CFR Fellows' Book Launch Series With Philip H. Gordon

Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Philip H. Gordon

Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations


Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations; @JamesMLindsay

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. Though pursued for a wide range of reasons, these operations all failed to achieve their ultimate goals, produced a range of unintended and even catastrophic consequences, carried heavy financial and human costs, and often left the countries in question worse off than they were before. Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East gives readers a 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.

The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows.

LINDSAY: Thank you, Sara. Good afternoon everyone. Let me welcome all of you to today's on-the-record CFR meeting. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council. I want to flag for everyone that we have more than 300 people registered for this virtual meeting, and we will do our best to get in as many questions as possible. It is my great pleasure to introduce today's speaker Philip Gordon. Phil is the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy here at CFR. Before joining the Council, Phil was Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region under President Obama. He previously served as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, where he was responsible for relations with more than fifty countries in Europe and Eurasia, along with NATO, the EU in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Phil has also had a distinguished scholarly career, having written and co-written numerous books on U.S. foreign policy and global affairs. Today, we are here to recognize the release of his newest book Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power hails it as an engaging and provocative examination of U.S. regime change efforts in the Middle East. The  journalist Robin Wright calls it must reading for everyone interested in American's foreign policy in its place in the world. Let me note for all the CFR members on today's call, that you should have received an email on September seventeenth, providing you with the opportunity to receive a free copy of Losing the Long Game, as well as two other CFR books published this month. I encourage all of you to take us up on the offer. And with that, let me welcome Phil Gordon.

GORDON: Jim, thanks. It's great to be here. And from the participants list I saw I know we have a great group. So I really look forward to the conversation.

LINDSAY: But let me first, let me just say congratulations on the publication of the book and the praise received from early reviewers. But certainly, let's get at it right away, and begin with the question of why this book, Phil, at this time.

GORDON: So as you said, Jim, this is a history of U.S. regime change in the Middle East. And it's written in the spirit of trying to learn from our history, lest we repeat it. I really started to think about this, in particular, you and I and half the people on this call have been thinking about regime change around the world for a long time. But I thought this merited a close look, as I watched, in particular, the Trump administration over the past couple of years formulate its policy on Iran, which started to look like gearing up for potential regime change. Now, of course, that wasn't the stated goal. But you had a lot of proponents in and outside the administration, pointing in that direction, and the policy seemed to point in that direction. And it led me to think, you know, before we go down what could be a perilous road like that again, maybe it would be useful to ask this question.

When have we done this before? How have we done it before? And what are the lessons of having done so? And it turns out, you know, that's what I did in the book, is look at these past cases. Turns out, this is not so unusual. We've pursued regime change in the Middle East on the average of about once per decade for the past seventy years starting, ironically enough, with a coup in Iran in 1953. But then you get in Afghanistan twice the Mujahideen and post-Taliban obviously the Iraq war, and then interventions by Obama in Egypt, Libya, in Syria. And so, you know, it's something we've regularly done. And what I do in the book is look for patterns and lessons from that. And the short version is that in every case, no matter how we did it or why we did it, the costs turned out to be greater than we thought, it was harder to deliver the objectives and there were masses of unintended consequences.

LINDSAY: Okay, fair enough, if to telegraph why the book is called Losing the Long Game. And before we sort of delve into the specific cases you've looked at, over the last seventy odd years, Phil, can you sort of clarify for me whether you're making a broader argument about regime change, it never works anywhere, or it specifically doesn't work in the Middle East?

GORDON: Good. Sure. The book focuses on the Middle East for a range of reasons, including the fact that for the most part, to the extent there's a forward looking contemporary debate about Middle East, about regime change, it's in the Middle East. So I mentioned Iran as something that's clearly on the agenda, but people talk about it and we recently pursued it and some still want to pursue it in Syria, and even comes up in allied countries, you know, the regime in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or whatever. So that felt to me like the most important current policy thing to think about. And it's also where I have the most personal experience, because I noted in the, in my first remarks, this is not just a historical exercise, but it's a reflection on our own experience, I say as a former Obama administration official, pursuing similar goals in some of the countries that I mentioned.

So that's why I think the Middle East is most relevant.  But I do talk in the book about other cases, because we have done this around the world, also, for decades, fact more frequently than in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere. There is something particular about the Middle East, so one Middle East for those reasons, its most policy relevant today, it's where I had direct experience. But it's also relevant in the sense that I actually argue that it's even harder to pull this sort of thing off in the Middle East than elsewhere. Because of the nature of the states in the Middle East, there aren't long standing coherent nation states, as in some other parts of the world.

In other words, other than Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, most of these countries are artificial, where borders were artificially created, they cross sects, religions, different tribes and groups. And therefore, even more than elsewhere, when you remove a regime in the Middle East and create a vacuum, you're opening it up to greater competition within states and among states. So that's why the focus in the Middle East, but there are other relevant cases as well.

LINDSAY: Okay, so let's dive into the cases Phil. I suspect most people reading the book will grant you that the U.S. invasion of Iraq did not turn out well. But let's talk about another case that is discussed in the book, which is the intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s. That's typically praised as a low cost initiative to get rid of an odious regime and undermine the Soviet Union at the same time. So I take it you disagree. So why is the conventional wisdom wrong?

