from Middle East Program

Losing the Long Game

The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East

The definitive account of how regime change in the Middle East has proven so tempting to American policymakers for decades—and why it always seems to go wrong.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

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A Book for the Century—selected by Foreign Affairs reviewers as essential for understanding the past century in the Middle East

Since the end of World War II, the United States has set out to oust governments in the Middle East on an average of once per decade—in places such as Iran, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. The reasons for these interventions have been extremely diverse, and the methods by which the United States pursued regime change have also been highly varied, ranging from diplomatic pressure alone to outright military invasion and occupation. What is common to all the operations, however, is that they failed to achieve their ultimate goals, produced a range of unintended and even catastrophic consequences, carried heavy financial and human costs, and in many cases left the countries in question worse off than they were before.

Philip H. Gordon’s Losing the Long Game is a thorough and riveting look at the U.S. experience with regime change over the past seventy years, and an insider’s view on U.S. policymaking in the region at the highest levels. It is the story of repeated U.S. interventions in the region that always started out with high hopes and often the best of intentions, but never turned out well. No future discussion of U.S. policy in the Middle East will be complete without taking into account the lessons of the past, especially at a time of intense domestic polarization and reckoning with America’s standing in the world.

More on:

U.S. Foreign Policy

Middle East

Iraq War

Afghanistan War

Wars and Conflict

Reviews and Endorsements

 A Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2021

Losing the Long Game recounts American efforts over the past seven decades to get rid of annoying regimes in the greater Middle East and to install in their place something more to Washington’s liking. . . . [Gordon’s] criticisms are devastating.

Andrew Bacevich, New York Times Book Review

Gordon . . . has written a book whose depiction of policymakers’. . . ignorance will have his readers wincing at virtually every page. Seven briskly told case studies . . . brilliantly illustrate how repeated U.S. attempts at regime change in the Middle East have produced ‘no case of clear success, some catastrophic failures, and universally high costs and unintended consequences.’

Foreign Affairs

Gordon’s argument is persuasive. [He] provides detailed, erudite, insightful analyses. . . . A gripping account of how issues of war and peace . . . are debated in U.S. administrations.

Bob Bowker, Interpreter

Philip Gordon has written what will surely become the definitive analysis of how U.S. efforts at regime change in the greater Middle East over the past seven decades have largely backfired or had dismal second-order effects. Losing the Long Game is also refreshingly concise and bracingly well argued.

Peter Bergen, Author of Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos

A compelling, sweeping narrative of how American good intentions consistently and predictably go awry in the Middle East. . . . Each chapter is a page-turning insider’s view into American interventions gone wrong, and the masterful conclusion. . . should be required reading for any diplomat or military leader in training.

Senator Chris Murphy

With sharp insight and refreshing candor, Phil Gordon lays bare the magical thinking which has so often led American policymakers to assume too much about our powers of transformation in the Middle East, and too little about the limits of our agency. Gordon offers a compelling argument for more pragmatism and less hubris, and for greater reliance on diplomacy in shifting the terms of America’s engagement in the original land of unintended consequences.

Ambassador William J. Burns, President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State

An important and timely book on how the pursuit of regime change in the Middle East since 1953 has been a disaster—with unanticipated consequences. Written by an insider with a masterful understanding of how American foreign policy is made, this is an urgent wake up call to get out of the habit of believing that there are cheap and easy ways to fix the complicated issues that the region poses.

Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Former Senior CIA and National Security Council Official, and Author of Beirut 1958: How America’s Wars in the Middle East Began

Any advocate of replacing an irritating foreign government with one that is more congenial should read Philip Gordon’s incisive and salutary account of those cases where it has been tried in the past and invariably gone badly wrong.

Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies, King’s College London, and Author of A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East

Gordon has written a devastating account of repeated U.S. attempts to remove leaders and transform political systems from North Africa to South Asia over the past seventy years. Whatever the intentions, regime change simply hasn’t worked. Most attempts have come at horrific costs with unintended long-term consequences that have further undermined the original U.S. goals. Losing the Long Game is must reading―by someone who saw it first-hand―for all interested in America’s foreign policy and its place in the world.

Robin Wright, Author of Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World

Phil Gordon has written an important history of America’s pursuit of maximalist goals in the Middle East, often with little understanding of local conditions and hubristic assumptions about the efficacy of American power to reshape foreign governments and societies. The result is a fast-paced and timeless journey through a land of unintended consequences. This is a book for future presidents, policymakers, and the citizens to whom they are accountable.

Brett McGurk, Former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL and Special Assistant to the President for Iraq and Afghanistan

An essential reflection on an enduring temptation of American foreign policy. Phil Gordon deconstructs past mistakes and gives clues for a better approach. A must read for U.S. policymakers but also readers in the Middle East puzzled by American failures.

Kim Ghattas, Author of Black Wave

Losing the Long Game is an engaging and provocative examination of U.S. regime change efforts in the Middle East. Gordon shows the indispensability of bringing humility and historical awareness in U.S. foreign policy, as well as the urgent need for the United States to cease its overreliance on military force and invest far more in economic development, people to people engagement, and diplomacy.

Ambassador Samantha Power, former U.S. representative to the UN and author of The Education of an Idealist

Readers will find themselves nodding in agreement with many of [Gordon’s] observations and conclusions. The book is a useful survey of the U.S. record of regime change policies in the Middle East.

American Conservative

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