How did we come to accept regime change wars?

We Americans have come to accept “regime change wars” as normal.  But they aren’t.  They are what the United Nations Charter and various UN resolutions define as wars of aggression.

I remember the Cold War and how we thought of the Soviet Union as the aggressor nation that scoffed at international law.

Click to enlarge.

Now our government is the one that thinks it has the right to attack or overthrow governments that displease us and improve our version of “democracy”—a democratic government being defined as one that supports U.S. policies.

The U,S. government is waging economic warfare against Venezuela and Iran while threatening military attack.  The purpose is to make Venezuela accept a President chosen by the United States and to make Iran unilaterally disarm.

Neither government has threatened or harmed Americans.  Their offenses are to oppose U.S. policy in Latin America and the Middle East, and to keep the world’s largest and third largest oil reserves from being controlled by the United States.

Yet this has somehow come to be accepted as normal.  Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is regarded as an eccentric, or worse, because she is one of the few who opposes making war against countries that haven’t harmed us.

The Charter of the United Nations, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1945, declares military aggression to be a crime. Article 2 said, “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat of force against the territorial integrity of any state or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg stated that aggressive war was “the supreme international crime.”

In 1950, the UN General Assembly condemned “the intervention of a state in the internal affairs of another state for the purpose of changing its legally established government by the threat or use of force.” It also resolved the “any aggression, whether committed openly or by fermenting civil strife, in the interest of a foreign power or otherwise, is the gravest of all crimes against peace and security throughout the world.”

I think most Americans thought these resolutions were aimed at the Soviet Union, which we thought was the world’s main aggressor.

The two main wars fought by the United States during the Cold Wa era were in Korea, where U.S. forces defended the Seoul government against an attack from without, and in Vietnam, where U.S. forces defended the Saigon government against a revolutionary movement supported from outside.

Secretly, of course, and sometimes not-so-secretly, the Central Intelligence Agency plotted coups in Iran, Guatemala, Chile and many other countries.

The only open military aggressions by the United States in that era were the attacks on Cuba in 1961, Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989.

The Bay of Pigs landing in Cuba was a fiasco, but the Grenada and Panama invasions went well from the U.S. standpoint.  U.S. forces won easy victories, anti-American dictators were overthrown and free elections held.

Another seemingly easy victory came in 1990-1991 with the Gulf War against Iraq following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.  This ended inconclusively, however.  The elder President Bush did not want regime change in Iraq.  At the time, his reluctance made him seem weak.  But later events proved him wise.


The U.S. did not make peace with Iraq.  Throughout the 1990s, our government waged a low-level war o bombing and blockade.  An impatient Republican Congress in 1998 passed the Iraq Liberation Act saying it was the U.S. intention to bring about regime change in Iraq, and President Bill Clinton signed it.

After the 9/11 attacks, the younger President Bush launched two regime change wars—one against Afghanistan, because that country harbored Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks, and the other against Iraq, then the world’s second largest oil-producing nation.

The earlier easy successes may have made Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld over-confident.  At any rate, the world’s most expensive and highest-tech army was unable to pacify either Afghanistan or Iraq, just as it was unable to pacify Vietnam.

Why wasn’t the U.S. able to defeat the Vietnamese, Afghan and Iraqi fighters?  I think that one big reason is that so little was at stake for us, compared to the Civil War and World War Two.

We the American people saw little reason to fight in far-off lands against an enemy that did not obviously threaten us.

(Getty Images)

And the U.S. military high command saw little reason to change its strategy and tactics because its existence wasn’t threatened.  If commanders were fired for failure, or maybe court-martialed and shot, it might have been a different story.

The lesson President Obama learned was to look for other ways to wage regime change wars.  In Libya and Syria, the United States armed fighters trying to overthrow the regimes.  In Libya, the result was chaos.  In Syria, the Assad government was still in place despite years of war.  And there still were U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Trump came into office with the announced goal of winding down the war in Syria and the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but so far hasn’t done it.

Instead he is waging regime change war against Venezuela and Iran.  His main means of waging war has been through economic sanctions, although a shooting war is entirely possible

The United States dominates the world financial system, partly through international agencies such as the International Monetary Fund, but mainly because the world does most of its business in dollars, and that means going through U.S. banks.

That means the U.S. has the power to cut off any business or individual that does business with Venezuela or Iran from participating in the international financial system.  It also has the power to impound any bank deposits by sanctioned persons or businesses.

In the case of Venezuela, the Trump administration has cut off Venezuela from collecting any of the revenue from sale of oil by the Venezuela Petroleum, the government-owned oil company.  Instead the revenue is put in an escrow account that can only be tapped by someone the U.S. recognizes as the legitimate president of the company.

