Since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the concept of regime change has been much maligned—and grossly misunderstood. Many policymakers and commentators herald it as the ultimate form of imperial power, which occurs when states seek to impose their form of government on others. The parallel conclusion, which is deeply ingrained in the conventional wisdom, is that any states so bold as to impose regime change with military force are likely to find themselves engulfed in a quagmire. By this logic, Afghanistan and Iraq are exhibits one and two for the prosecution.
Facing Syria’s actions, policymakers need much greater clarity about regime change if they are to protect the United States and its allies.
First, strictly speaking, regime change is no more than the policy of deliberately removing a government by force. This may involve a military invasion that removes a government’s political and military leaders. Regime change can extend to installing a new government, which ideally will be supportive of the policies and interests of the state imposing regime change. The case of Iraq in 2003 is the best modern example of regime change.
While regime change may be imposed by force, yet another form of regime change is to encourage the members of the society, after removing their government, to take matters into their own hands. The hope is that they will design and build their own form of government.
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