GORDON: So that's actually a really interesting case, Jim, because you're right. I think people who haven't really focused on this, would instinctively say well obviously the Iraq War was a disaster and the costs have been off the charts. But there are other cases where it was successful, in fact, in the sort of annals of U.S. interventions, and especially, you know, the intelligence community, the first intervention in Afghanistan, the U.S. support for the Mujahideen, and is like the poster child, if that's the right word, the model of an intervention, right, where you, it's not like the Iraq War, where you invade and there are casualties, and massive costs a trillion dollars.

Afghanistan for a relatively small amount of money, I think, you know, all told, like a billion dollars, which is nothing as far as these things go, and you compare them to Afghanistan or Iraq, we achieved the objectives, at least the narrow ones of supporting an opposition that would put pressure on the government. The objective of Afghanistan, at first of course, and the objective escalated over time, which is another lesson in all of this is that there's always mission creep, right? So under Carter, even before the Soviets went in seventy-nine, the objective was just to put pressure on the Soviet government.

And then under Reagan, the objective became, we're going to drive the Soviets out, or as Bob Gates, who was at the CIA at the time, but we're gonna win. And then over time, after that, it became we're not going to only put pressure on the regime and drive the Soviets out, we're going to change the regime. So one of the lessons of that is, you know, this mission, creep and escalation. But the point about it being an obvious success is people remember, it didn't cost much, we got rid of the Communist government, and the Soviet Union collapse. So you know, what could be better? 

One of the thing that struck me and looking at this sort of model, how could you argue against it, is that when you put it in full perspective, it's not such a no brainer that this was a great idea and the costs and consequences unintended consequences are manifest. It is true that we have achieved those objectives that I have just stated, but we also led to by pursuing the support the opposition, a savage civil war that lasted for more than ten years, killed, over a million Afghans, which was like a tenth of the population at the time, drove millions more into Pakistan to help destabilize parts of Pakistan, fueled this jihadist movement and notion that the Mujahideen and their supporters, who included by the way Osama bin Laden, could take down a superpower by fighting against it and using arms and in their sights immediately after, was another superpower which was us.

So you get this vacuum in Afghanistan, savage civil war with lots of casualties and consequences. And then even after the regime goes, that warlordism and, you know, we go away, but they keep fighting until the Taliban finally come back four years after the regime falls, and Institute this dystopia of, you know, chopping off limbs, and destroying statues, and keeping girls out of school, and forcing them to wear beards, and repressing the society, and hosting al- Qaeda, which ultimately attacks the United States, after which we respond again by doing another regime change in Afghanistan, which has led us to stay there for the last twenty years at a cost of a trillion dollars and so on. So, you know, sorry to be long about that, but it's actually interesting to think about the long term costs and consequences are much greater than then just looking at the immediate result of achieving that regime change objective.

LINDSAY: Okay, I should just note that the other historical case you do are the U.S. supporting coup in Iran in 1953, and also the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. I want to actually focus on the other cases, you look at Phil, because you played a role in them. You were in the Obama administration, when Hosni Mubarak was ousted in Egypt, when Odyssey Dawn, or Operation Odyssey Dawn was launched against Libya, in when President Obama first drew and erased the red line in Syria. Can you sort of take us quickly through those cases? Tell us what you saw as a practitioner in how you now evaluated as a scholar?

GORDON: Sure, that's a really interesting as well, when I answered your question about what led me to work on this, I mostly focused on this reflection of, you know, before we do it in Iran, maybe it's worth learning the lessons of the past. The other reason I wanted to give this a hard think and do some research about it, is as you say, my own personal experience, you know, which was extremely ironic, that Barack Obama would be involved in regime change in the Middle East as well, right. Obama, who, you know, as much as anything was elected because of his principled opposition to regime change, who maybe, he arguably a lot of other issues, but he defeated Hillary Clinton the primaries because he opposed the Iraq War and she supported it.

He was well placed against John McCain, because McCain had supported the Iraq war and supported the surge and, Obama early on, very early on, raised questions about just the sort of thing that I'm talking about, you know, the famous Chicago speech when he was an unknown state Senator, that you know, you have written about in some of your books, when he says, well, you know, I'm not against war, I'm just against dumb wars or wars that will empower al-Qaeda and empower Iran and lead to all sorts of unintended consequences. And he turned out to be right. So that's the irony that, you know, Barack Obama, instinctively opposed to this, finds himself doing, pursuing similar objectives. 

Now, I want to be very clear, and I said this at the top, all of these regime changes are different. I mean, they have different motivations, and you know, we're lumping together support for a coup, support for an opposition, invasion, occupation, invasion, and occupation. But what is similar, is the notion that the United States can decide that a particular regime is so problematic, whether repressive or a threat to us that we're going to remove it and put something better in place. So the three cases under Obama that I write about Egypt, Libya, and Syria are all hugely different, right? In Egypt, it was actually an allied country, and we didn't intervene at all, we just used diplomacy. But I can explain why that still constitute an attempt to change the regime.

