Humpty Dumpty, Not Pottery Barn: Some Thoughts on Regime Change

In this week’s #CCLKOW we consider what principles ought to shape our strategic thinking with respect to regime change. Please note, this is not an endorsement of the act as sensible policy. I am relatively certain that it should be a policy of last resort, and even then its wisdom ought to be held in serious doubt. Nevertheless, we live in a world where sometimes the only policy choices are bad ones. Thus, it is necessary to consider under what strategy this could be accomplished with the least risk of spectacular failure. Or, more simply, it is not enough that we must think carefully about regime change as a policy, we must also be similarly careful about strategy and tactics if this choice is taken. Enjoy the piece, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.

“You break it, you buy it.” Colin Powell’s application of the rules of shopping in Pottery Barn to regime change was hailed as quite brilliant for reminding his political masters of the dangers of such a policy choice. I would suggest, however, that within this construction there is a terrific peril for the West, as our wealth might make us think we can afford to buy it once broken. Thus, whereas Powell cautioned against regime change that was not fully cognizant of the costs it would entail, this admonition is incorrectly aimed. It is not the cost of rebuilding which is the problem. Rather, it is the nearly insurmountable challenge of re-creating something better than that which has been broken.

Here I would like to argue that rather than Pottery Barn, Humpty Dumpty is the better cautionary tale for regime change. Where the policy is even contemplated, the further taboo must be upon undue damage to the essential structures of governance and society.

…All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

It was a sharp realisation that perhaps a quaint children’s nursery rhyme wasn’t just a bit of fun but in fact could be an old military parable, a cautionary tale against the hubris of military might. [1] Conceiving Humpty as a state that, once fallen, could not be put back together again despite every effort of the King’s horses and men, his army, make more sense than it ought to.

Nowhere is the wisdom of the Humpty Dumpty Principle in regime change more clear than in Iraq. The speedy resolution of its first act in the summer of 2003, with relatively little damage, was tragically followed by the dismantling of key structures of the state. Perhaps it was hubris borne of the great military success achieved in driving Saddam Hussein from power which led to the orgy of societal destruction. The inability to recognise that ‘support’ for the regime was not the result of great fealty to Saddam but rather the dictates of pragmatism and survival led the coalition down the garden path to chaos and new tensions. De-Baathification may have seemed a Saint’s work, but in fact it was the beginning of the end, the first step in the slow failure that was the largely American led strategy in the country. Once broken, Iraqi politics and society suffered for the struggle to re-create a delicate balance of fragile connections. And while the old system had been clearly flawed itself, fixing that was the far easier option than refashioning the whole anew.

In sum, the coalition ought to have rejoiced in its ability to unseat Hussein without much damage and sallied forth from there. The path from 2003's military victory ought to have looked a little something like this:

‘Here Tariq, take the keys. Don’t screw this up. We’re happy to provide some funding to help get things back on track. Send us a plan.’

The errors of Iraq should be forefront in the minds of anyone thinking about Syria. As utterly reprehensible (!) as the reign of terror perpetrated by Assad has been, do not imagine for a moment that the destruction of the state which sustained it will result in an outbreak of rainbows and happiness. The jackals and the jackasses are chomping at the bit to take advantage of the vacuum and chaos that would follow the dissolution of the state. Thus, although it is quite clear that he will have to go, how that will happen must be considered with the utmost care not to break that which we cannot fix. Moving even further into the harshest grey areas, how to deal with the areas under the control of the state apparatus created by ISIS should also be filling us with a bit of conflicted thought.

And so, as grist for this week’s discussion, I put to you the following questions intended to flesh out the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the principle I have offered:

1. The successes in Germany and Japan seem to refute the Humpty Dumpty Principle. What were the terms and conditions of those efforts, and do they exist in the targets of regime change we consider today?

2. Is it too easy to assume that no evil structure can be surpassed? With respect to Afghanistan, did we err in thinking that any regime created in the aftermath of the Taliban would be an improvement? Quick to break that which all were too happy to label as evil, with stories such as that published today on the creeping institutionalisation of the sorts practices which had led to the popularity of the Taliban in the first place, one has to wonder at that wisdom.

3. Is there a better strategic framework to conduct successful regime change?

Notes

[1] I am not arguing that this is the origin of the story. But it ought to be, because it’s rather quite perfect.

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