Philip Gordon discusses the history of regime change in U.S. foreign policy from the 1950s to present day.
The CFR Master Class Series is a weekly 45-minute session hosted by Vice President and Deputy Director for Studies Shannon O’Neil in which a CFR fellow will take a step back from the news and discuss the fundamentals essential to understanding a given country, region of the world, or issue pertaining to U.S. foreign policy or international relations.
O'NEIL: Great. Well, thank you very much. I'm Shannon O'Neil. I'm a vice president for studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations and I'm welcoming you to our latest version of CFR's Master Class. This is, for those of us who have joined us before, this is our chance to look beyond the headlines and look in depth at a particular foreign policy issue or part of the world.
So today we are going to be focusing on the history of regime change in U.S. foreign policy and we have with us, to lead this discussion, we have Phil Gordon, Phil, as many of you know, he's the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow for foreign policy, U.S. foreign policy, at the Council on Foreign Relations and in addition to his more scholarly work that he does with us, and that he's done in a previous stint with Brookings, he has actually been on the inside having these discussions about whether or not to have regime change. And we'll find out whether or not he won those debates, but he has done that over the years from within the White House, State Department, and other places around the U.S. government. And he also has a book on this subject coming out on August 6, as I read the title, you'll get a little sense of where he stands. Oh, October, sorry, October 6.
GORDON: I know you're so eager, Shannon.
O'NEIL: I want to read it right now. I have a little time, as we all do. So the title is, Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East. I'm going to turn it over to him for his opening remarks, and then we will open it up to all of you and the discussion. Go ahead Phil.
GORDON: Great, thanks a lot, Shannon and hello, everybody. I looked at the participants list and I saw a lot of familiar names, and it's a great group, so I really look forward to this discussion. I think our biggest challenge will be talking about seventy years of U.S. foreign policy in forty-five minutes, so I will try to do my part by keeping the opening brief and then look forward to the conversation.
So what I'll do is, first just define this subject so we're all on the same page about what we're talking about and then I'll make some observations and some key takeaways for it. And I want to define it because what I'm talking about when I talk about regime change as a tool of U.S. foreign policy is when the United States government finds a foreign adversary so problematic for any of a range of reasons, and you'll see here that we do this for a range of reasons, that it uses whatever tools that are at its disposal to oust that foreign government and transform the political system. So I'm not just talking about putting our thumb on the scale to maybe help one leader win an election in other country. I'm not talking about military interventions for other purposes, like the first Gulf War or interventions in the Balkans. And I'm not talking about when a regime has changed internally, you know, like, say, Tunisia in 2010, where that's regime change, but it's not U.S. policy where we set out to do it. I'm talking about cases where it's the focus of U.S. policy and we make a sustained effort, with a range of means, to bring about a different regime.
Now, it turns out, this is actually quite a frequent tool, maybe more than people would realize. But we've done this dozens of times since WWII. My book that Shannon kindly mentioned is about regime change in the Middle East, which is active enough—I mean by my count, in terms of main cases, we've done it seven times since the 1950s—and that's what I look at. But here I want to talk about it a little bit more broadly, because we've done it all over the world and I think some of the patterns and lessons are similar. Let me just give you a couple of illustrative examples before I make some comments about them. But really, the first major postwar intervention is Iran in 1953, with the CIA sponsored coup to get rid of the Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and install the Shah. That seemed to go so well initially that the Eisenhower administration then started seeing it as a sort of low-cost way of pursuing U.S. foreign policy aims. And so we then started making plans and doing it in Latin America, we did Guatemala in 1954 to get rid of a left-wing government that was elected—supporting a coup—and then developing plans to do it in Cuba, which was of course attempted in 1961, the Bay of Pigs, Eisenhower's specific tasking—of course this was under Kennedy—but Eisenhower developed the policy. The specific tasking to the CIA was the replacement of the Castro regime and putting in place one more devoted to what he considered to be the interest of the Cuban people and more acceptable to the United States. Now that of course failed, but it was regime change in the sense that that's what we were trying to do.
