When Colin Powell first used the term “regime change” in congressional hearings last year, it recalled a newspaper’s dramatic take-over many years ago by a right-wing syndicate. Suddenly, the teleprinters stopped clattering. The telephones went dead. Then, red ballpoint pens were banned. Journalists who switched to blue were “given” shares as reward for loyalty but had to pay a premium price and could not re-sell. Those who clung to red were banished to Antarctica. Next thing you knew, the editor had disappeared. The bank clerk who took over as managing editor managed but knew nothing about editing.
That was a regime change. They have always been numerous enough to invite comparison with the Moliére character who was astonished to discover that he had unknowingly been speaking prose for more than 40 years. Regimes have been bad by definition ever since France’s ancien regime ended in 1789, giving the word a foot in the door of the English language. One dictionary cites “a communist regime” as illustration. Another says, “We must overthrow this corrupt, fascist, totalitarian regime.” Speak of “the Castro regime” by all means, but “the Bush regime” is a sacrilegious oxymoron. Powell had only found a new name for an old, old addiction.
Politics being all about packaging, politicians constantly reinvent ancient ideas and practices to claim a niche in the gallery of immortals. Turkey massacred over a million Armenians in the early years of the 20th century, but ethnic cleansing began with Bosnia. Every megalomaniac since Attila the Hun has dreamt of shaping the future but has never been credited with trying to usher in a new world order. When Japan complained before World War II that white imperialists had seized all the raw materials and markets, it should have been complimented on anticipating today’s fashionable economic demand for a level playing field.
When he was Britain’s prime minister, Harold Macmillan was supposed to have coined the ringing phrase, “wind of change”, to describe a statesmanly innovation. Actually, he was making a virtue of necessity, for decolonization had already been forced on the colonial powers. Even those three magic words were not original. Macmillan purloined them without so much as a by-your-leave from Sarojini Naidu’s poem, “To a Buddha seated on a Lotus”, “The wind of change for ever blows/ Across the tumult of our way,/ To-morrow’s unborn griefs depose/ The sorrows of our yesterday./ Dream yields to dream,/ strife follows strife,/ And Death unweaves the webs of Life.”
Regime changers in the United States of America dismiss death’s unweaving as necessary collateral damage — another innocuous sounding modern Western phrase to play down death and destruction in an Asian land. According to the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, a single bullet can do the trick. Pervez Musharraf is the most recent of a long line of obliging Pakistani brasshats to demonstrate that even a bullet is not needed to change regimes providing two conditions are met. The regime to be ousted must be democratically elected and civilian. Second, the agents of change must be military men who enjoy Uncle Sam’s confidence. In India, voters regularly and peacefully achieve regime change.
Declassified records show that in 1971, the British helped to oust Uganda’s Milton Apollo Obote. The instrument of change was “a splendid fellow” who played football. Idi Amin had promoted himself to major-general by the time destiny anointed him. When it turned out that Animal Farm was his favourite bedtime reading and Napoleon his second name, the Royal Military College at Sandhurst tracked down and ticked off the British officer who first gave Idi his sergeant’s stripes.
Pakistan’s General Zia-ul Haq, America’s supremo for counter-change after the Soviets’ bloody regime changing in Kabul in 1978-79, objected to being paid peanuts. In the end, it cost the US a great deal more to have the taliban regime installed. Its liquidation, the first shot in George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, extorted an even higher price.
But for its tunnel vision, the taliban might have learnt a thing or two from the fate of another third force propped up by quiet Americans. South Vietnam’s staunchly Roman Catholic and fiercely anti-Communist Ngo Dinh Diem regime also enjoyed American benediction to start with. It had no Bamiyan Buddhas to demolish, but Ngo’s sister-in-law clapped gleefully when Buddhist protesters set fire to themselves. She called it a “barbecue”. When Ngo and his gang were butchered in 1963, the American ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, summoned the butchers to his office and congratulated them on a job well done.
As a thief set to catch a thief, Ngo could expect no quarter. Quiet Americans never own up to their own. That is something for Saddam Hussein, America’s protégé during the Iraq-Iran war, to remember as other war clouds darken over his head. He must envy North Korea’s inscrutable Kim Jong Il who has bombs. Bad luck for Saddam, he has oil. Iraq might otherwise have got away with magnets and centrifuge tubes as Pakistan got away even when the American Central Intelligence Agency produced similar evidence. Successive American presidents then lied in their teeth, concealed the evidence from congress and pretended it did not exist.
The Chinese, Russians and French made it clear after Powell’s passionate performance in the United Nations that despite Saddam’s alleged offences against the UN security council’s Resolution 1441, they most emphatically do not want war. Beyond suspecting why the US does, beyond fearing that regime change could become even more of a habit, they know that invading Muslim Iraq — especially while continuing to ignore the anguish of Palestinians — would invite disaster. As Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and others have warned, it could kindle the fires of an international jihad. The cry for revenge will resonate from Xinjiang to the Philippines, with more Chechen and Palestine martyrs, more Bali and Mombasa bombings.
Yet, America’s right-wing Christian believers — the Republican Party’s moral backers — yearn for just such hostages to fortune. A think-tank in the US suggests that a higher American military profile in Asia would achieve regime change in China by hastening the democratization process. Not content with his murderous military operations in the occupied territories, Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, wants Yasser Arafat removed as Palestinian chairman and replaced by an even more malleable — read puppet — regime. Iran has been reprieved but Sudan and Syria await Bush’s pleasure.
An American journalist, Thomas P. Healy, put it to the former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, Scott Ritter, an ex-Marine, that if any other head of state used the term “regime change” it would be called terrorism. “It is terrorism,” Ritter replied.
The Lone Superpower is not expected to impose Pax Americana like 19th century British proconsuls in jodhpurs and sola topees. As Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, writes, the US should “transform its power into moral consensus, promoting its values not by imposition but by their willing acceptance in a world that, for all its seeming resistance, desperately needs enlightened leadership”.
Otherwise, we are forced back to the question that the Roman satirist, Juvenal, asked nearly 2,000 years ago — Sed quis custodiet ipsos Custodes' But who is to guard the guards themselves'
Now that the invasion of Iraq seems inevitable, no matter what the UN and its inspectors might say, the US should not forget its own experience with regime change, especially when it is externally manipulated. Washington originally heaved a sigh of relief when Gamal Abdel Nasser toppled King Farouk of Egypt and Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime. Later, it regretted both events and tried to undo them. Its coups have rebounded on American interests in South Vietnam, Uganda, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
However bad a regime, change seems always to replace the unsavoury with the abominable. Even the newspaper that suffered regime change is reportedly losing circulation and advertisements.