes that we find "unsavory" because we do that all the time. We are currently allied with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan - these are savory regimes? Yes, we're pushing - sometimes softly, sometimes more loudly - for reform in the Middle East generally, because we think that the profound dysfunction in these societies is ultimately threatening to us, and that political and economic reform are necessary if not sufficient conditions to redressing that dysfunction (we can debate whether we're right about either part of this conclusion elsewhere; that does, however, appear to be our policy). But how hard or how soft we push, and how important other considerations are in a particular instance, varies based on circumstances, just as it was when we confronted right-wing dictatorial allies in Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s.

And that's really my point: the situations where a combination of engagement and pressure to reform has had a beneficial impact on the internal situation in a country have been situations where we're dealing with allies, or at least non-enemies. What characterizes Cuba, Iran, North Korea, post-1991-Iraq and the other objects of American sieges (which is what the policy of isolation and sanctions amounts to) is not their odiousness (North Korea may arguably be uniquely odious, but Iran and Cuba are more run-of-the-mill on the odiositimeter) but their enmity.

Of course, it is sometimes possible to turn an enemy into a friend, or at least a neutral, and by means other than invasion and conquest. We "flipped" China in the early 1970s, for example (and at a time when that regime was profoundly odious). But that's because China, having split long ago from the Soviet orbit, now considered the Soviet Union a greater threat than we were. We "flipped" Egypt in the mid-1970s. But that's because Sadat made the bold decision that war with Israel was not working out, pan-Arabism wasn't working out either, and America had more goodies to offer than the Soviet Union did.

How, by contrast, could we turn Iran, or Cuba, or North Korea into a friendly, or at least neutral, state? It's not obvious. I think a reasonable case can be made that, in each case, our existing policies do little to advance our stated policy of regime change, and that more aggressive policies could be potentially catastrophic. But I think it's a great leap from that contention to the contention that these regimes - whose basis of legitimacy derives in considerable measure from antagonism towards the United States - could be "flipped" or neutralized by any plausible combination of carrots or sticks, especially in the absence of a common enemy.

But really, I wonder whether Zakaria doesn't miss the real point of the policy of isolation of such regimes. Is the point to rapidly precipitate regime change? Or is the point to keep the countries in question weak, with little capability to do us harm? If the latter, then the real reason why our policies are failing is that we are not operating in a world of universal entente among the great (to say nothing of lesser) powers. Cuba holds on because Europe, Canada, Mexico and now Venezuela do not abide by our policy of isolation, and provide the country with a great deal of support. North Korea holds on because China and South Korea prop it up, as they each have a strong interest in avoiding the collapse of that regime and the costs that would be entailed by such. Iran holds on because it has substantial internal resources and Europe, Russia and China have no interest in supporting our policy of isolation. Our long siege of the Soviet Union worked in part because of that regime's ambitions, which the regime could not by any means afford. North Korea's ambitions are considerably more modest, and for that reason among others they've held out much more effectively.

If our policy of isolating certain regimes has failed to achieve regime change, and arguably failed as well in limiting the capacities of these regimes, perhaps the most important question is how it has impacted relations among the great powers. Which brings me to my next post, and the next article that caught my eye.