Less synonymous with failure than the Bay of Pigs, but maybe more consequential, was the regime change we tried in South Vietnam in 1963. After working with the Diem regime and trying to support it in our war against the North, we decided that that regime was just too corrupt, too inefficient, and we supported a coup against Diem—it ended with a bullet in the back of his head—to bring about a better regime and it turned out that that one didn't work out particularly well in South Vietnam either. Then we go back to Latin America, you get Chile 1971 with Allende, Marxist, nationalizations, Nicaragua supporting the Sandinistas—again, part of a Cold War struggle—giving billions of dollars to the contras to get rid of them—and then you get one that I do look at extensively in the broader Middle East at least, which is the first Afghanistan. I say first because we've actually done it twice in Afghanistan. It starts in 1979, when the Soviets go in to bolster the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan. And the interesting thing about this one, it's sort of a different case because we didn't initially set out to do regime change, we initially set out to just cause problems for the Soviets then, over time, it morphed into not just cause problems for them, but drive them out of Afghanistan. And then by the end of the decade, after a decade of civil war, it became well we've got to get rid of the regime entirely. That one's interesting for a whole range of reasons, we can come back to it, but it shows the slippery slope nature of some of these.
And slippery slope was one that we found for ourselves—I say we, you know, when I was in the Obama administration—in Libya as well, which started as a narrow mission to protect civilians and then with that slippery slope morphed into regime change and challenges to follow up. So the first Afghanistan is interesting. We do it a couple more times in the 80s, in Latin America, Grenada, and Panama for very different reasons, then we do Afghanistan again—one lesson of which was obviously the first one didn't work out particularly well, because we ended up having to do it again, in 2001, after 911 to get rid of the Taliban regime, with military intervention. Then, of course, Iraq 2003, which is sort of classic, what comes to most people's minds, they think of regime changes, military invasion, and occupation. And then you get this interesting period under Obama, where Obama finds himself doing regime change a couple of times in the Middle East as well, that's particularly interesting, because obviously he was elected in large part as a reaction to...and a critic of regime change in Iraq, but then developing starts happening in North Africa and we find ourselves pushing for different regimes in very different ways, in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.
So that's a nutshell of a long history, but underscoring how frequent it is that we resort to this as a policy—and by the way, this is not all behind us, it's very relevant today because we continue to debate this, again, Obama who came in against regime change, but found himself doing it. And today we are, I think, quite clearly pursuing it in Iran—even if that's not the official policy of the Trump administration, that's really the goal. We're doing it in Venezuela where for two years we've been squeezing the regime to try to get rid of it. Syria, it had been the policy, it failed, but it's still more or less the case that—if you look at the Caesar Act and the administration's policy—that the sanctions are designed to stay in place until Assad leaves. And then interestingly, I won't dwell on this, but the Pompeo speech two weeks ago on China was a pretty major step toward saying we can't achieve our interests as long as this communist regime in place and to quote Pompeo, "We have to change them before they change us."
So it's got a long history and you can see the diversity of examples. And that's actually the first takeaway I would leave with you, is that we do this for a lot of different reasons and a lot of different ways—the diversity of this. This is not one sort of thing. Reasons have ranged from anti nationalism, to oil, to anti-communism, to Cold War geopolitical competition, to corruption even, and crime in Panama, to counterterrorism, Afghanistan, humanitarian, saving lives in Libya, Iraq sort of brought a bunch of these together, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, democracy promotion. So we do it for a lot of reasons. We also do it a lot of different ways. I mentioned that the first one was a CIA sponsored coup, but we've done covert assistance, we've done overt assistance, sometimes at the same time, we've invaded and occupied, we've invaded and not occupied, we've used air power alone, and then if you include Egypt, we've used diplomacy a lot. So lots of different reasons, lots of different ways.
But to me what they all have in common is that they invariably have failed to achieve our ultimate goals. I say ultimate, and that's the reason for the main title of my book, Losing the Long Game, because often these things seem to work in the short term, indeed that's one of the parts of familiar patterns is declaring victory because they seem to go well initially, but they ultimately always seem to fail, have unintended and sometimes catastrophic consequences. They always carry, or almost always carry, extraordinary financial and human costs, and in many cases leave the United States and the country, the target country, worse off than they were before. I covered that just slightly. Now sometimes, certain goals are initially met before it goes bad later. Sometimes we get some strategic benefits to the United States before their negative consequences, and sometimes it's a disaster for all concerned, and I facetiously paraphrase Tolstoy and conclude that every successful attempt at regime change is unsuccessful in its own way.
