There's Another Name for Regime Change

News at Home

Mr. Richards is a professor of history at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, and a writer for the History News Service.

All indications are that regime change in Iraq is still on the agenda of the Bush administration. Ironically, the administration has created a situation in which anything less than the invasion, defeat and occupation of Iraq will be considered a failure.

Why have President Bush and his advisers staked their reputation on such a risky policy as regime change? An examination of the Cold War policy of"rollback" may help explain this obsession.

"Rollback," a concept articulated in a seminal Cold War document produced by the National Security Council in 1950, declared the importance of pushing the Soviet Union back from those territories conquered in the last months of World War II. Containment would not suffice.

The Cold War document contains fascinating parallels with our present situation. Most striking is the apocalyptic picture of a powerful America facing disaster in just a few short years if it does not take immediate steps to extend its military capabilities. There is the same whiff of hysteria about prospects for the future that one finds in current administration pronouncements about the need to eliminate Iraq before it gains a capacity to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States.

The worries voiced in 1950 at least reflected the documented loss of the American postwar atomic monopoly with the test of the first Soviet atomic weapon in 1949. The combination of the Soviet Union's atomic weapons and its superiority in conventional forces placed the United States at a severe disadvantage that some feared would only get worse.

The position the United States now occupies in the world is unparalleled in modern history. Almost every other country in the world is more or less on the level of Panama compared with the military strength of the United States. This extraordinary situation may explain why the president believes he can bring about regime change in Iraq with only a little more trouble that his father, George H. W. Bush, faced in bringing about regime change in Panama thirteen years ago.

One major problem, however, is the vast difference between possibilities in the Middle East and the American experience in Central America and the Caribbean, where we have largely done as we pleased, numerous regime changes included. It isn't that regime change in the Western Hemisphere didn't have uniformly disastrous results, only that the United States never had to pay the price of those results.

If there are lessons to be learned from the Cold War, it may be that the blunt application of force is rarely the answer. The idea of containment was that force was available to use in the last resort. Rollback aimed at more, and it became a far cruder instrument of policy.

The same can be said for regime change.

The United States tried to implement the concept of rollback only once during the Cold War, when General Douglas MacArthur had the North Korean army on the run in 1950. Ignoring President Truman's orders, MacArthur sent American troops to the North Korean border with the People's Republic of China. This triggered a massive intervention by Chinese Communist troops. American forces were overrun, with many killed or captured.

Eventually, the Korean conflict turned into a stalemate. Perhaps we learned a lesson about rollback from that experience. In any case, the United States never attempted rollback again. When advisers clamored for rollback, American presidents resisted and averted potential catastrophes.

What we know about the strategy of rollback indicates we should approach the concept of regime change with extreme caution. It should be seen not only as a last resort but also as one with important disadvantages. Perhaps the most serious disadvantage is that President Bush's policy of regime change violates international law. Pre-emptive war is merely a euphemism for aggression.

The dangers of serious harm to the United States have diminished considerably since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ours is still a world that harbors weapons of mass destruction, with many people busy dreaming up ways to turn the stuff of daily life into weapons. We cannot possibly predict what American attempts at regime change might set off. In what some consider reckless attempts by the Bush administration to head off myriad threats, the administration may trigger something far worse than the immediate danger.

During the Cold War, rollback was a dangerous fantasy we fortunately tried only once. Its 21st-century cousin, regime change, is an equally dangerous delusion, even when the United States believes no enemy is powerful enough to challenge its superior weaponry. We no longer face atomic retaliation. Nonetheless, there is no reason to risk provoking new forms of retaliation in our rush to use force to reorder the world.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Ben Cosin - 11/26/2002