In Libya, we did intervene and let a NATO intervention in a war that, again, started with a different mission, I mentioned mission creep in Afghanistan, and Libya was saving lives. That's what we had a UN Security Council mandate to do. But we ultimately decided to achieve that objective, we had to get rid of Qaddafi. And in Syria, we didn't intervene directly militarily, but we supported an opposition with the view of getting rid of Assad. So very different cases, and yet in each one, even Barack Obama, say even getting back to this notion that here's this disciplined President who wants to pivot to Asia and not get bogged down in the Middle East, and certainly not go to war in the Middle East, finds himself pulled in to this notion that we can use our power in one way or another to bring about positive transformation. And that, you know, it's tragic to say that if you look at the state of each of those countries today, we certainly failed to achieve that goal.

LINDSAY: Well take me through these cases, let's begin it with Egypt. To think many people might say, wait a second, we didn't intervene militarily in Egypt, you yourself alluded to the question of whether it sort of fits your set of cases. So walk me quickly through sort of how you now understand our decision to withdraw support from Hosni Mubarak and why that counts as regime change.

GORDON: Sure. And it's fair to ask, you know, hang on why is Egypt in there, you know, Egypt is not the Iraq War, it's not regime change. And you could make a case that it's not. The reason I keep it in this category is that once the revolution was underway, we did ultimately get to a point where it became U.S. policy. And that's my definition of regime change, just to be clear here, it's when the United States as a policy matter sets out to get rid of a government and transform the political system and put something different in place. So it's not even when the U.S. government puts its thumb on the scale for one leader over another within a system, but it's an attempt also to transform that system.

And I think, you know, I admit, we tried to do that in Egypt. Once we decided that Mubarak couldn't survive anymore, and I cite some of the situation room calling him toast. Once we decided that Mubarak was toast, we decided to not only urge him and push him out with diplomacy, but support elections that we knew were likely to lead to a very different political approach, which they did, which really is changing the regime once the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, really talking about a different regime. So in that sense, well it did become U.S. policy. 

Now, how did that happen? Which was another part of your question. Of course, it didn't happen initially, as a deliberate, you know, Barack Obama gets elected and then tasks the NSC to figure out how to get rid of Mubarak. In a way it was the opposite, which again, is ironic that you had the Bush administration, George W. Bush, determined to spread democracy, spread freedom, use all of us power to transform the region and pursue these goals. Even Bush by the second term, even W. Bush by the second term, had more or less moved on, right. And American public was just not into it, and it was just when we sort of decided that the spreading democracy in the Middle Eastern regime change was not our thing.

That out of outside of our control, you get the Arab Spring, and the people in these countries start to demand change. And that's what hits Obama. So he didn't like initiate this. But, you know, you get the developments in Tunisia, and Ben Ali flees the country. And people start to think maybe this is possible. And then it starts to spread to other countries in the region, including Egypt. And, you know, that presented the United States with a policy choice. And it wasn't, the spectrum wasn't massive, but within the spectrum, there was one of stick with Mubarak for a while and try to have an orderly transition, or just decide, look, he's on his way out, we should be on the right side of this.

And I relate this in the book, and I won't go into too much in the weeds here, but I think it's interesting and relevant, this generational divide that you had at the top of the national security team of Obama, between those more senior cabinet officials, Secretary Gates, Vice President Biden, National Security Adviser Donilon, and others, Chief of Staff Daley, were more cautious and skeptical. And the next generation who think no, we should be, you know, this is why Barack Obama was elected, progressive, and try to promote change. So there was a policy choice, and it sort of came to a head when it was time for Obama to address what Mubarak should do. And he had two speeches prepared; one was more on the orderly transition side, and one was the Mubarak must go side. And he ended up going in the latter direction.

LINDSAY: Okay let's talk a bit about Libya then because some people would say, Libya wasn't at least initially about regime change, it was about the responsibility to protect and the community of Libyans who faced violent suppression by Colonel Qaddafi and his government. Now, you have a particularly unusual take on this, because I think at that time, you were the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe. And obviously, this was a NATO operation, a lot of pressure calls from some of our closest allies in Europe to join in this effort. But again, you come away saying bad idea, we shouldn't have done this. So sort of walk me through thinking about that case.

GORDON: Yeah, you're right. And I did have a different window on that it was not at the NSC doing Middle East for the White House, but at state. But as you say, because this was, you know, across the Mediterranean from Europe, and our European allies were deeply involved in it became a NATO operation. I was, I had some firsthand experience in that as well. And one of the things that's interesting about it, is in this case, it was the Europeans pushing us to intervene. You know, so the classic thing and I say with some irony, especially someone who has a long background on Europe that it was weird for me to watch. In one case, the U.S. Secretary of State be lectured to by the French and the Italians from not being willing to lead and use military force.

That's what happened in March 2011, when I went to a G7 ministerial with Secretary Clinton in Paris, and we didn't have a position yet, because the U.S. government was still divided. And this was a tough call and I say, and I think anyone has to acknowledge this was a, you know, damned if you do, damned if you don't difficult policy call, you know, not intervening ran the risk of catastrophe, massacring a bunch of civilians, intervening ran the risk of getting bogged down in a conflict or provoking even further divisions. 

But the fascinating thing on the Europe angle of that was that the Europeans felt like, this is producing refugees, we heard that from the Italians, Sarkozy in France and Cameron in Britain felt the same way, we need to act, and the U.S. needs to be here. So they were pressing us, and urging us. So those of us who lived through the 2003 Iraq war, and saw the French and the Germans dragging their feet and being berated by us, definitely shoe on the other foot sort of experience.

And that fed into the decision making back here in Washington. And frankly, it was an important factor in this partly helps explain why this noninterventionist Barack Obama ends up intervening. It's the pressures to do so, you know, domestic media, but also allied. You have your allies urging, so we had the Arab allies in the Gulf, urging us to act. And in this case, I think that helped swing Secretary Clinton's judgment, you also had this generational divide on Libya that was similar to the generational divide on Egypt, and Secretary Clinton was sort of in the middle seeing both. But as Secretary of State, hearing this constant pressure, we need you, the U.S. has to be the team player, you need to lead, that pushed her to lean on the side of intervening and ultimately help shape the decision in the situation room, and the President decided to intervene.

But here is what is interesting and sort of underscores why this is always so hard, is that it's the lesson of the Iraq war was trying to occupy after you intervene, leads to all sorts of costs and spending, you know, hundreds of billions of dollars and taking casualties. There, you know, we tried to do it the opposite way were the U.S. put the unique capabilities in, get rid of Qaddafi, and then the Europeans who are so gone on doing this, they can do it, and we're gonna do it without peacekeepers and occupation forces. But if Iraq showed the costs of heavy forces and occupation, Libya showed the risks of doing the opposite.

LINDSAY: Okay, let's talk about the third case, Syria. By this point, you've moved across town, so you're at the White House. You again portray this as a failed case of regime change. I think it'll come as no surprise to you that a lot of people would argue just the opposite. But the real problem in Syria wasn't regime changes that we didn't fully commit to a policy regime change, and if we had, we would have got a much better outcome. So why is it you see that is sort of misguided presentation of the case?

GORDON: Right. So a couple of things. And you're right, in this case, a lot of this happened while I was doing Middle East at the White House, of course, it started, you know, like the other extreme cases, end of 2010-2011 people start to rise up against Assad, as they had done against Saleh in Yemen, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Mubarak in Egypt, and elsewhere. Although there is a little bit, there was a bit of a timeline, right. The other cases were advancing more quickly, and the Syrians were watching what was happening in those other cases. So you had a couple of years before I started dealing with this issue directly in 2013, whereby the U.S. policy was not to intervene.

I think Obama was really keen on avoiding getting bogged down another Middle East conflict, the same lessons that he drew from Iraq desire to avoid unintended consequences. He even notes himself, he points out that early on, when others were starting to push the United States to intervene more, and believe we should, we can and could and should overthrow Assad, Obama said publicly, he commissioned a CIA study of where we had done that before, and how it worked out a little bit the same sort of angle in my book, and he said the, you know, the response was not very encouraging. So Obama was in, I don't think it's any secret, determined to avoid being pulled into the intervention or regime change in Syria. But over time, just like I described in Libya, the pressures grew.

I mean, partly the pressure of just what was happening on the ground, the horrendous humanitarian situation, but also the pressures from Congress, the media, and allies in the region who wanted to do more, and more, and more. And ultimately, that did lead the United States to increase its support for the opposition. But what it showed and this is what I warn against from all of these cases, and I think, certainly in the case of Syria, it showed that modest increases in military force or support for the opposition doesn't necessarily lead to a quick transition or a transition at all, and the empowerment of pro-American partners or democrats or stability.

It escalates, and especially in the case of Syria, just different from Libya and in Egypt, because the Syrian regime had backers in places like Russia and Iran, who were equally determined, even more determined to counter escalate. I think it really underscores and rebuts the notion that for modest resources, or modest intervention, or modest use of force, you can achieve maximalist objectives like changing regime. 

And so what we did discover in years after that, once we started to do more in support of the opposition, is the regimes backers started to do more in terms of backing the opposition. And I do think the history of all of these cases shows, there's just not an example where sanctions lead to regime change, because the regime has too much to lose, nor have modest amounts of military force. So when I say about Syria, of course, it would have been possible for us to do whatever it took to overthrow the regime. But that wouldn't have been possible with a weekend's worth of airstrikes over chemical weapons in 2013, or more aid and more arms to the opposition. It would have been required, it would have been understanding that the escalation that would have been required would be much greater than people imagined.

And then a willingness and an answer for what you do once you get rid of that regime. Because just like in every other proceeding case, you would create a vacuum that would lead to a competition among different actors in Syria, and different actors in the region. And you'd have to be able to answer what you are going to do for in that case. My last point on this just to underscore, because by the middle of this conflict, it was clear to me as we were still trying to get rid of the Assad regime, that I always said, I didn't, if we succeeded in getting rid of Assad, I didn't know who would come to power in his wake. But I did know that it wasn't going to be the democratic opposition that we were most in favor of. You create a dynamic like this that's based on arming people and who is able to see as power, especially with the support of their allies abroad. And if that even gets consolidated, it's most likely, unfortunately, to be the most violent and the most extreme.

LINDSAY: Okay, I want to ask you one more question, Phil, before you bring the rest of the group into the conversation. It's really sort of a question about first principles or basic analysis. I'll take your point, that none of these operations achieved all their objectives, and some of them fail spectacularly. As you know in policy analysis, you need to look, not only likely, not only what we did, but try to develop some sense of what would have happened if we hadn't acted. Now I know, counterfactuals are always challenging, you can write history didn't happen any way you want. But why are you sure that the United States would have been better off if it had pursued different strategies in the Middle East? I mean, couldn't we have ended up with an equally miserable track record? And we'd be having a meeting today complaining about the fact that we did too little rather than too much?

GORDON: Yes Jim, we certainly would. And the other thing I described in all of these cases is whichever approach we tried, the critics afterwards say, you know, the opposite would have been the better one. And that's not just on like whether to intervene or not, but like how you do it. So if you go into the big occupation force, and you get a lot of critique saying, critics saying, well, you know, you should have done a light footprint, but if you light footprint, you get the argument. So that's certainly a fair question. And let me also acknowledge from the start, because also you say, how can you be sure? I'm not sure these were all super hard calls. And all of the options were bad.

And I'm the first to admit, and in all of these cases, all the regimes were bad as well. The United States never interfered in any of these cases frivolously or just because it hadn't really thought it through. There were always very sound reasons whether it was geopolitical competition or concerned about weapons of mass destruction, terrorism or repression, these were terrible regimes. That's not my argument at all. It comes down to the whether you're able to achieve your objectives and at what cost. 

The other thing I think is relevant and I warn against in this context, is the notion of and this is a very American thing, but when the situation is bad, there's always a solution. And don't just stand there do something. I say that's an American thing because you know, there is something in American political culture, partly derives from our history of great accomplishments. This country has been so powerful for so long that it's often been the case that, the naysayers were wrong and those who said that we can put our tremendous power to huge things like winning World War II and democratizing our allies in Europe and Asia, we can get those things done.

So there's a very American thing that if there's a problem, it has a solution, and we can fix it. But the problem is that's not always the case. And so, in many ways, that's an honorable and noble and positive attitude, but it's also a potentially dangerous one. And I think in a number of these cases, and that's what I tried to show, can get you in trouble too, to say, well since the situation is bad, we can't get much worse, let's fix it. And I think clearly, you know, we fell into that trap in Iraq, and persuaded ourselves, the naysayers were wrong, right, and they're just, they just don't have the confidence in American power and leadership that they should. But in that case, the naysayers were not wrong.

I think the same was true in Syria. It was, it can't get much worse, because it's a terrible dictator, so do something. But if what you do, and in the case of Syria did was escalate a war rather than bring it to its conclusion, makes things worse than it really is the worst of all worlds. So that's why I think it's dangerous to think that, that if you're not happy with the situation, you know, change it and see what happens. 

But finally, and I think this is actually what you're really getting at in terms of the alternatives. And I in the book, I tried to be honest, in each case, when I show the costs and consequences of what we did, I bring up and talk about, you know, what the alternative to it was, it's never great. But I think as a general rule, and happy to talk about it case by case, we are better off when we use in situations like this some combination of containment, and deterrence, and diplomacy, and engagement, and arms control, and development, then we are when we decide, we're just going to transform the situation and put something better in place.

And then when you look around the world at cases where we've tried to transform the regime, either successfully quote and quote, like getting rid of it in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Libya, as opposed to places where we've decided to manage and engage, I think it really strongly suggests that the latter is a, as a general rule, a better approach.

LINDSAY: I'd really love to pull on the thread that you just laid out, really asked the question about whether we can ever break our regime change habit, but I landed myself to just one more question. So at this time, I'd like to invite members to join the conversation with questions they might have. Let me remind everybody that this meeting is on the record. And Sara, we would like to take the first question.

STAFF: We will take the first question from Gregory Gause.

Q: Thanks very much. Hi Phil. You made a really interesting point at the beginning about the Middle East having just a couple of real states and lots of artificial states. Do you think regime change is easier or makes more sense or has better long term possibilities of good consequences in quote and quote real states? Because we did, you know, Iran is a real state, right? And, and we got twenty-five years out of that coup in fifty-three, which you could say bad long term, but twenty-five years during the Cold War, many people might say, not so bad. And Egypt, of course, is a real state, you know, one can go and look at the pyramids. And you know, ups and downs, but Egypt is not a failed state, and not a major headache for us. Do you think that it makes sense to think about regime change in real states as opposed to artificial states?

GORDON: First, hi Greg. And yes, that's the two really interesting questions in that. Well, the short answer is yes I do. And don't please, you know, don't misunderstand, that's not a way of saying, oh well, the regime change in real states is easy and we should start going about it. But in terms of easier, yes in the sense that you have a greater chance of some form of institutional cohesion in a quote and quote real state. I think, by that we mean well then, that has existed for some time as a precedent of institutions, some national unity to hold it together, then you do in artificial states, that are just even more fractured.

Every state is fractured along all sorts of you know, ideological, ethnic and other lines, but there is fractured and there is more fractured. Though ones that are completely artificial, once you remove the regime as horrible or oppressive as it might be, you really are creating that vacuum and a competition for power. And we've just never been able to show away around that. And not only that, particularly in the Middle East and Jim asked at the beginning about where this is even harder in the Middle East, you get that competition among the different actors within the state, and something you know, Greg, all too well, because of the fractures across the region, you get a competition among states.