Let me say two last things. By way of introductions, I mentioned the familiar patterns that we see. That's one of the striking things as, as diverse are the reasons for regime change and the ways in which we go about it. The patterns that we see in these cases turn out to be remarkably familiar. Once the U.S. government decides that a regime is intolerable and needs to get rid of it, we tend to overstate the threat and start seeing it through, and talking about it through, a best-case scenario for if we do get rid of the regime and a worst case if we don't. We almost always understate the costs, we over promise what regime change can deliver, as I said, before we prematurely declare victory, and then we discover that there are unintended consequences and a security vacuum that we're unable to fill. And the worst cases, things like Iraq and Afghanistan, we end up not only…the conflicts not only costs thousands of lives, but trillions of dollars and indefinite troop deployments.
And let me just—I don't want to take too long because I definitely want to leave enough time for questions—but let me just give a flavor of why I think this is so hard. This range of cases, a couple of things I think are worth keeping in mind. I mentioned a couple already, but just to reinforce this, why is it so hard to get this right? And why should we be so skeptical? One is this security vacuum concept that I mentioned. When you get rid of an order even a bad order people just inevitably feel insecure and when they feel insecure, they turn to kin and tribes and sects and religions and groups, and the people we put in power invariably are nervous too and they seek supremacy, and the people we keep out of power resist. And it turns out that a security vacuum pulls in others and it can even be worse than the repressive regime that we replaced. Second, clients have their own interests. We put them in power hoping they'll align with our goals, but it turns out they sometimes have their own goals. And you see this with the Shah in Iran. You see it with Karzai in Afghanistan. You saw it with Maliki in Iraq. You saw it with Morsi in Egypt. You saw it with Jibril in Libya. Almost all cases countries have their state interests that have deep roots and once we put these leaders in power, we don't have as much leverage over them as we might like because you can't really pull the plug and they know it, and they defy our wishes.
A third thing to keep in mind—and I mentioned the vacuum—the vacuum not only creates a competition among people within the states, but it pulls in regional actors, as well. There's this myth about regime change or military operations, which is often that the neighbors will help. And one of the things I do in my chapter on Iraq is I sort of do an archaeology of all the optimism going into that intervention. And one of the pieces, there were many, but one was that the neighboring Arab states would send all the peacekeeping troops because we didn't have to. That not only turned out not to be the case, but the opposite almost always turns out to be the case. There are neighbors who have different goals than ours and one of their goals is to make us fail, so we see that with the Pakistanis in Afghanistan, we see it in Iran and Iraq, turns out that Iran didn't want us to succeed in Iraq. That was the conclusion of the US Army study—if there was one winner of the Iraq War it was Iran. And it was certainly true about Iran and Russia in Syria. There are always regional spoilers who want to thwart our success. I already mentioned the unintended consequences point. I won’t elaborate on it here, but in almost every case, for all the things you worried about going in, there were two or three you didn't think about and they turned out to be quite dramatic and quite problematic.
And then I guess the last thing I would say is that it's not just a question of plans, or money and troops. One of the things you notice when you go through this long list is in almost every case when it doesn't work out well people involved in it, or others say, if only we had done X or Y and X or Y, more troops, fewer troops, different diplomacy, but it seems to me when you look back at this full range of history, unlikely that this was often a good idea. But it just so happens that the administrations of Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush one, Bush two, Obama, kind of got the implementation wrong. It's not just about implementation—it's not just about having plans. So I'll conclude, does this mean, because this track record is so negative, does this mean we should never do it? I don't go that far, and I think it's impossible to rule out—there could be cases of weapons of mass destruction or genocide or terrorism that you'd have to put everything aside and say we have no choice but to change the regime—but I'd also say that if history is any guide, those cases will be rare to non-existent. I think the policy lesson based on this history is that the next time U.S. leaders propose to change the regime as a fix to some international problem we should understand that it's always going to be harder and the costs greater and the unintended consequences greater and the benefits less obvious than proponents claim. I'll stop there, Shannon.
O'NEIL: Great, thanks, Phil. I'm going to let Teagan just give people directions on how to ask the question and then I'll come back to you with a question.\
STAFF: (Gives queueing instructions) Shannon, did you have the first question?
O'NEIL: I do have the first one. Sorry, my internet is a little unstable, but we'll go with it. So Phil, actually I wanted to press you on that last point, because you laid out, incredibly convincingly, that our batting average is terrible on this and that it never works, so why would we still use it ever? And I guess the flip side of that question is, what are the alternatives? What are the alternatives when you have genocide when you have weapons of mass destruction? So talk a little bit about why we would still use it ever and is it because we just don't have any other options?
GORDON: Yeah, that's an excellent question—indeed it was one of the puzzles I sought to resolve in looking at this, because I think generally most people think—I mean, there's still some proponents of regime change as a concept out there, there aren't as many as there were, you know, before the Iraq war before the Iraq War—I think it was a much stronger view that we should be more assertive, we should do this more often not less. And I think Iraq undermined that concept, even for general supporters of this and so one of the puzzles I...but nonetheless, it remained as a tool of U.S. foreign policy, and I described the sort of accident where even Obama—which really is ironic, because he came in professing admiration for Brent Scowcroft and George HW Bush and restraint in foreign policy, and against the Iraq War and yet even he couldn't resist—you know, once you started to get these developments in the Middle East in North Africa—even he couldn't resist thinking, you know what, maybe that actually shouldn't be a tool, maybe it's different now. And that's one of the things I tried to solve, is given such a terrible track record. why do our leaders keep coming back to this as a tool when it's so rarely works out?
It may be that the Obama period makes that even less likely, you know, fool me once… okay there were reasons to think maybe with the Cold War over and our tremendous power in the early 2000s maybe we could do it and you could forgive those who thought it would work in Iraq for thinking that. But then the second time when Obama comes around to it, and it turns out in Egypt not only didn't work—and Egypt is very different case and I want to be very clear, this is not like a military intervention—but it is also the case that, at a certain point, we decided that Mubarak wasn't moving fast enough, we should weigh in and use our diplomacy at least to get rid of him and then invest in this completely different regime of Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi—and we're optimistic enough that we could make that happen. Well, then, of course you get a coup and even greater the repression than Mubarak. In Libya we thought—even Obama thought—it could work, it was 51-49. But when in, I mentioned before, you go from, we're just going to save lives to actually we're going to get rid of the regime and then that leaves a legacy of about a decade of civil war.
And then in Syria, Obama also tried to resist, but then—we can talk more about this if you like—eventually got on board for at least trying it. So I did set out to solve that riddle of why we keep turning back to it. And the only answer, I guess there are a couple of answers. One is just this innate and still existing, even if not as powerful as before, American political and strategic culture of can-do optimism. You know, just the great successes that this country had, all the way going back to WWII, because one of the cheers of proponents of regime change throughout is, we did it in Japan and Germany—I mean, that lasted for decades, but often before each of these interventions, and you see the argument, you especially saw it before Iraq poo pooing critics who said Iraq is not going to be a democracy, this is going to be too costly with no, we've often brought about democracy and stability through regime change, and we can do it again. So this just tremendous power and optimism. Now that obviously faded and weakened during the Vietnam period, but after Reagan and then the end of the Cold War it was back and we were the sole superpower, we were powerful enough to do this, and so long as we're feeling Americans feel strong and confident, they're going to be tempted to say, you know what, it's different now and we can do it. So it looked like that had been gone after Iraq, but like I said, a unique set of circumstances brought it back under Obama. So that's why I think it keeps coming back along with the fact that let's be honest, these are hard problems and I want to be very clear about that upfront, too because there is a sort of knee jerk, I think, simplistic criticism out there of regime change of almost pardons these bad regimes that we got rid of and I want to be very clear that in almost every case these are terrible regimes. They mistreated their people, and they weren't in U.S. foreign policy interests so there's always a reason we want to get rid of them, but policy is about choices.
And that sort of brings me to the second part of your question—alternatives, because that's a fair question. And I'll be the first to admit in almost every case, the alternatives were poor, again, there's a reason we want to get rid of regimes that mistreat their people or pursue weapons of mass destruction or threaten their neighbors. But I think what you do find given that the consequences of actually doing it led to the disasters, the costly disasters that I mentioned, it does turn out that in most cases, some combination of engagement, diplomacy, deterrence, cooperation with neighbors, arms control, sanctions, as a package turns out to be better in the long run than creating a vacuum through regime change that we aren't able to deal with.
O'NEIL: Let's turn to the first question from our members.
STAFF: We will take our first question from Adam Pearlman.
Q: Hi, thank you. Mr. Gordon, I guess I have two questions for you—oh, Adam Perlman, currently supporting the State Department. I've got a functional question and a philosophical one. The functional question is, in your discussion of patterns, you said once the U.S. government determines that a regime needs to go and then there's, you know, the dominoes start to fall, basically. But you've spent enough time in government, you know it's not monolithic on any issue, but for this in particular, what's the driving force within the government and the patterns that you've seen? Is a top down? Is it bottom up? Does it depend on the administration or the problem set? Is there a specific agency or department that has more influence? Or again, does that depend on the on the problem set? I mean, I worked in justice, defense, and State and understanding that there's a lot of different push and pull factors on all these. The philosophical question is related, especially with respect to the unintended consequences, in your view, given these patterns, does the United States like democracy abroad?
GORDON: Okay, those are great questions actually. The first one, there are two aspects of the first one that I would want to address. The first one being about how do we get there? What's the process and what, what drives it? I made this point about how the analyses change and I said, as you quoted, "once we decide to make this our policy, the analyses change." Now, you're obviously right there, through all of these there were critics and proponents, but what tends to happen—it does get directed from the top and as soon as the signal from the top is to go in a different direction then the system sort of lines up behind it. And I'll just give you a couple of examples—I looked pretty carefully at the Iran pre-1953 decision making process and through '51/'52, actually, through January '53—because that's when the Eisenhower administration comes in—the American analysis was Mosaddegh was mostly a nationalist, he was actually useful to us because he was anti-communist, and we could do a deal with him. The British were being kind of difficult. They wanted to squeeze Iran for all the profits they could at a brainian oil, and Truman was—there's some really interesting parallels with the current Trump administration and maximum pressure now—the Truman administration was pressing the British to cut a deal with the Iranians, maybe a bad deal critics would say, but do a sort of 50/50 oil split like they did with the other countries in the Middle East. But the British were broke after WWII, were "no way—we developed this oil, Mosaddegh's crazy and he's challenging our empire..." and so you had an American view of counseling pragmatism and even analysis, that was Mosaddegh is popular, he has support of the people and he was useful to us as anti-communist. Then the Brits weighed in with Washington, they kept pushing this notion that actually there was a risk that the communists would take over and Mosaddegh was promoting third world resistance against stability. And they weighed in on Eisenhower, took advantage of his obsession with the Cold War, and then American analyses start to change and suddenly, even from some of the same people who were saying that he was popular and nationalist, were starting to report that he was actually possibly going to fall to the communists and the communists would take over, because that's what leaders wanted to hear.
So once at the top, because they got the signal from Eisenhower that we were going to support getting rid of him. So once that message comes across the analysis starts to line up. There's a famous quote from the Iraq War, of course, you know the head of MI6 said that the facts were being set around the policy. That's what tends to happen in the government and that is, to a large extent, what happened in Iraq. I mean, think about Iraq—I'm talking about 2003—the Bush administration came in, and even though during the campaign in Iraq and getting rid of Saddam was a major issue all of the top leaders of the administration were basically saying, for that first year, including Bush himself, he's in a box, Secretary Powell testified to that effect, Condoleezza Rice National Security Adviser. The basic argument, the basic analysis was, yes, he's probably pursuing weapons of mass destruction, he's a terrible dictator, but he can be contained. Then you get 9/11 and a different way of thinking about it, and from the top it's clearly a signal, we're going to get rid of this guy. And then the assessment of whether containment could work goes out the window and people start arguing containment can never work, sanctions can never work. So that's what tends to happen, is even analysis is not entirely free of political influence or leadership influence. Once the US sets about to go on a certain goal, the analysis tends to fall in behind it. And like I said, the best-case scenarios for action get adopted and those on the other side are stifled or muffled or put aside. So that's the first part of that.
