Stay Out of the Regime Change Business
When reports appeared that Venezuelan forces captured two American mercenaries leading an armed incursion into Caracas to overthrow the Maduro government last month, images of Tom Clancy novels, Cold War spies, and covert action instantly came to mind. However, rather than living up to the reputation of fictional master spies like Jack Ryan, the so-called “Bay of Piglets” failed catastrophically. While the Venezuelan opposition, government, and the American private military contactor Silvercorp pointed fingers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the world that the United States had no direct role in this operation. However, soon after, President Donald Trump asserted in a press briefing that if the United States had played a direct role, it would have been more Jack Ryan than the failure in Caracas. But is that actually the case? Looking at the track record of American regime change throughout history, the answer is no.
While covert regime change is sometimes perceived to be a cost-effective tool that produces policy benefits, it is usually unsuccessful. More problematically, attempting covert regime change is not a costless tool, with both supposed successes and failures producing worse outcomes for American interests in both the short and long term. As calls and debates about the merits of covert regime change and maximum-pressure campaigns targeting the regimes in Venezuela, Iran, and elsewhere happen both in the Trump administration and around it, it is imperative to think of the significant long-term effects covert regime change can have. These effects extend beyond a specific clandestine operation, and policymakers should consider how peer competitors, allies, and adversaries look at American regime change actions and worry about their own regime’s security.
It is worth reflecting on the long shadow of regime change behavior during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods in particular. With some advocating for a new Cold War-style strategy to contain Chinese interests, Hal Brands recently suggested that there could be some value in the United States entering again into the covert regime change business. Unfortunately for its proponents, covert regime change only makes achieving American goals and interests less likely. Rather than providing quick and easy solutions to bolster American influence, it harms other tools of American statecraft that help maintain the U.S.-led international order. Instead of constraining China as advocates would like, further regime change activities would simply serve to curb American interests and harm future policy goals.
The Experience of American Regime Change
American interest in regime change operations has existed since at least 1898. Calls to “teach them to elect good men,” in the words of Woodrow Wilson, led to regime change interventions nominally in the pursuit of stability in Cuba, Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, and Costa Rica. From invading the port of Veracruz to help oust Victoriano Huerta during the Mexican Revolution, to occupying the Dominican Republic for eight years after demanding constitutional reforms to cut down on government debt, the United States found various reasons to engage in armed incursions to force the change of governments throughout Latin America.
However, with the creation of the CIA in 1947 and its Office of Policy Coordination in 1948, the United States turned to covert regime change during the Cold War to roll back Soviet influence throughout the Eastern bloc. This spread throughout the Cold War to fight perceived communist-leaning governments in Europe, East Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Overt missions, like the pre-World War II missions in Latin America, are armed interventions to overthrow a government. Covert missions, though, included supporting military coups, interfering in foreign elections, and supporting dissident and opposition groups to help overthrow foreign governments without dedicated military intervention. Rather than being a last resort, however, policymakers during the Cold War viewed regime change as simpler than trying diplomatic negotiations with recalcitrant leaders, and as a means to push against Soviet influence anywhere they saw it.
Unfortunately, covert regime change is not the quick and easy policy tool that policymakers often envision. While there have been some notable short-term successes among the 60-plus attempts made during the Cold War, the United States only succeeded in replacing the target nation’s leadership 39 percent of the time. Of the few successful covert regime change missions that the United States engaged in, a vast majority of the successes were targeted at states that were already American allies, trying to prevent them from breaking away. This included covert support to political parties in France and Italy in the early years of the Cold War to prevent realignment to more pro-Soviet governments. These missions, some of the first major covert operations undertaken by the newly formed CIA, did help prevent communist parties in both Italy and France from winning national elections. However, rather than imposing new governments in each country, they mostly provided support to existing popular political parties to counteract Soviet funding for communist parties, maintain the status quo, and limit potential Soviet influence.