And it's not just the Sunni/Shia one that most people think about and focus on rightly so, right. So you remember the regime in Iraq, and you have a Sunni/Shia divide and the country's lining up, you have a similar sort of thing going on in Yemen or frankly any country that, and Syria as well. So the states largely lining up on one side, and Shia in this case, backing the Alawites regime, but underestimated and all of this is often the Sunni/Sunni divide. So when you remove a regime, even if you have the great benefit of not having a Sunni/Shia split, you get the dispute among the sort of Islam historian to countries like Qatar and Turkey, and, you know, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas on one side, and then the Emirates, Saudi Arabia in the Egyptian government and other, we see this before our eyes in Libya today where the civil war is raging.

And so you know, if you say Libya is in that category of artificial and not long standing nation state with some basis of unity, yes, I think it is that much harder. And it's again, another reason that the precedents that people have cited for where this worked, and you'll remember well, before the Iraq war, when there was a vigorous argument for regime change there, they had all these arguments, well, it worked well in in Germany and Japan and other cases like Panama, and Grenada, we can get into that. But part of the problem is, part of the issue is that states like some of those with long standing institutions, and in some cases, even democratic precedence have a much greater chance of surviving regime change than doing it in the Middle East. 

Last point very briefly, because I've said you raised a whole bunch of interesting things, that's also a fair point on Iran. I mentioned the Iran coup, you know, and you call that chapter original sins, and sort of the first postwar time that we did regime change in the region, and it also had negative consequences. You're right, that twenty-five years in the cold war is not that bad. It's another one, where one could argue, oh it was a success and some reasonable objectives were achieved. But just like I made the case about the first Afghanistan intervention. True, we got rid of a prickly nationalist in Mosaddegh. But we also in that episode really showed, like so many others, how we, we start to spin the analysis around what we want to see and overstate the threat.

And this notion that Mosaddegh was going to take Iran into the communist camp, I think, in retrospect, it looks like it was vastly overstated. And by getting rid of Mosaddegh, we definitely empowered a pro American regime and help some US oil companies, but we also destroyed any prospect of democratization in Iran, put in place a repressive dictator was not only bad for the uranium public, but fueled this anti Americanism, the price for which we started paying in 1979 with the revolution, and had been paying for forty years since. So again, even in that case, I would never say there's nothing in the positive ledger. But the long term consequences are pretty extreme there too.

LINDSAY: Sara, next question.

STAFF: We will take the next question from George Breslauer.

Q: Thank you very much for a very interesting talk. I'm George Breslauer, University of California at Berkeley. My question is about the Trump's strategy toward Iran today. Some argue that it is geared toward policy change on the part of Iran through a combination of military threat and economic strangulation. But others who find it not likely that the Iranian regime is going to back off on either its nuclear development or its adventures within the Middle East, argue that the real strategy is regime change, as you indicated at the start of your talk. I'm wondering, other than the fact that regime change rarely works, whether there is anything about the contemporary Iranian situation that would lead one to be either pessimistic or optimistic about the feasibility of this strategy of economic strangulation and military threat leading to regime change.

GORDON: Right. The reason I say the administration stated policy in Iran is not regime change, its behavior change. And I'm prepared to accept that at face value in the sense that if the Iranian regime stopped meddling in the region, stopped repressing its people, and backed away from any nuclear ambitions, the Trump administration would say, mission accomplished, and we're fine, we're not going to take any further steps overthrow the regime. So on the face of it, you know, fair enough, there's not a regime change policy in Iran. But realistically, I think that is, you know, the only real goal because the demands that are stated demands for that behavior change almost seemed designed to be rejected.

You know, on the nuclear deal alone, it is a deal that means zero enrichment forever, they have to get rid of everything they've learned in done over the past twenty years has to last forever. The deal also has to include ballistic missiles, regional activities, inspections whenever we want, wherever we want. And don't get me wrong, I'd take that deal tomorrow, I think it'd be great. But I also don't think it will happen. And I don't think the Trump administration thinks it will happen. And when you, when you follow the policy and listen to the way they talk about it, and Trump said too and you know, he was pulling out of the deal, that we're gonna let the Iranians reclaim their history, and Pompeo himself, Secretary of State Pompeo, last year kind of admitted he was pressed by a question or in a podcast, you don't really think this Iranian regime can change do you? And he said, well what can happen is that people can change the regime.

And I think that is clearly what, you know, the strategy is. Well so far, let's you know, be clear, maximum pressure is definitely increased, imposed tremendous pain on the Iranian economy in the Arabian public, but it hasn't really brought us closer to that deal. In fact, Iran is still doing provocative things in the region, and it's expanding its nuclear program. So the strategy really seems to be some are explicit about it, some implicit, squeeze them, and squeeze them, and squeeze them until the people rise up. You know, Trump's support for protests and call for protests really does look like that is the objective.  

So finally, because you've also asked, is there any reason to believe that, you know, maybe something's different or this can work? No. I'm skeptical for all of the reasons that I've been talking about in these other cases. On the sanctions, it's just not the case that there are precedents for sanctions, even tough sanctions that might leading regimes to accept to give up power, they just don't. And you know, they haven't in the Middle East against Saddam Hussein, we had crippling sanctions, and no fly zones and squeezed the country. It hurt the Iraqi public a lot and might have constrained his nuclear capabilities, but he didn't leave power until we sent in a big army to get him.