Venezuela is prohibited from selling government bonds in world financial markets, selling gold, using a digital currency.  Anybody who violates these sanctions would be cut off from the world’s dollar-based financial system.  Likewise anybody doing business with the Venezuelan Economic and Social Bank.  This means Venezuela lacks the means to import food, medicine or important supplies, such as parts for water pumps.

Iran is prohibited from selling its government debt or doing business in rials, their own currency.  Sanctions are imposed on the Iranian auto industry and other industries, and are in the process of being imposed on the Iranian oil industry.  People who violate these sanctions are at risk of being cut off from the U.S.-dominaed financial system themselves.

Economic warfare is a means of warfare.  It makes all the people of a country poorer and, at the margin, takes lives.

Have we come to accept this as normal?


The Liberal Embrace of War by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Tags: , , ,

7 Responses to “How did we come to accept regime change wars?”

  1. whungerford Says:

    I find Phil’s article interesting, thoughtful, and persuasive, but I take issue with a few points:

    “… in Korea, where U.S. forces defended the Seoul government against an attack from without.” No, only if North Korea is without, and only initially. Later General MacArthur aggressively invaded N. Korea with the goal of provoking China into a nuclear war.

    “Why wasn’t the U.S. able to defeat the Vietnamese, Afghan and Iraqi fighters?” It was because the defenders were fighting for their own countries rather than essentially as mercenaries.

    If commanders were fired for failure, or maybe court-martialed and shot, it might have been a different story.” Commanders don’t have much influence on events. Even if it were a different story, it might not have been a better outcome. The best thing that could have happened to Vietnam is that the Americans were defeated. Any other outcome would likely have been worse.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Decker Says:

    Spot on, piece! Thank you!


  3. Benjamin David Steele Says:

    Passively or cynically accepting the morally unacceptable is a good working definition of ‘evil’. Ronald Reagan and other Americans, during the Cold War, called the USSR the “evil empire”. They were called that because, as you say, they didn’t acknowledge or obey the “international law” declared by their adversaries in Western governments and Western allies, although no doubt Soviets and their allies called the United States the same name and worse.

    But here we are, guilty of the criminal wrongdoings we Americans have so often accused others of doing. Hypocrisy makes the political evil worse. Their is a sociopathic cold-heartedness to the realpolitik of most US politicians in the upper echelons of power. And that most Americans pretend they don’t know the wrong being done in their name and with their tax money is inexcusable and unforgivable, no different than when the average German during Nazi rule pretended to not know what was happening.


  4. Fred (Au Naturel) Says:

    We can easily date it to the Spanish American war but it probably really goes back to the Texan war for independence


    • philebersole Says:

      Fred, it’s true, as you say, that the regime change wars were not the first wars of aggression by the United States.

      All powerful countries have a history of wars of conquest. In the case of the USA, these include the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War, as well as the undeclared wars that resulted in the annexation of Spanish Florida and the ethnic cleansing of the American Indians.

      However, the Mexican and Spanish-American wars, unlike today’s regime change wars, came after formal declarations of war by the U.S. Congress.

      Also, Presidents Polk and McKinley had to find pretexts to justify these wars – a clash between Mexican and U.S. troops at Matamoros, the mysterious destruction of the battleship Maine.

      There was considerable domestic opposition to both these wars, unlike with today’s regime change wars. Going to war with a foreign country was not regarded as a matter of routine.

      Finally, these two wars, right or wrong, had achievable objectives—to annex territory. Even though they were morally questionable, they were of material benefit to us Americans, unlike today’s wars.

      Polk and McKinley did not imagine that the United States could replace governments in Mexico City and Madrid with governments more to their liking.


      • Fred (Au Naturel) Says:

        Congress has relinquished it’s important role in the declaration of war. It shouldn’t be possible for the president to fight a years long war without a formal declaration but here we are.


    • philebersole Says:

      Fred, some more thoughts about your comment.

      You’re right that the Texas War of Independence in 1836 is an example of Americans’ backing revolutionary movements as a means of expanding American power.

      Another would be the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and establishment of a Republic of Hawaii by American planters in 1893-94, as a prelude to U.S. annexation of Hawaii in 1898.

      Then there is President Theodore Roosevelt’s backing of Panamanian secession from Colombia in order to make possible the U.S. construction and control of the Panama Canal.

      The difference between these events and the modern regime change wars is that (1) there was no use of American troops and little commitment of American resources and (2) Texas, Hawaii and Panama were not devastated or their populations turned into refugees.

      But you’re right – everything has a root in history, and almost everything has some historical precedent if you look hard enough.

      I think I will take back my comment that the Spanish-American War was of material benefit to the American people.

      The acquisition of the territory of the present 50 states benefitted us American citizens, at whatever cost to Mexicans and American Indians.

      But I think the acquisition of an overseas empire in the Caribbean and western Pacific was a net liability—just as our present-day empire of bases is a net liability.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: