Of all the terms in the contemporary argument about war with Saddam Hussein, perhaps the most protean and slippery is “regime change.” This is not all that surprising when you reflect that it had its origins in those heavily parsed years that we can never quite bring ourselves to call the Clinton era. The words became current during the debate over the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, which was sponsored by Sens. Lieberman and Kerrey (the Nebraska one) and which passed without a dissenting vote.
This legislation committed the United States to support the removal of Saddam Hussein by the exercise of any force but its own. The plan was to identify Iraqi and Kurdish groups that merited support and to endow them with money for propaganda and rebellion. In one stroke, it also neatly squared an awkward circle: The administration and Congress could be identified with a hawkish (or perhaps hawk-ish) line on Iraq without risking the lives of any Americans or interrupting Clinton’s fatuous attempt to earn himself a Nobel Prize for settling the Israel-Palestine dispute.
“Regime change” expressed this ambiguity and some others as well. What could seem more inoffensive than proposing a change of government—and furthermore, leaving it all up to the Iraqis? Isolationists and interventionists could vote for the same measure without having to identify their differences. But this soft option deliberately obscured the salient fact that an alteration of regime in Iraq could only come about by means of a) insurrection; b) invasion; or c) military coup. The Iraq Liberation Act did not involve paying Frank Luntz or Dick Morris to see what the “numbers” would be for the new third party Shiite Centrist Coalition, as it attempted to bridge the gender gap in the swing-state Basra region.
It is now admitted by all concerned that only the force of American arms, or the extremely credible threat of that force, can bring a fresh face to power in the evidently rather jaded Baghdad political scene. The closer political metaphor would be “new blood”—and perhaps quite a bit of it.
Insurrection has been tried, by the Kurdish forces in the North for many decades and also by the Shiite population in the South, which launched an intifada after the last Gulf War. (Opinions differ on how much that rebellion was incited by American broadcasts from Saudi Arabia and on how many direct and indirect promises were made to the rebels by the United States.) Saddam Hussein’s relative command of the air and his willingness to use mass-reprisal tactics more or less ensured then, as they ensure now, that he cannot be overthrown by a mere revolt. However—and this has become important—the imposition of the Anglo-American “no-fly” zones to protect the Kurds and Shiites from further massacre has meant that, in a way, we are already in a state of war with Saddam Hussein. (The “no-fly” zones do not have U.N. authority.)
There is another consideration. Not only did the Shiite rebels exact terrible revenge on local Baath Party officials and others whom they suspected of collaboration, but some of them have ties to the less liberal elements within Iran. Were things permitted to run their course, there could be a “regime change” of a sectarian, localized kind.
The idea of a coup at the center has always been much more attractive to American officialdom, especially during the Clinton period. And after all, military coups are what the CIA does best. Why, the agency even involved itself in the very coup that helped bring Saddam Hussein to power … but this again raises the limitations of the “regime change” idiom. Another friendly general, perhaps without a mustache but most probably a member of the Sunni minority (if not of the Tikriti minority of the Sunni that gave us Saddam himself) might be ideal from Washington’s point of view. If he could conveniently hoist or shoot himself into power in the next few weeks, he could even obviate the need for a messy full-scale intervention. This is what many Iraqi dissidents are calling “the nightmare scenario”—a last-minute thwarting of the project for a totally renovated system. Some of them even refer to it as “Saddamism without Saddam,” though that increasingly looks like a contradiction in terms.
Thus the logic of “regime change” has come to mean less and less a secondhand involvement in a proxy struggle waged by other people, and more and more a direct and avowed engagement in the enterprise of invading and then remaking someone else’s country. At one point last year, the president seemed to say that full compliance on Iraqi disarmament would in fact constitute “regime change” and would thus allow a declaration of victory. That moment now seems rather distant. Instead, he finds himself meeting in the Oval Office with men and women who proclaim that they want a pluralist, secular, constitutional Iraq. He need only supply the muscle.
Barham Salih, the brave gentleman who is currently the elected prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, told me recently that of the two historic examples of American involvement in “nation-building,” he prefers the instance of Germany over Japan. “In Japan too much of the old order was left in place. In Germany there was de-Nazification.” This would be more like “revolution from above” or what colonial idealists used to call “the civilizing mission”: everything from the education system to the roads. Nobody should underestimate for a second what the magnitude of the task is. But we still persist in employing a clever euphemism, which was designed precisely to obscure that task, and its magnitude, from our gaze.