Qaddafi, huge pressure and sanctions, and were affected by the way in curbing his nuclear ambitions. But even sanctions plus bombing by NATO didn't, he didn't agree to leave power, and we pursued that, by the way, and something I talked about in the book is efforts to persuade him to go, he fought until he was found in a pipe and murdered before a cell phone video. Assad, crippling sanctions is just devastating to the poor, Syrian public, he's not leaving power either. And you can say the same about modest amounts of military force. So I think it is a fantasy to believe that sanctions, however biting, will lead a regime including that regime to either be overthrown by the population or to willingly agree to leave power.

LINDSAY: Sara, we can take the next question please.

STAFF: We will take the next question from Lindsay Iversen.

Q: Hi, both of you. Thank you very much for a terrific conversation. This has been a fascinating discussion. So I'm curious about the consequences of your arguments in the inverse. The United States has obviously taken a number of actions to change regimes in the Middle East, but it's taken actions, both overt and covert to preserve selected regime stability in the Middle East. And so I'm curious if you see similar consequences happening, you know, over time or in regimes like that?

GORDON: Before you go, Lindsay, can you, regimes like that, you mean places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where we have back the regime and supported it as opposed to gotten rid of it?

Q: Exactly right.

GORDON: Yep. Look, there are constants and consequences of that too. But I think when you compare them to the alternative, they don't look so bad. I mean, that's what I mean about, you know, managing problems and using diplomacy and engaging. You know those who said that the regimes that we replaced were horrible, you know, were usually right. Again, you know, people shouldn't misunderstand my argument. It's not that we shouldn't wish for even regime change. And let me just be clear on Iran, I would love to see regime change in Iran. I think the current regime in Iran does all sorts of horrible things to its own people, and to the region, and the world.

So the question, the policy question here is not whether we should wish for a different regime, it's whether actions that we might take like crippling sanctions, and support the opposition and military force, are likely to lead to something better. And so that's the case, you know, you could probably list a number of regimes in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world, where we would wish them to be otherwise. But unless we have a realistic plan to bring that about, and not only bring about, but to then follow it up with something that's going to be more stable, peaceful, and have better relations with United States or more consistent interests with the United States, then we need to think about it. 

And so I think, you know, whenever you find yourself criticizing certain regimes in the region or in the world that the United States deals with, and even supports, even though it agrees that they're problematic, ask yourself about the alternative. And I think that helps understand why living with and managing doesn't mean that we shouldn't use the tools available to press them on repression and human rights, or to align themselves with our interests or not to develop weapons of mass destruction, or not to threaten or invade their neighbors. I think you know, a lot of things that we can and need to do with our power, but however frustrated we might be with some of these regimes that we support, contemplate the alternative.

And I say that, again, reminding that, you know, strong statements from the White House, or a weekend's worth of bombing, or sanctions are not going to bring about that goal. If you're not happy with the regime, and you want an alternative, you're gonna have to do a lot more than that. And then you're gonna have to answer the question of what comes in its wake. And I said of Obama who says that in Libya, you know, he has some regrets about the Libya operation, although he puts them more in the category of what was the right thing to do, and then we failed to follow up. And I challenged that argument. I think that's the easy way to look at these things always after the fact where you don't question the operation itself but you say we could have followed up better. But what President Obama I think rightly says on Libya, is if you're going to do that, you need to be able to answer the question about the day after. And if you can't answer the question about the day after, you really think, you really need to think carefully about whether that should be your goal.

LINDSAY: Sara, next question, please.

STAFF: We will take the next question from Mark Hannah. Mr. Hannah, please accept the unmute now prompt.

Q: Can you hear me now? Okay. I want to thank you for writing this book and it'll be valuable to have an insider's view on regime change. I want to ask a question about the international precedents that sets the United States is the ultimate rules maker and precedent setter and agenda setter when it comes to the rules based international order. Do you worry that other governments might look to regime change as a legitimate foreign policy tool or tactic in their region now that we have done so? I'm thinking about Iran backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen, I'm thinking about China thinking about neighbors in their neighborhood that they might want an odious regime and their eyes changed. Do you get into that in this book?

GORDON: A little bit. And I do point out that, you know, you could write an entire book about the costs and consequences of other countries attempts to change regimes in different regions, and fall in some of the similar traps as us. I mean, you know, the Suez conflict in fifty-six, the British and the French, thought they will pull something like this, Israel going into Lebanon in eighty-two. The Saudis, I mean, you mentioned the Houthis, which in a sense, is regime change Iran backs the Houthis to change the regime in Yemen. But then the Saudi response is also an attempt to change the regime in Yemen.

I don't think anyone could quibble with the Saudi objective of not wanting the Houthi quote and quote regime to be in power. But you could question the effectiveness of that regime change approach that has led to what is now what you know, close to six years of a horrific war with horrific consequences. So I do talk about non, some non U.S. cases and I'm examined in detail like I do in the U.S., but yes, there are non U.S. cases where this is backfired as well. The one thing I'll say about your question Mark, though, is that, yes, there will be other countries who will pursue a regime change as they have in the past. But the reality is that in many cases, other countries strategies for regime change entails getting the United States to execute regime change.

