Obama No Longer Wants America to Depose Tyrants

President Obama
When it comes to rogue regimes in Iran and Syria, regime change has given way to wishful thinking Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

What ever happened to regime change?

In President Obama's Washington, officials often say that a leader of this or that country has lost "legitimacy." They coordinate with other countries in attempts to force leaders out through diplomacy. They play domestic politics in foreign countries.

But they studiously deny they are out for regime change.

In 2009, the newly elected Obama was cool on Iran's street protests, signaling that ending the theocratic leadership that has ruled the nation for three decades was not at the top of his Middle East agenda.

Instead, his policy was, and remains, to end Iran's nuclear arms ambitions by leaning on Tehran's clerics to change their behavior, rather than helping to push them out of power and replacing them with less antagonistic leaders.

On January 19, 1981, Washington signed an agreement with Iran to end the hostage crisis. That crisis forever changed relations with Tehran, where a revolution had just replaced the Western-allied Shah with clerics preaching "death to America." But the agreement, brokered by Algeria and signed on President Jimmy Carter's last day in office, contained an American promise to refrain from intervening politically or militarily in Iran's internal affairs.

Nevertheless, Iranian officials, including most conspicuously Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, often express their conviction that America's real aim is regime change. Despite the Algiers accord, "fear of regime change has been persistent," says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran watcher at the Brookings Institution.

A supporter of Obama's current diplomatic engagement with Iran, Maloney nevertheless doubts that Washington's efforts to convince Tehran otherwise – publicly, or perhaps through secret channels – would succeed. "Khamenei is deeply paranoid," she says.

Regime change's golden age was World War II, when America led a coalition that forcefully removed the aggressive dictatorships that ruled its most powerful adversaries, in Berlin and Tokyo, and replaced them with liberal democracies.

But once Germany and Japan turned democratic, after a half decade of war and the American-funded Marshall Plan's costly rehabilitation effort, the start of the Cold War raised doubts over whether meddling in the affairs of foreign countries is such a good thing. Think of the ambiguous characters populating the pages of Graham Greene and John Le Carré's novels.

Despite an "ugly American" moniker, however, the U.S. had many successes during those years. It led eventually to the demise of the Soviet Union, America's main rival for world leadership, the ultimate victory in the titanic battle between communism and capitalism.

Yet, in the post-Iraq and soon to be post-Afghanistan era, Washington is loath to utter the words "regime change."

"We're clarifying, as we've said repeatedly, that the effort of our military operation is not regime change, [and that] it's the Libyan people who are going to make their determinations about the future," Obama's deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, said in March 2011.

He added, nevertheless, "We support their aspirations, their democratic aspirations, and have stated that Muammar el-Qaddafi should go because he's lost their confidence."

By October, Qaddafi was dead and his 42-year hold on power was over. Following the cue of Britain and France, America contributed much-needed air power and intelligence to the NATO efforts that brought regime change about.

Russia, for one, hasn't forgiven America for that. It has argued that NATO's legal justification for the regime change in Libya, Security Council resolution 1973 (which veto-wielding Moscow allowed to pass), never authorized a military action.

And since then, Moscow and Beijing have consistently refused to cooperate on any council resolution that smacks of militarily forcing regime change, even as Western diplomats try to assure them that they do not seek it.

No matter how hard they protest, then, Americans are forever suspected of forcing regime change, which, in the Obama era, is paradoxical.

Following ambiguous results in President George W. Bush's military strategy to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's Baathists in Iraq, Americans tired of investing blood and treasure in seemingly vain efforts to create democratic regimes out of whole cloth.

No wonder, as Obama reassesses his options in the three-year Syrian civil war, that regional opponents of the Syrian regime fear that beyond saying over and over that President Bashar al-Assad has "lost legitimacy," America is unlikely to act meaningfully toward ousting him.

Same goes for the antagonistic and dangerous regime in North Korea. Despite a recent devastating U.N. report detailing crimes against humanity by the Pyongyang regime, which compared Kim Jong-un's leadership to the Nazis, nobody in Washington is talking about forcing an end to the Kim dynasty or uniting the two Koreas under Seoul's leadership.

And the outcome of the Iran nuclear negotiations increasingly looks like the foreign policy issue that will define Obama's legacy.

With Tehran, "I'd prefer the relations that we had with the Soviet Union," says the Council on Foreign Relations' Elliott Abrams, a former Mideast advisor to George W. Bush. Defining that Cold War strategy as "ideological warfare," he adds, "There's no reason why we should not say" that such strategy is also America's policy toward Iran.

But administration officials worry that declaring adversarial intent could prevent Tehran's pragmatists from convincing Khamenei and the hard-liners that surround him to reach a deal.

The Iranian leaders "have a perception that we are out for regime change and that what we want to do is just hammer them and bring them – bring more sanctions," Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on December 10.

Addressing the deep mistrust that many House members expressed toward Iran, Kerry added that similar concerns can be heard in Tehran, where, he said, there is a lack "of a sense of confidence that we're willing to make a deal, or that we'll keep the deal."

Two months earlier, as the United States was involved in secret negotiations in Oman with Iranian officials, the State Department's Wendy Sherman, who now heads the American delegation in the negotiations between six world powers and Iran, testified before the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, where she laid out the administration's current Iran strategy.

"Iran has so far chosen isolation," she said. "There is still time for it to change course, but that time is not indefinite. I want to be clear that our policy is not aimed at regime change, but rather at changing the regime's behavior."

That approach is a "mistake," says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who worked extensively with lawmakers to devise America's current sanction regime that Obama has credited with bringing Iran to the negotiation table.

"Khamenei had to be presented with a fundamental choice between a nuclear weapon and the survival of his regime for nuclear diplomacy to have a chance of working," Dubowitz says. "There was a time when so-called 'crippling' economic sanctions as promised by the administration, combined with meaningful support for the Iranian opposition in the wake of the 2009 democratic counterrevolution, could have created such an existential moment for Khamenei.

"That moment," he says, "unfortunately has passed as the economic pressure has significantly eased and the democratic support never came."

Yet, some regime opponents, in and out of Iran, still believe that with Washington's help they can bring down the Muslim clerics' regime.

Sounds like a plan.

But that is not on the cards. Remember, America no longer does regime change.

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni