Fareed Zakaria: How to Change Ugly Regimes

As you read about yet another Iranian "election"--in which candidates have been carefully vetted by the ruling mullahs--keep in mind that the real story in Iran is that the government has tightened its grip on power in recent years. Despite an unhappy population, the mullahs have shut down newspapers, persecuted nongovernmental groups and imprisoned opponents. An interesting contrast in the same region is Libya, surely the strangest country to be taking baby steps toward reform. Once a key sponsor of terror, it is now opening up its economy, welcoming tourism and trade, presenting economic-reform plans and even talking about political changes. While all these steps are small and easily reversible--Libya is still ruled by a wacky megalomaniac--there is some real movement here. What's striking about these two countries is that we have had different policies toward them. Simply put, we have tried regime change with Iran and conditional engagement with Libya.

It isn't just these two countries where you see this pattern. For almost five decades the United States has put in place a series of costly policies designed to force Cuba to dismantle its communist system. These policies have failed totally. Contrast this with Vietnam, also communist, where Washington has adopted a different approach, normalizing relations with its former enemy. While Vietnam remains a Leninist regime in many ways, it has opened up its society, and the government has loosened its grip on power, certainly far more than that of Fidel Castro. For the average person in Libya or Vietnam, American policy has improved his or her life and life chances. For the average person in Iran or Cuba, U.S. policy has produced decades of isolation and economic hardship.

Don't get me wrong. I think the regimes in Tehran and Havana are ugly and deserve to pass into the night. But do our policies actually make that more likely? Washington has a simple solution to most governments it doesn't like: isolate them, slap sanctions on them and wait for their downfall. As Richard Haass argues intelligently in his new book, "The Opportunity," regime change has become a substitute for an actual policy toward countries like North Korea and Iran, with which we have serious security problems. Rather than tackling the issue of North Korean nukes, we're waiting for the country to collapse. We might be waiting awhile.

Critics could argue that I'm forgetting the many surprising places where regimes have fallen and freedom has been given a chance to flourish. Who would have predicted that Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan would see so much change in the past year and a half? But these examples only prove my point. The United States had no "regime change" policy toward any of these countries, and it had relations with all of them. In fact, these relationships helped push the regimes to change and emboldened civil-society groups.

Ah, you might say, but these regimes were not truly evil. Well, what about Mao's China at the height of the Cultural Revolution? Nixon and Kissinger opened relations with what was arguably the most brutal regime in the world at the time. And as a consequence of that opening, China today is far more free--economically and socially--than it has ever been. If we were trying to help the Chinese people, would isolation have been a better policy?

I realize that it feels morally righteous and satisfying to "do something" about cruel regimes. But in doing what we so often do, we cut these countries off from the most powerful agents of change in the modern world--commerce, contact, information. To change a regime, short of waging war, you have to shift the balance of power between the state and society. Society needs to be empowered. It is civil society--private business, media, civic associations, nongovernmental organizations--that can create an atmosphere which forces change in a country. But by piling on sanctions and ensuring that a country is isolated, Washington only ensures that the state becomes ever more powerful and society remains weak and dysfunctional. In addition, the government benefits from nationalist sentiment as it stands up to the global superpower. Think of Iraq before the war, which is a rare case where multilateral sanctions were enforced. As we are discovering now, the sanctions destroyed Iraq's middle class, its private sector and its independent institutions, but they allowed Saddam to keep control. When the regime was changed by war, it turned out that nation-building was vastly more difficult because the underpinnings of civil society had been devastated.

In a careful study, the Institute for International Economics has estimated that U.S. sanctions on 26 countries, accounting for more than half the world's population, cost America between $15 billion and $19 billion in lost exports annually and have worked less than 13 percent of the time. But what if it's even worse? What if our policies have exactly the opposite effect than is intended? Look around the world today, and you will see regime change in places where Washington has no such policy and regime resilience in places where it does.