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Regime change, take two

“Regime change” — or ousting foreign leaders — is an American as apple pie, though to date it has rarely been more than half-baked, writes Michael Moran.

When the going gets tough, the toughs need to go. That appears to be the latest twist in the “Bush doctrine,” coined to explain U.S. policy toward Iraq and first explicitly applied to Afghanistan’s Taliban. Now, regime change is being touted as the only way to bring peace to the Middle East. A radical new idea? Hardly. In fact, “regime change” is as American as apple pie. The problem is it has rarely been more than half-baked.

Democracies don’t usually publicly declare their interest in ousting any foreign leader, no matter how reviled. It took the United States until this year to make “regime change” the official policy toward Iraq. Yet while many around the world may be uneasy with the inherent hypocrisy involved when the world’s mightiest democracy demands that another nation change its leadership, that doesn’t mean democracies don’t pursue such goals. Indeed, in the second half of the 20th century alone, the United States directly aided and abetted in the overthrow of governments from Chile to Iran, from Vietnam to Grenada, and it tried but failed in roughly two dozen more cases.

Telegraphing such intentions is new, however. When the Bush administration made the overthrow of Saddam Hussein public policy, it crossed a line that had remained unbreached for decades. Such demands for ouster have traditionally been couched as calls for free elections in, say, Fidel Castro’s Cuba or Kim Jong Il’s North Korea.

Even after Sept. 11, the Bush administration’s dealings with Afghanistan’s Taliban focused on the apprehension of their “guest,” Osama bin Laden. Only after that was rejected and war began did “regime change” there become policy.


Now, however, we see a demand for regime change in a slightly new guise. In his Middle East policy speech Monday, Bush said: “I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror.” Only then, he said, will the United States recognize a Palestinian state — perhaps as soon as three years from now. Yet Bush’s speech demanded nothing of Israel, in contrast to previous U.S. statements calling for Israeli troops to leave Palestinian territory. As Phil Reeves of Britain’s The Independent put it: “Game and set — if not match — to Ariel Sharon.”

Bush’s speech was criticized by many for lacking details, and by others because it essentially embraced the position of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon toward Arafat. But what the speech lacked in details it made up in subtlety. Bush came within a hair’s breadth of calling for Arafat’s overthrow, except for one word: “elect.” His choice of that word is extremely significant, because Arafat — unlike Saddam or Castro or Kim — was elected by his people.


Whatever his shortcomings (and there are many), Arafat and his Fatah faction won election in January 1996 in a vote marred by irregularities but ultimately certified by monitors from the European Union and the Carter Center, the conflict-resolution institute run by former President Jimmy Carter, as a fair reflection of Palestinian wishes. That fact kept Arafat at the negotiation table for years even when it became clear he exercised little control over his own people. It also kept him alive in recent months even as Israeli forces have picked off the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

So Bush joins Sharon in calling for Arafat’s departure from the scene. Sharon may not be so picky about how this happens, particularly now that America appears to agree.

Because of this, it become more important than ever that the United States distinguishes its position on Arafat and on an overall Mideast settlement from that of Israel’s. The United States wants to see Arafat replaced by a leader who can control those within the Palestinian Authority’s jurisdiction and in effect put a lid on the conflict. The Israeli government, particularly its right-wing contingent, sees this scenario as a fantasy and believes that violent civil war among the Palestinians is inevitable, and that only from such an event can a leader emerge who truly speaks for the Palestinians.


Unfortunately, this is where the Bush speech falters. The new American approach seems to gamble that, when Arafat holds the new elections he has promised, the United States can convince Palestinian voters that a vote for Yasser is a vote for misery.

“They want to pull a Milosevic, but without going to war,” a senior British diplomat based at the United Nations told me, referring to the fact that the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, was voted out of office a year after the war. “It is, shall we say, optimistic.”

InsertArt(1913371)Exactly what happens if the Palestinian people do not vote against Arafat, or if, for instance, Arafat is killed “accidentally” during an Israeli reprisal raid, is not spelled out. As The New York Times described it in an editorial today, it is “A Plan Without a Map.”

“Mr. Bush may have a vision of a Palestinian state being declared in three years, but a great deal of harm can occur while everyone is waiting for Yasser Arafat to leave and political reform to take place.”

The incentives may be miscalculated. The fact that Bush is now echoing the demands of the Israeli right may or may not help bring the reforms about. Bush is right to want the Palestinian people to get beyond Arafat, who has shown himself incapable of delivering on his promises. But his approach may do more harm than good if, as with Castro in Cuba or Saddam in Iraq, Arafat chooses to rally patriots against “outside interference.”

Ghassan Khatib, one of the Palestinian negotiators who has won the respect of his Israeli counterparts, says, “This is very sensitive because any people, including the Palestinian people, would not be satisfied by anybody from outside trying to interfere in determining their leadership.”

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