Regime Change in the Middle East Is a False Promise, Writes Philip Gordon in New CFR Book

October 6, 2020

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“The iron rule of regime change in the Middle East seems to be that its costs will be higher than expected, unintended consequences will emerge, and results will leave much to be desired.” So warns Philip H. Gordon, Mary and David Boies senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), in his new book, Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.

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Gordon served in the Barack Obama administration from 2009 to 2015—first as assistant secretary of state of European and Eurasian affairs and then as the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region at the National Security Council. He was closely involved in the administration’s efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq, contain Iran, and promote political transitions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

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Looking back at seventy years of U.S. attempts to change governments in the Middle East—beginning with the 1953 ouster of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and ending with the unsuccessful attempt at removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power that began in 2011—Gordon observes that “there’s something inherently difficult and inevitably costly about removing Middle Eastern governments and institutions and replacing them with something better.”

Gordon urges future U.S. leaders to take the following lessons into account before assuming “that U.S. efforts to oust existing regimes will prove worth the high costs and risks:”

  • It is easier to remove a regime than to create one. “When an existing regime is destroyed, a political and security vacuum is created, and a competition for power begins.”
  • Locals do not always welcome liberators. “Americans like to believe their interventions are generous, benign, and widely appreciated, [but] that is rarely how they are perceived locally.”
  • Clients have their own interests. “An alignment with American policy or interests is far from guaranteed, even after a regime is replaced.”
  • Regional antagonists thwart success. “Many regional and global players have an interest in seeing the United States fail and have the leverage to bring that failure about.” 
  • Unintended consequences are inevitable. “In every single case, however carefully prepared, regime change in the Middle East has had unanticipated and unwelcome consequences.” 
  • U.S. staying power is limited. “American patience and staying power are finite, and once the immediate crisis passes and threat perceptions diminish, it is hard to sustain the high costs and heavy resource commitments—especially to places where vital U.S. interests are not necessarily at stake.” 
  • Money and troops are not enough. “Enormous amounts of resources are not enough to produce success if the right conditions are not in place.” 
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Gordon writes that when Operation Enduring Freedom began in Afghanistan in 2001, “few at the time could have imagined that nearly twenty years later—after thousands of U.S. and Afghan fatalities and a cost of almost a trillion dollars—the war would still be going on, the Afghan government would still be fragile, and the Taliban would remain a major force.”

“The next time U.S. leaders propose intervening in the Middle East to change a hostile regime, it can be safely assumed that such an enterprise will be more costly, less successful, and more replete with unintended consequences than proponents of such action realize or admit,” Gordon concludes. “So far at least, it has never been the other way around.”

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Read more about the book and order your copy at cfr.org/losinggame.

To interview the author, please contact Jenny Mallamo at 202.509.8455 or jmallamo@cfr.org.

Praise for Losing the Long Game:

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

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

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

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

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

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