Most countries don't have the capacity to do what we have to do, right? I won't, you know, disparage any small country by questioning its sanctions ability. But if the United States says we're putting on massive sanctions, you can't trade with the United States if you don't do the following thing, that's a pretty big deal. And it's even bigger when we say, we'll put on secondary sanctions, you're not going to trade at all, you're not going to sell oil. So we have, we can allow ourselves as Americans to think about pursuing such goals that other countries just can't, say militarily. We can say, look, here's the red line, and we're going to change your regime if you don't do what we want. That's just not an option for most countries.

So in that sense, I mean, you mentioned a few, you know Iran, China, there are some countries in limited cases who might be able to pursue regime change policies on their own, but you know, nowhere near what we can do. And like I said, if you look at it, other countries, when they set about to try to get rid of their neighboring rivals, it's also through American power. I gave the examples, not exactly the same thing, but even the British and the French trying to use our power in Libya and the Italians, you know. Turkey and Syria, when once Turkey had decided that it was determined to see Assad go, it didn't occur to the Turks to invade Damascus and overthrow the regime, they don't have the capacity for that. It did occur to them to try to set up a dynamic that would lead the United States to be in a more direct conflict with the regime and get rid of it. So in that sense, I think if the U.S. forswears regime change or makes clear where it's not going to do it, you're at least less likely to get other countries doing it simply because they don't have the military or economic capacity to realistically pursue it.

LINDSAY: Sara, we can take another question.

STAFF: We will take the next question from John Sullivan.

Q: Greetings. Thank you very much for your presentation. It was, I look forward very much to reading it as well. I'm John Sullivan, I used to be with the Center for International Private Enterprise. And you won't be surprised by my question, but which is, have you looked at Ronald Reagan's Westminster speech, as well as his speech on the opening of the National Endowment for Democracy? He sets out a [INAUDIBLE] that unfortunately I don't think his predecessors have followed. But his idea was, and he says in his speech, we cannot impose our system of government to other countries, rather, what we must do is work with Democrats within their [INAUDIBLE] to try to promote, help development of the country. I wish that others had followed that, I was curious as to your thoughts.

And I'll just make a comment on the change of regime done under Mosaddegh. If you must have looked at the work of Richard Cottam, both the landmark book called Nationalism in Iran. Cottam was actually a CIA officer stationed in Iran in 1953, who opposed the overthrow of Mosaddegh and pretty much laid it out, I was one of the students, but laid out pretty much the consequences of that, in terms of the long lasting implications which you have mentioned. So I think it's fascinating. But thank you for your time.

GORDON: Thanks very much. You broke up a little bit, but I, I'm glad you raised Reagan, because that it's an important piece of this, in the sense that I think many people invoke Ronald Reagan as a proponent of regime change, and as the president who showed how you can do it successfully by confronting the Soviet Union. And evoke Reagan's policies and that's how we brought down the Soviet Union, and we can do the same thing through sanctions and military activities in Iran or elsewhere. I actually think the history of the Cold War and the end of this session is not the time to get into the history of the Cold War. But the lesson of the Cold War, I think, is not how the United States can successfully pursue regime change.

But in some ways the opposite. United States didn't pursue regime change in the Soviet Union. They were advocates of it in the 1950s rollback and their advocates in the 1970s. With the committee on the present danger and the desire to foment unrest and overthrow the Soviet government. But as a general rule, the United States pursued containment and accepted, and this goes to sort of the heart of my thesis, it accepted that there are certain problems that you can't fix at a reasonable cost. So you contain them, you try to shape them, you use diplomacy, engagement, arms control containment, deterrence, and patience, and they can some of them, sometimes have a better outcome than trying to transform the situation directly, and especially through regime change.

And even Ronald Reagan, when people forget, Ronald Reagan engaged the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan wrote letters to the general secretaries of the Communist Party, that we're not that different from Obama's letters to the Supreme Leader in Iran, about the desire to move forward and have pragmatic relations.  So I think it's a myth to think that somehow we won the Cold War by trying to do regime change in the Soviet Union, which came about, let me remind, I'm conscious of our time, came out not because we armed the opposition, or fomented rebellion, and the people rose up and got rid of the regime.

It came about in the opposite way, when the regime realized that it had a terrible system. It was losing geopolitically, it was losing economically, and it decided it had to try a different approach. And they put in Gorbachev and he pursued different policies at home and abroad. So Reagan, I think, is interesting because he has misused. Secretary Pompeo gave his Iran speech at the Reagan Library in California, not coincidentally, I think, to evoke the notion that Reagan was this big regime changer. But I think if you actually look at the history of our cold war policies, it makes a strong case for a containment and deterrence rather than for regime change.

LINDSAY: Thank you very much Phil we have come to the end of our time. I want to thank you for that tour de force taking us through some seven decades of history in the Middle East. I want to remind CFR members on the call that you should have received the email on September seventeenth which gives you an opportunity to get a copy of Phil's book Losing the Long Game for free. I want to note that the audio and transcript of today's meeting will be posted on CFR's website, CFR, excuse me, And I want to thank everyone for joining us today.

GORDON: Thanks everybody.


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