The Good Guy's Guide to Overthrowing Governments

Sitting in a restaurant last week in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, I was introduced to an exile from Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa because of its fertile farms. Today, there are food shortages. The country's 82-year-old dictator, Robert Mugabe, has systematically wrecked his country's economy and relentlessly repressed his political opponents as part of a maniacal obsession with holding on to power. The country's currency is worthless and inflation is rampant. There is energetic opposition to the government, but Mugabe, who has ruled for 25 years, represses his opponents shamelessly. He clings to power on the strength of his reputation as a guerilla leader who forced an end to white rule in a country once known as Rhodesia (named after British imperialist Cecil Rhodes).

The exile is a professor of African history, a learned man whose mind becomes intensely focused when he hears I am an American. "Why can't you Americans overthrow Mugabe?" he asks. "Why can't you save us from our misery?"

"Well, we could," I say. But I tell him the United States won't lift a finger to save Zimbabwe because, with the Iraq exercise in regime change going so badly, Americans won't easily move to overthrow a foreign government again.

"What a shame," he told me and drifted off into the night, leaving me to nurse a Tusker beer.

As I drank alone, I got to thinking that the exiled professor had a good point. Besides, he wasn't the first person during my foreign travels to pointedly ask me if the United States would invade his country. Many Africans I've met have seriously advocated that the United States take over their school systems, their electricity companies, even their entire governments. Maybe American progressives, while right to insist on an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq by U.S. troops, are otherwise drawing the wrong lesson from President Bush's costly folly. Maybe there is a way to cut our nation's losses in Iraq and invest some of the savings into beneficial regime changes around the world.

Of course, overthrowing any foreign government -- even an awful one -- is inherently fraught. The United States has a long history of engineering the downfall of foreign governments by secretly supporting opponents of those governments. The techniques of regime change were honed by the CIA from the 1950s through the early '70s. Sadly, American-assisted regime changes too often installed far worse characters into power. The most flagrant examples came in Guatemala and Iran in the mid-'50s when talented and patriotic national leaders who wanted to limit American influence over their economies were deposed by American-assisted rebels.

Then in 1973 came the U.S.-orchestrated coup against Chile's elected socialist leader, Salvador Allende. Allende's overthrow exposed the dark side of regime change. In the aftermath of Allende's murder and the coup by Chilean generals, thousands of left-wingers in Chile were tortured and murdered. American complicity was suspected and quickly documented. Coming about the same time as the end of America's doomed war in Vietnam, the Chilean coup was a major factor in prompting the U.S. Congress to place firm limits on CIA-assisted assassinations and American-orchestrated coups anywhere in the world. In the end, these U.S.-led coups spawned a backlash that gave all manner of regime-changing efforts a bad smell.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, revolutionized attitudes toward regime change, ending a generation of prohibitions against toppling foreign governments. That President Bush chose the wrong government to topple, however, should not make progressives abandon the use of regime change for humanitarian purposes.

There are no shortage of governments deserving of removal. Besides Zimbabwe, there is Pakistan, an erstwhile ally of the United States led by former general Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup and then sought to sanitize himself through sham elections. Musharraf's government tolerates and encourages the worst forms of bias and abuse of women. Rapes go unpunished, and women who resist their fate are routinely sanctioned by courts or murdered with impunity. This same general allowed his country's top nuclear scientist to sell weapons technology to other countries. The secret sales may have pushed Iran closer to completing a nuclear weapon and probably were critical in North Korea getting the bomb. And then, of course, there is Pakistan's protection of al-Qaida, and Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding in the outer reaches of the country. Musharraf insists he's doing he's all to capture bin Laden, but no one seriously believes that.

The government of Sudan also deserves to go. These Islamic fundamentalists, led by President Omar el-Bashir, have led a vicious counterinsurgency war against black Christians and animists in the western Darfur region of Sudan. Informed observers have charged the government with genocide. The same government once harbored bin Laden and remains a haven for Islamic extremists.

Then there's North Korea, which Bush, in a rare stroke of insight, deemed part of the "axis of evil." North Korea's leader, Kim Jong II, is the son of a national "liberator," who has repeatedly pushed his people to the brink of starvation while terrorizing them into submission.

Is there a "right" way to overthrow a bad regime and install "good guys" in their place? There's certainly no recipe for cleanly overthrowing a government. But several principles provide the basis for an approach:

  • Target only governments that are clearly and relentlessly harming their populations. Don't invoke humanitarian principles to provide cover for settling scores with ideological opponents. Merely opposing American interests is not justification for regime change. Republicans loathe Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, but he is a nationalist with a strong base of support. So is Fidel Castro, despite his unwillingness to let go of power. Even the government of Iran doesn't meet the test of awfulness required for progressives to endorse regime change.

  • In countries with governments that deserve to be overthrown, look for credible opposition leaders with a strong base of support among ordinary citizens. These leaders need to be clearly rooted in their countries, not highly paid exiles or carpetbaggers like Hamid Karzai and Ahmed Chalabi. In Zimbabwe, genuine opposition leaders are readily identifiable. In Pakistan and North Korea, they are not. That means that new leaders in these countries may come from the same corrupt, brutal clans that are currently in power.

  • Understand that the alternative to tyranny is not necessarily democracy. The most likely replacement for Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, is not a democrat but another military leader with slightly tougher moral backbone. In some cases, a slightly better character is worth the costs of change. That would probably be the case in Sudan, where the el-Bashir government has committed about every possible form of inhumanity against its own people. In the real world, less inhumanity is better than more, so progressives may find themselves backing governments that, while an improvement, remain deeply flawed.

  • Which brings us to the final principle of progressive regime change. Some regimes, however bad they are, must be endured. Look at how the Soviet Union collapsed, done in by its own internal contradictions. No American-led military invasion could ever have toppled the Soviet Union. For progressives, the best approach to a truly awful government may be to isolate that government internationally and then patiently wait for its collapse. In this context, it is worth noting that the sanctions against Iraq, applied by the first Bush administration and then by the Clinton administration, were working and would have ultimately brought about a change in the Iraqi government -- and at far less of a price than a military invasion and occupation.

The case for overthrowing the governments of Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Sudan and North Korea is overwhelming, and the debacle in Iraq makes the justification for regime change in these cases no weaker. Sometimes overthrowing foreign governments can work. In the late 1990s, for instance, the U.S. joined with European allies to liberate the province of Kosovo from its Serbian overlords. The liberation of Kosovo was a victory for humanity, thought it did not provide an easy model for future regime changes. Progressives are right to be concerned over loose talk about overthrowing the governments of other countries -- even awful governments. But in rare instances, those who advocate an overthrow, and follow clear principles, deserve a hearing and perhaps even support.

We should get American troops out of Iraq, the sooner the better. But we might also bring progressive values and fresh, defensible tactics to the task of regime change. In short, either get regime change right or take the option off the table.

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