I was unaware until a few weeks ago tat many people believed that Saddam or the Iraqi Ba'th Socialist Party were in any way supported by the CIA. Nor is this possiblity mentioned directly in Republic of Fear by 'Samir al Khalil' now revealed as Kanan Makiya, adviser to Chalabi. Makiya argues strongly and convincingly that the Iraqi Commuist Party was on an upaward curvein the 1940's and 1950's, and this in itself suplies a good reasn for the CIA to take an active interest. Moreover, Makiya's explanation of the decline fo the ICP (esp pp 240-1) is rather unconvincing, basing itself as it sdoes in the idea that the class structure of Iraq was somehow swamped by 'massification' - a cause itself unexplained. Saddam's trusting attitude to Glaspie in July 1990 might supply minor confirmatory evidence.
More generally, if the CIA wasn't and isn't involved in a good deal of regime change, or installation of governments friendly to US imperialism, from Italy 1948 through Iran/Persia 1954 etc, what is the money being spent for?
Ben Cosin

Mike Tennant - 11/25/2002

Your argument, of course, presumes that Iraq is poised to strike the U. S., of which we have seen no evidence. The only "evidence" we have is the word of the president. No other country except Britain, which has become a U. S. yes-man in recent years, seems terribly concerned about Saddam Hussein. Oh, wait: Israel is quite concerned AND has a very powerful lobby in Washington. Perhaps we are going in to do Sharon's dirty work for him.

Saddam Hussein has never threatened us, and he knows he'd be foolish to do so. He certainly wouldn't use nukes against us; and furthermore, he wouldn't give them to al-Qaeda, his enemy, who just might use them against him.

North Korea and China, on the other hand, do have nukes (and we know this not just because the prez says so), and they have issued actual threats toward the U. S. Why does our brave president not suggest we wipe out their leaders and install puppet regimes? The fact that he does not do so indicates that the attack on Iraq has nothing to do with its posing a danger to us.

Herodotus - 11/25/2002

This historian, who is well briefed in the history of the CIA's involvement in other countries from Iran to Panama, is not aware of any widespread belief that Hussein before 1979 was a 'creature' of the CIA other than on the conspiracy fringe.

One might expect a simple request for solid academic work detailing the subject could be greeted with anything but the rancor and venom apparent in this thread.

Apparently this is all about scoring political points and not advancing serious inquiry. Too bad.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 11/23/2002

Somebody's been watching too much USA or Lifetime or too many re-runs of Lethal Weapon Nth or Chuck Norris kick-flicks.

Tom Kellum - 11/21/2002

Does the historian who calls himself Herodotus have any reason to believe there has been CIA involvement in setting up heads of state in ANY countries? Or is it his view that such things simply don't happen?

Well, so President Bush did an "interview" with the Washington Post and explained what motivates his administration. Nice to know that we have a president who is so forthcoming. Think he's that way out of some lingering guilt over the manner in which he came to be president? Or, is it simply in the genes of that fine Bush aristocracy to always act honorably and tell the truth?

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/20/2002

Unfortunately, paying off warlords seems like a real possibility.

Nothing about our actions in Afghanistan suggests any willingness to pay the price of occupation. The only reason that we might try harder in Iraq is that not doing so could destabilize the Kurdish situations. That could create repercussions simply in Turkey.

Instability would also make oil investors a bit more leary about putting money in.

So who knows. If it takes stability to get oil and democracy to get stability, Bush may become the Wilsonian he pretends to be.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 11/20/2002

I'm surprised that a knowledgeable historian isn't familiar with the published literature, but start with Peter Mantius, Shell Game (St. Martin's, '95)and move through the literature to Con Coughlin's King of Terror (Ecco, '02). There's older stuff, look it up. In any case, the agency's role in Saddam's rise to power is not a new canard floated by me. For a short A/V course, hit the Frontline documentary installment, "Saddam's Survival" which is just a click away at

Alas, to my knowledge nothing as been declassified I'm aware of, and spooks generally don't like to make tracks, or I'd refer you to or somesuch. I doubt Saddam would've bragged about his being a CIA protege, and perhaps one reason he's managed to eliminate so many of his early-days Ba'ath associates is that when he was a comer as Ba'ath security chief they knew who was footing his bills--sheer speculation there, of course.

As for the administration's "idealism," hey! Whatever. Maybe they really are as nuts as they seem. Let me in turn ask: Just who's gonna pay for this war to bring democracy to Mesopotamia, if we're uh-gonna keep cutting taxes for the upper 1%, enshrine offshore benefits to corporations in a "homeland security" act, repeal the estate (not "death" tax), and as budget deficits balloon with a weak economy? And will we (with our lousy recent track record in Afghanistan and despite awful analogies to Japan and Germany post-WW2) stick around to clean up the mess, or just pay off Kurd and Shi'a warlords? Oh--whatever happened to the hunt for Osama, when this week's Time (no left-wing rag) reports that there's an al Qaeda stronghold we can't even enter, and Pakistan's Northern Frontier has gone Islamist? If we do as good a job in Iraq as we have in post-Taliban Afghanistan, maybe the Bushites' heads are up in the clouds--or somewhere else darker?

Herodotus - 11/20/2002

As a historian, I ask for a precise citation of the suggestions that the CIA set up Hussein before and during his rise to power in the 1970s....before the Iranian revolution.

As for the claims that this is really about imperial basing, fellow historians are invited to see the excerpted interview with Bush in the November 19 Washington Post. From it is room to believe that more than just realism motiviates this administration.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 11/19/2002

There is reasonable suspicion that our own CIA helped set Saddam up in power as part of a Cold War "regime change," and despite the denials of such as Rummy that we didn't it's also true that via cut-outs such as Egypt we supplied him with military equipment during the Iran-Iraq war, turned a blind eye to his use of chemical weapons, and provided him with precursors for biological agents.

It is also true that US firms such as Halliburton, during Our Veep's tenure as its CEO, did business with Iraq through foreign subsidiaries to rebuild infrastructure.

However, there is as of today no--I mean absolutely no--hard evidence (therefore as yet no truth value to assertions that he does) that he possesses those now boringly acronymic WMD's. And I suspect that the motivations behind the administration's bellicosity--as analyzed in a recent Village Voice column--actually revolve around finding an imperial base from which to pursue South and Central Asian objectives while taking heat off the House of Sa'ud. The road from Riyadh to Qatar leads to Baghdad? Let's cut the nonsense about the demonic threat posed by a thug we protected during and after he was in an Iraqi prison and helped bring to power--a student of Stalin who also was a vicious liquidator of the Iraqi Left when it was convenmient for us. It is not "absurd" to wait until we are "sure" he has nasty things, and assess the Shrub's objectives in terms of the Realpolitik (however grounded in reality) they are premised.

And perhaps Saddam's presence should serve as a reminder of what past meddling based on right-wing ideology can lead to. And this time, instead of covert operations and funneling cash and whispering in people's ears, we're contemplating a major war, with all the death and destruction--and unforseen consequences--that come with it. My grand-daddy once wisely told me, "Never argue with a fool, because after awhile nobody'll be able to tell the difference," but the stakes are too high to ignore idiocy in power and the children of Hamlin who follow its piping.

James Thornton - 11/19/2002

There is no major power to support Iraq as China did North Korea.

Secondly, let's say your family lives in a dangerous neighborhood. Within that neighborhood a serial killer and rapist has began to target your apartment building. The busy body lady on the first floor who chairs the neighborhood watch telephones to let you know that through the grapevine she has learned that the killer will be coming for you soon. You don't have the money to move, and the police won't respond to this neighborhood. You are armed to the teeth. What do you do to defend your home? Do you wait for the killer to strike when he has initiative, or do you organize a posse and use street justice to take care of business?

don kates - 11/18/2002

This article unfortunately confuses two completely different points. The author is right that it is no business of the U.S. to decide how Iraq is ruled; and even if it were our business it would not be possible to force institutions rooted in our culture on Iraq.
But that in no way invalidates the exigent necessity of keeping weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from a maniacal mass murderer like Saddam. It is absurd to argue that we should wait until we are sure Saddam has WMDs. Let us instead take the vital step of disarming him before he has them. And if that results in a new government in Iraq, why would we shed tears over that?