‘Disastrous,’ Deadly Failures
Conversely, cases where the United States tried to use covert action to replace governments not aligned with the United States were much more likely to fail, such as the disastrous attempt to overthrow the Hoxha regime in Albania. In 1949, the CIA began working with anti-communist Albanian dissidents, creating propaganda and radio broadcasts against the Hoxha regime, while also training a group of dissidents for armed infiltration back into Albania to help orchestrate an uprising. While this failed in part because Soviet intelligence learned where the CIA would land the trained dissidents in Albania, allowing them to be captured or killed, the failure was certain even without Soviet penetration of the operation. Almost immediately, the CIA’s lack of knowledge about the Hoxha regime and its local support revealed itself. For instance, the CIA-funded, anti-communist radio broadcasts started airing at 4 p.m. local time, even though the Hoxha regime only turned on electricity in the country at 6 p.m. More consequentially, some of the dissidents in the National Committee for a Free Albania that the CIA funded, partnered with, and trained for paramilitary activities had collaborated with the earlier Italian and German-imposed fascist regime. They had very little hope of winning popular support at home given their lack of a national base even if the Hoxha regime did not capture them. As evidenced in Albania, it is difficult to organize a national uprising against a government when the population dislikes the alternative just as much. This was the critical difference between the France, Italy, and Albania examples: Using covert support to prevent realignment is much more likely to succeed than using covert regime change to topple existing governments and install more pro-American leaders.
When examining the supposed successes more closely, even if the covert mission succeeded in overthrowing the leader, it rarely produced a noticeable policy result. As Alex Downes and Lindsey O’Rourke have found, post-coup relations between the new leader and the United States are seldom better than relations with the toppled regime. For example, U.S.-South Vietnamese relations did not improve following the 1963 CIA-supported coup to overthrow President Ngo Dinh Diem. Rather than the new leadership helping the United States to achieve its goals in South Vietnam, domestic in-fighting only weakened South Vietnam’s ability to fight against communist insurgents and North Vietnam. American-installed leaders face an inherent tension between trying to build domestic legitimacy and support American policy goals. Imposed leaders either respond to local wishes — which may or may not align with American political objectives — or get overthrown themselves because they are not working toward the preferences of the domestic population.
In addition to worsening relations with the United States, covert regime change operations also produce a greater probability of civil war, more human rights violations, and an increased chance of instigating international conflict. In 1960, the CIA feared that Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of Congo-Léopoldville (the first postcolonial name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was too pro-Soviet and would turn the African nation communist. The CIA took to funding anti-Lumumba propaganda, activists, and opposition groups to try to encourage the downfall of the prime minister. However, when this proved insufficient to remove Lumumba, CIA station chief Lawrence Devlin secretly met with Army Chief of Staff Joseph Mobutu at least twice to both encourage a coup against Lumumba and provide financing to carry the coup out. Mobutu’s power play succeeded on September 14, 1960, when, with CIA support, he took to the radio in the evening and announced that he was suspending the Congolese parliament and the army would install a new government of technocrats. Mobutu declared over the radio broadcast that Lumumba was neutralized from public life, and later that week covertly met with Devlin again to discuss whether to arrest Lumumba, who to appoint to ministerial positions, and how to help create legitimacy to cement the coup. Mobutu’s forces captured Lumumba later in the year, and killed him to prevent his return to power. While this was a success for the CIA in the narrowest sense — they removed the pro-Soviet leader they feared — in its place the repressive Mobutu regime took power and the Congo crisis persisted for five more years, with multiple civil wars killing an estimated 100,000 people.
The instability resulting from covert regime change can often spiral into a lengthy intervention that policymakers never intended or planned. This occurred in South Vietnam after the Diem coup when greater instability in the South led to an escalation in American support. Once General Duong Van Minh had Diem killed, the new General Minh-led junta did not stabilize South Vietnam as hoped, and seemingly each day different factions of the South Vietnamese military threatened to orchestrate counter-coups to increase their own power. With U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson realizing the need for a competent and stable South Vietnamese state in order to achieve American goals, he turned to a policy of “Americanization” that increased American involvement in the war and led to a greater commitment to rebuild the South Vietnamese state. The belief that a coup to overthrow Diem would be the easiest path to success in South Vietnam, consequently, created the conditions that required deepening American involvement in the Vietnam War.
