Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War

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Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War
Lindsey A. O’Rourke
Cornell University Press, 2018
330 pages

Lindsey O’Rourke has given us a devastating indictment of the foreign policy of the United States during the Cold War and after. O’Rourke, who teaches political science at Boston College, is not a principled non-interventionist in the style of Ron Paul. To the contrary, she sympathizes with the “Offensive Realism” of John Mearsheimer, under whom she studied at the University of Chicago. Accordingly, she does not oppose the efforts of states to increase their power over other states but rather regards this as inevitable.

Her argument is that a key element of American foreign policy has failed to achieve its purpose. The United States has often aimed at “regime change,” both overt and covert. The latter type of regime change has been especially unsuccessful, and, to show that this is so, the bulk of the book analyzes in detail a number of instances of covert regime change during the Cold War.

She states her conclusion in this way: “The vast majority of America’s overt and covert regime changes during the Cold War did not work out as their planners intended. Washington launched these regime changes to resolve security-oriented interstate disputes by installing foreign leaders with similar policy preferences. American experiences during the Cold War, however, illustrate that this was often quite difficult in practice. Thirty-nine out of sixty-four covert regime changes failed to replace their targets, and because America’s role in most of these failed attempts generally did not remain a secret, they further soured Washington’s already negative relationship with the target state. Even nominally successful covert operations — where the US backed forces assumed power — failed to deliver on their promise to improve America’s relationship with the target state.”

Readers of Ludwig von Mises will at once recall this pattern of argument. Just as Mises argues that economic interventions such as minimum wage laws fail to achieve the stated goals of their proponents, so does O’Rourke maintain that regime change, especially of the covert variety, suffers from the same flaw. Again, just as Mises does not challenge the stated goal of higher wages without unemployment, so does O’Rourke accept the goal of an increase in the power of the United States.

In order to grasp the way O’Rourke reaches her conclusion, we must first understand her use of terms. By “regime,” she means “either a state’s leadership or its political processes and institutional arrangements.” A covert regime change “denotes an operation to replace the political leadership of another state where the intervening state does not acknowledge its role publicly. These actions include successful and failed attempts to covertly assassinate foreign leaders, sponsor coups d’état, influence foreign democratic elections, incite popular revolutions, and support armed dissident groups in their bids to topple a foreign government.”

We have so far stressed how Mises and O’Rourke argue in a similar way, but now a crucial difference requires our attention. Mises showed by a priori reasoning that intervention must fail, but O’Rourke does not do this. She says instead that a detailed examination of many cases shows that the covert regime changes in fact tend to fail.

A few examples will illustrate how she proceeds. In the beginning years of the Cold War, the United States tried to “rollback” Communist regimes in Eastern Europe through covert operations. “The Anglo-American operations in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania … were doomed to failure from the start. As early as October 1945, MGB (Russian Ministry for State Security) counterintelligence officers captured Latvian infiltrators carrying Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) codebooks and radios. Forcing the infiltrators to collaborate, the MGB was able to provide false intelligence and identify the time and location of future infiltrations. Ultimately, Soviet forces set up two fictional resistance movements, which the United States and the United Kingdom covertly supported until 1954.”

Operations in Southeast Asia succeeded no better. Notoriously, “although the 1963 US-backed coup in South Vietnam successfully overthrew [Ngo Dinh] Diem’s government, it still did produce the results the planners had hoped for. Contrary to policymakers’ predictions, the leaders who took over after Diem were unstable, unpredictable, and incompetent, which in turn hampered South Vietnam’s ability to defend itself without US assistance and encouraged the Viet Cong to escalate their attacks.”

Covert regime change was likewise ineffective in Latin America. “To combat the [Dominican Republic’s] chronic political volatility, Washington backed General Rafael Trujillo’s authoritarian regime after he seized power in a 1930 coup. By the late 1950’s, however, US leaders began to question Trujillo’s increasingly erratic and brutal rule. Concerned that his regime might spark a popular revolt similar to the one that had toppled Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Eisenhower authorized a covert campaign to overthrow Trujillo in 1960. But the operation misfired. Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, but his fall brought his equally cruel son to power, which in turn led to a series of coups.”

Given this sorry record, the question naturally arises: why did the United States again and again pursue covert regime change? O’Rourke’s own explanation is along realist lines: nations see regime change as a way to enhance their power, and the pursuit of increased power is a constant in the international system. “I argue that states pursue regime change for motives akin to the ones that Realist scholars have provided to explain war … there is no single security motive driving states to intervene, and operations may have multiple overlapping motives. Nevertheless, the security motives that drove the United States to intervene can be grouped into three ideal types: offensive, preventive, and hegemonic. Each aimed to increase America’s relative power in a different way.”

If a key thesis of realist theory is right, though, regime change is unlikely to succeed. “[O]ne of the central tenets of Neorealism is that the specific composition of a state’s domestic leadership is irrelevant for explaining its international behavior because great powers behave in similar predictable patterns given their relative share of material power and geostrategic position.” If this is true, the newly installed government after a regime change is unlikely to shift its foreign policy in the way the intervening state wants. But states, avid for power, persist in this mistaken policy. (For this argument to Given this sorry record, the question naturally arises: why did the United States again and again pursue work, O’Rourke’s claim about the predictable patterns of great powers must apply also to smaller powers, since most efforts at regime change are not directed at great powers.)

O’Rourke criticizes other explanations of the pursuit of regime change, and her criticism strikes at the heart of democratic peace theory, a frequent rationale for an interventionist foreign policy. “According to normative variants of DPT [democratic peace theory], democracies do not go to war with other democracies, because liberal norms shape how democratic policymakers view one another and choose to resolve conflict.” If this hypothesis were correct, we would expect a democratic United States to support other democracies. But if covert operations are taken into account, this hypothesis fails. “American covert operations habitually violated norms of justified intervention: Washington installed brutal dictators. It broke international law. It collaborated with many unsavory organizations, including … numerous groups known to have committed mass killings.”

O’Rourke, one gathers, hopes that the United States will learn from the failure of covert regime change and instead pursue the inevitable grasp for power in a more rational manner. In this she resembles her mentor John Mearsheimer, who hopes that America will abandon ideological crusades in favor of “offshore balancing.” Those of us who, like Murray Rothbard and Ron Paul, favor a noninterventionist foreign policy will not be satisfied with this. Instead, we need to ask deeper questions. Is the pursuit of power in the international system indeed inevitable? Does it not depend rather on human free choice? If so, the time has come to abandon completely a failed policy. “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?”

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