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Policies for the Fearful: Rollback Then, Regime Change Now

by Michael D. Richards on Nov 13, 2002

Michael D. Richards

All indications are that regime change in Iraq is still on the agenda of the Bush administration. Ironically, the administration has created a situation in which anything less than the invasion, defeat and occupation of Iraq will be considered a failure.

Why have President Bush and his advisers staked their reputation on such a risky policy as regime change? An examination of the Cold War policy of “rollback” may help explain this obsession.

“Rollback,” a concept articulated in a seminal Cold War document produced by the National Security Council in 1950, declared the importance of pushing the Soviet Union back from those territories conquered in the last months of World War II. Containment would not suffice.

The Cold War document contains fascinating parallels with our present situation. Most striking is the apocalyptic picture of a powerful America facing disaster in just a few short years if it does not take immediate steps to extend its military capabilities. There is the same whiff of hysteria about prospects for the future that one finds in current administration pronouncements about the need to eliminate Iraq before it gains a capacity to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States.

The worries voiced in 1950 at least reflected the documented loss of the American postwar atomic monopoly with the test of the first Soviet atomic weapon in 1949. The combination of the Soviet Union’s atomic weapons and its superiority in conventional forces placed the United States at a severe disadvantage that some feared would only get worse.

The position the United States now occupies in the world is unparalleled in modern history. Almost every other country in the world is more or less on the level of Panama compared with the military strength of the United States. This extraordinary situation may explain why the president believes he can bring about regime change in Iraq with only a little more trouble that his father, George H. W. Bush, faced in bringing about regime change in Panama thirteen years ago.

One major problem, however, is the vast difference between possibilities in the Middle East and the American experience in Central America and the Caribbean, where we have largely done as we pleased, numerous regime changes included. It isn’t that regime change in the Western Hemisphere didn’t have uniformly disastrous results, only that the United States never had to pay the price of those results.

If there are lessons to be learned from the Cold War, it may be that the blunt application of force is rarely the answer. The idea of containment was that force was available to use in the last resort. Rollback aimed at more, and it became a far cruder instrument of policy.

The same can be said for regime change.

The United States tried to implement the concept of rollback only once during the Cold War, when General Douglas MacArthur had the North Korean army on the run in 1950. Ignoring President Truman’s orders, MacArthur sent American troops to the North Korean border with the People’s Republic of China. This triggered a massive intervention by Chinese Communist troops. American forces were overrun, with many killed or captured.

Eventually, the Korean conflict turned into a stalemate. Perhaps we learned a lesson about rollback from that experience. In any case, the United States never attempted rollback again. When advisers clamored for rollback, American presidents resisted and averted potential catastrophes.

What we know about the strategy of rollback indicates we should approach the concept of regime change with extreme caution. It should be seen not only as a last resort but also as one with important disadvantages. Perhaps the most serious disadvantage is that President Bush’s policy of regime change violates international law. Pre-emptive war is merely a euphemism for aggression.

The dangers of serious harm to the United States have diminished considerably since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ours is still a world that harbors weapons of mass destruction, with many people busy dreaming up ways to turn the stuff of daily life into weapons. We cannot possibly predict what American attempts at regime change might set off. In what some consider reckless attempts by the Bush administration to head off myriad threats, the administration may trigger something far worse than the immediate danger.

During the Cold War, rollback was a dangerous fantasy we fortunately tried only once. Its 21st-century cousin, regime change, is an equally dangerous delusion, even when the United States believes no enemy is powerful enough to challenge its superior weaponry. We no longer face atomic retaliation. Nonetheless, there is no reason to risk provoking new forms of retaliation in our rush to use force to reorder the world.


Michael Richards teaches modern European and world history at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and is a writer for the History News Service.