The Long Shadow of Regime Change
Engaging in covert regime change has severe consequences in the short term. Less frequently discussed, however, are the long-term aggregate effects that produce serious costs for American interests and far outweigh any short-term benefits. When broader U.S. foreign policy becomes associated with regime change, foreign actors become much more wary of American influence.
For instance, Brands argues that the 1953 U.S.-backed coup in Iran to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was worth it because it allowed 25 years of rule for the Shah, whose policies generally supported American interests. This omits the long-term view: America’s sponsorship of the coup promoted greater anti-American sentiment, which contributed to the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah as well as subsequent support for armed action against American interests. Decades later, continued calls for regime change and “maximum pressure” against the Iranian regime have further contributed to Iranian determination to pursue a nuclear capability to defend the regime against American activities. Rather than aiding American interests, the long-term view of the CIA-backed coup in Iran shows it has instead contributed to 41 years of tensions and strife.
Even more problematic for broader American statecraft, the pursuit of regime change has led to consistent accusations that democracy promotion, humanitarian aid, and civil-society support programs are merely Trojan horses. These programs have been targeted for restriction or thrown out of Russia, China, Egypt, Venezuela, Hungary, and elsewhere over fears that they are organizing regime change. Indeed, fear of being labeled as U.S. agents has led democracy-promotion organizations to tame their assistance to local civil society and nongovernmental organizations to avoid upsetting authoritarian leaders and being forced to stop their work.
These concerns harm American organizations working to promote human rights, respect for civil society, humanitarian aid, and more. However, those harmed most are local activists, democracy builders, and civil society organizations that are then tarred with the same brush and suspected of assisting American regime change efforts. Instead of focusing on their narrow goals, they are forced to deal with such accusations. The failure of the United States to send clear signals that it is not interested in toppling foreign governments heightens foreign rulers’ fears for their own security. Instead of helping to distinguish between democracy promotion work and regime change, the U.S. government is calling for maximum pressure campaigns directly targeting regimes it dislikes, and contends that covert regime change activities should be pursued when possible.
This creates a persistent belief that the possibility of a coup lurks in all tools of U.S. foreign policy, which harms American interests and empowers peer competitors. For instance, Russia and China have said that they view American interest in regime change as a threat against which they need to defend. It’s true that inflating the threat of American interference in local politics can have domestic benefits. But the ways in which Russia and China have operated at the United Nations, how their militaries have written about threats to regime security in their military strategies, and actions taken over the last decade show they take American threats to their regime security seriously. When every tool of U.S. policy becomes associated with regime change, there is a real threat to the efficacy of any tools available for pursuing American interests abroad.
Leave It in the Past
Now there is concern that China might also be interested in trying to gain more influence through covert action, as the United States and Russia have in the past. There has already been some evidence that China has attempted covert action to increase pro-China sentiment among U.S.-allied governments. However, returning to the Cold War strategy of dueling attempts at covert regime change is not the answer to this challenge. This would simply increase international instability, push potential allies further away, and not produce any meaningful policy gains. It would further heighten tensions and lead to long-term consequences for American statecraft that would be difficult to repair.
The United States should instead refrain from sponsoring foreign coups, and commit to not use tools of statecraft — such as support to nongovernmental organizations, aid programs, and economic sanctions — for regime change purposes. Accepting more asylum seekers, supporting civil society groups without covert aid, and focusing on supporting allies through cooperation would be more successful tools than covert action. This is not to say that there should be impunity for future Chinese covert action, but the response should not be competing actions that do not promote any greater American interests. Spiraling regime change attempts only encourage a Chinese view of U.S. foreign policy as a threat to their own security that must be defended against at all costs.
As American policymakers think about the post-COVID-19 future, and some appear to desire more competition with China, they should resist the urge to think of Cold War-era covert regime change operations as productive tools to expand American influence. Instead, embracing a long-term view would help to preserve the utility of various tools of American statecraft and support for democracy in the future. Undermining broad features of U.S. foreign policy in pursuit of short-term wins through covert regime change is a folly that policymakers should leave to fictional Jack Ryan plots and Cold War histories.
Benjamin Denison is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. Previously, he was a U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security Fellow at Dartmouth College’s Dickey Center for International Understanding. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Notre Dame.