The second part, when you say, “who does this or...” it's another interesting bureaucratic question. I'll just describe one example of the pressures to do this and I guess broadly speaking, what I'm going to say is, there's something about our system—it relates to the political culture, a strategic culture point I made earlier about the Americans. Americans feeling like we always have a solution, and we can make things better. That's very rare in international diplomacy, right? I mean, you go into a European Chancellery or foreign ministry and sometimes the answer is, well, you know, that's a problem that we can't solve and then they just go about their business. That's harder for Americans to do because we have played the role of security provider of the last resort, we have tremendous power and people look to us and put pressure on us to use it. And I mean, you said you're in government, and you know, many of us have been in a lot of such meetings—where meetings in the Situation Room rarely end or can't end with well, that's a that's a tough problem, but there's not a lot we can do about it. They're driven to end with, here's what we're going to do. And even to the extent that that's not the case, or people in that room happened to be skeptical of action, the pressures to do so are enormous. And I described this paradox of Obama getting elected, campaigning against regime change and finding himself doing it. I think Syria, well all of the North Africa, Middle East cases are a good example of that, but Syria was one where you just saw this relentless pressure on a president who didn't want to intervene, to do so. And I consider Obama, first of all, pretty much made up his mind on that issue. I mean, he's thought a lot about this question that I'm talking about and he has said publicly that early on during the debate about Syria, he commissioned a CIA assessment of past interventions and whether they succeeded or not and he said that the answer was no, not really. And so his own view was that we shouldn't imagine that this could work and as is well known, he resisted getting involved and specifically getting involved military in Syria, and he's a pretty disciplined leader. Just imagine this relentless series of meetings in the Situation Room, where the Secretary of State reports that all of our allies are begging us to act. So it's true in Libya, in Syria as well.
And in Libya, the Europeans had refugees coming, Gaddafi's massacring people—just pleading with us to act—our Gulf Arab allies saying the same thing, "we've got to do something." Congress, you have people calling relentlessly, no fly zone, we have to testify. And again, just like I say, in the meeting, it's hard for the end to be there's not a lot we can do. Go and testify to Congress and have your testimony be this is a terrible situation. People are getting killed. They might be pursuing weapons of mass destruction, but there's not a lot we can do, Senator. So the pressure from the media, Congress, foreign counterparts, humanitarian organizations, is such that it drives us in a direction that even if you have a president is not inclined to go in that direction ends up doing so. I don't want to go on too long, you had another big philosophical question about democracy. But that is actually relevant for this because we often…sometimes it's just a selling point because we think that's a better way to persuade people to go along with it and sometimes it's a genuine belief that the reason, we should intervene is to promote democracy. I think Adam, you phrase that as, "...do we really want to see that?" I think we do want to, but one of the things that struck me in doing this research and thinking about it is, of all the reasons we do this, do regime change—and as I described, there are many—that's the weakest because that's the one with the least positive results. In all of the Middle East cases, or I'll flip it around, in none of the Middle East cases did our interventions lead to anything close to democracy. In some cases, they led to even more repression and less freedom and democracy than the first place. And in most of the other Latin American African cases you could say the same thing as well and yet that's is almost invariably at the top of the list is the reason we should do this because the leader in the current regime is not democratic. But it shouldn't be that surprising that when you get rid of a regime through coercive ways the result is very unlikely going to be an open and transparent democracy, and there the empirical evidence is overwhelming. To go back to the WWII example and take that whole period in retrospect, one thing that's pretty clear is that democracy is hard anywhere, and we're seeing it's even hard to keep up in places that have democratic traditions, but without democratic traditions, a certain degree of economic development and institutions. Our ability to set up a democracy and countries that aren't currently democratic is almost nil.
O'NEIL: Let's take the next question.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Leila Afas.
Q: Hi, thank you so much, you know it's actually quite fitting for me to ask the next question, given that you just touched upon the Middle East—but looking at Lebanon, we just saw the government collapse and the Prime Minister's cabinet resign. What would you recommend for the international community to support the state now? Obviously, they have a horrible fiscal situation and have had trouble securing a loan from the IMF until they implement structural reform. So given your excellent analysis, what would you say—how they move forward?
GORDON: Thanks. I wish I had a constructive and optimistic take on what we should do in Lebanon, which is really a destroyed country. Lebanon—you know, it's actually almost astonishing it has not collapsed already given developments not just for decades, but over the past 10 years with Syrian refugees—I think one fourth of the population of Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee—and you have all of the sectarianism and instability in the region, it has been sort of surprising that Lebanon hadn't collapsed even before this. And obviously, the nefarious role played by Iran and sponsoring Hezbollah and using Lebanon as a tool for its interference in the region. So I don't have—other than obviously, supporting change and pushing out the political class and providing humanitarian relief—I don't have, unfortunately, a brilliant silver bullet. So I would say, to sort of relate this to my topic, one thing that is interesting about it, is it does seem to me that the prospects of this sort of path to change—where the leadership is so corrupt and incompetent that it genuinely creates a people power backlash against the entire system—has at least as good prospects for bringing about that sort of positive change than for a foreign policy designed to undermine that government, especially if that means fomenting instability and working with different parties against each other or intervening militarily. So Lebanon is an interesting case. I don't want to be naive about it because there are too many factors that would lead more to pessimism than optimism, but I do think—and there are some parallels with the collapse of the Soviet Union—that positive change can come with from within, there's a greater prospect that it comes from within than that it be imposed from without.
O'NEIL: Let's take another question.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Charles Dunbar. Mr. Dunbar, please accept the unmute now button.
Q: Can you hear me? From going to a series of these great meetings, where I knew nothing much about them, I know a great deal about this subject. I worked for eight of my thirty-two years in the State Department in and on Afghanistan. And then, after retiring, I even had the chance to run the Club Med of United Nations Peace Operations in Western Sahara. The subject you have raised is huge. I'm going to narrow it down, first by talking about Afghanistan. I agree with Ambassador Haass, that that was a war of necessity. I will say quickly about Iraq, I argue with my friends, that it is the second worst foreign policy mistake that the United States has made—the first being the war of 1812. I wander, I will now wander back to Afghanistan. I think the enormous point was first to internationalize it, which we did not do. There was a robust United Nations presence and NATO presence and we excluded NATO from our operations for the first year or so and gradually we took them under our wing and then, lo and behold, there we were running, as usual. And we had developed large ambitions because we're Americans—bless our hearts, as people from Texas say—we can of course do it right. I think the effort could have worked better had it been more international and had we been more tolerant of Mr. Karzai. I urge anyone, if they want to read about complexity and a personal human tragedy—which was Karzai's—to read A Kingdom of Their Own, about the Karzai family and how we were deeply into the Karzai family via the CIA, supporting the people that we should not have been supporting.
I think the case is, it has to be international there is a perfectly good UN peacekeeping operation, peacemaking operation—building operation—we could have supported that. I understand what we did mostly was have tea with the with the SRSG and hope that things would go better. But I urge not to give up on peace operations, do them differently and start by curbing our charming American propensity for thinking we know best and can make it happen. And lastly, the domestic political dimension of it. You got into it solidly, and I congratulate you, but it was very much at play in Afghanistan because if we didn't do enough then the Taliban would take over and what would happen to all those wonderful Afghan women—and they were wonderful and remain wonderful. But let's not give up, not throw out the baby with the bathwater, let's look at each thing and try to be International. Thank you. That wasn't a question, but maybe you would have some comments on it.
GORDON: I do, and I appreciate your thoughtful comments. It sort of allows me to reinforce two points that I made because Afghanistan is indeed really interesting in this regard. And as I say in the book, I look at to regime changes in Afghanistan. So the two reflections I'd make on your statement is one, that this reinforces this point I made about unintended consequences. Now, you're talking about the second intervention Afghanistan, which I will in a sec, but even the first one is really interesting in this regard, because when you look back at all of this, for many, and Shannon asked me earlier, like, "why do we keep coming back to this?" I gave the WWII as one example in strategic culture, but another is the Afghanistan intervention that people argue helped accelerate the decline of the Soviet Union that became the poster child for we can do this and we can do it well, in many ways. Um, because, the Soviets, in this cold war struggle, the Soviets sponsor a coup and then they invade the country. And then we, for not too much money, like a billion dollars, support the Mujahideen, weakens the Soviet Union, they not only pull out of Afghanistan, but the Soviet Union collapses. And you know, in the annals of CIA history, this is a brilliant, low-cost intervention that brings about maximalist geostrategic goals. So on the face of it, this is one where you would put it in the category of it worked and that's why we keep coming back to it, because sometimes you can pull this off. But when you drill down a little bit, even this really successful one—so it's true that we got the Soviets to leave Afghanistan, and arguably, even if you want to say, helped weaken the Soviet Union, although there's obviously a huge debate about what really led to the end of the Soviet Union—but the costs of that intervention that was so "successful" and this isn't the unintended consequences thing. It's first of all, a savage, brutal civil war for around a decade—one of the most savage in 20th century history—that killed more than ten million Afghans and displaced, whatever, fifteen percent of the country.
Charles talked about these very sympathetic humans in Afghanistan, the human cost of regime change in Afghanistan was horrific. That civil war, that brutal civil war, only really ended when the Taliban, one of the worst of the groups, won and impose this dystopia of murder and destroying statues and not letting girls go to school and all the rest and harboring Al Qaeda, which attacks the United States on 911 leading to the second intervention in in Afghanistan, which you rightly described as a war of necessity. That one to almost seems like a no brainer, right? And the United States is attacked, Taliban refused to give up Al Qaeda, of course we have to get rid of that regime—seems like a no brainer, but even that one, we go in and get rid of the Taliban, the costs of that have been more than a trillion dollars and an apparently indefinite occupation force, which is the second point I wanted to make in response to the question, because I think you did what so many do in this regard, which was described as the only reflex.
So the irony is one of the alleged lessons of the first intervention is that we left, right? That's the critique of the first Afghanistan war. We did the right thing by supporting the Mujahideen and to get rid of the Soviets, but then we left Afghanistan to its own devices, because we did that it broke into civil war and the Taliban came in. So the implication of that is, instead of leaving, we should have stayed. But if you want to run that experiment, you don't have to run it again, because we've been running it for twenty years now. The second time we did stay, and I actually think, I mean I would argue with this notion that we didn't internationalize enough, because I think we took that on board too. You're right. It took NATO a while to get in there. But basically, the story of Afghanistan in 2001 is learning the alleged lessons of the first one, not just walking away. But we stayed for twenty years, Obama, whatever, more than a decade after the intervention, putting ninety thousand more troops to bring the total to one hundred thousand. This is more than a decade after the intervention. And when I was at the State Department at that time and spent half my time trying to raise money and troops from the Europeans for this NATO operation. So it's a little bit hard to argue that, if only we had rallied our allies a little bit more, put in some more troops, or "stay", that we could have made a success of this. I think that really illustrates this point I make about unintended consequences and costs, it's always going to be easy for us to say, if only we had worked harder to get NATO in there and not had to deal with the Karzai family. And you know, we're always disappointed with the leaders that we put in, but you know, the perfect ones who have influence and control and legitimacy and support in the country, they don't exist and so Afghanistan in that sense is a really interesting case. You know, arguably the lessons of leaving, but then also the less the costs of leaving, but also the costs of staying.
O'NEIL: We have, unfortunately, come to the end of our time, and I think we only got to half a dozen of the dozens of questions that we've made. But if you want to know more about the way Phil thinks about these things, his book comes out in just a couple months, October 6, so please look for that. Everyone, please join me in thanking Phil. And for those of you who have been joining us over the summer, we're going to take a little bit of a break. We're going to be back on September 15, with Tom Bollyky, who's going to talk about the state of the pandemic and, and the like, but until then, thank you, Phil, and everyone, please stay well.
GORDON: Thanks, Shannon. Thank you, everybody—interesting discussion. I appreciate it.
O'NEIL: Great. Take care.