Regime Change and Counterterror in the Trump Era

U.S. and SDF forces at al-Tanf base in southeastern Syria. Al-Tanf is one of the places where American troops are expected to remain despite the U.S. drawdown, though the scope and timeline for the withdrawal is still unclear. Photo Credit: Military Times

By: Jodi Brignola, Columnist

The Trump Administration’s stance on regime change is similar to that of the rest of its policies — unclear and disjointed. On the one hand, the recent Pentagon budget request entirely cut funding for the remaining Syrian opposition and paired down funding for the fight against ISIS in Syria. [i], [ii] The potential withdrawal of U.S. troops seems to indicate that Trump is making good on campaign promises and distancing himself from the U.S.’ string of regime-change and democratization efforts. On the other hand, however, the administration’s stances on Maduro in Venezuela and the Iranian regime send the opposite message.[iii], [iv] While regime-change opponents would welcome a potential shift in U.S. policy in the Middle East, the complete forfeiture of America’s role as a promoter of democracy and human rights in favor of a strict “America-first” policy threatens to hamper counterterrorism efforts in the region. A blanket regime-change policy has not always been successful in promoting democracy in the past, but abandoning all efforts to advance pluralism and human-rights will feed into extremist narratives and ensure the persistence of the Salafi-jihadi threat.

The US has an undeniably sordid history with regime change in the Middle East. In the fifties, the U.S. designed and supported the overthrow of democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, to reinstate the U.S.-allied Shah. While the operation succeeded tactically, it ultimately spurred the 1979 Iranian Revolution that installed the current regime, which has been prolific in sponsoring terrorism and sowing instability in the Middle East.[v] The Islamic Revolution in Iran can be conceivably seen as marking the beginning of the era of the radical Islamist movements, many of which make up the Salafi jihadi terrorist organizations that continue to threaten American national security.[vi]

While recent history may buttress the Trump administration’s argument against regime-change and democracy promotion, academic literature supports it as well. Scholars Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monthen argue that “states that experience foreign-imposed regime change experience little democratic improvement.”[vii] They also point to the paradox that “weak or poor states are the most vulnerable to imposed regime change, but are also the least likely to democratize following intervention.” Academic James Piazza, for his part, found that “New democracies do, indeed, experience very high rates of terrorism compared to other types of regimes,” calling into question an American foreign policy that centers on promoting democracies in the Middle East as a component of counterterrorism efforts in the region.[viii] Further complicating the discussion, his research also found that dictatorships at any age “are quite formidable at reducing terrorism.”[ix]

Still, other prominent foreign policy voices like the late Senator John McCain argue that the U.S. is doing more harm than good by abandoning its role as a promoter of universal human rights and democracy. In a widely-circulated Op-Ed for the New York Times, Mccain opposed then-Trump Administration Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments that a U.S. policy overly focused on values complicated the “America-First” effort to pursue policy in its best national interest.[x] McCain contended that divorcing American values from American interests did not constitute being a “realist.”[xi] Instead, he argued:

To view foreign policy as simply transactional is more dangerous than its proponents realize. Depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in. It could cost our reputation in history as the nation distinct from all others in our achievements, our identity and our enduring influence on mankind. Our values are central to all three.[xii]

In abandoning our moral role, McCain believed we would be threatening the world order that the U.S. presides over and which gives us and our allies an advantage in pursuing our interests.

Literature on the root causes of terrorism and the societal factors that impact terrorist recruitment support McCain’s claims that abandoning human rights initiatives could actually hinder our foreign policy objectives. The economist Alan Krueger found a strong negative correlation between civil liberties in a country and the likelihood of its citizens to participate in terrorism in his statistical analysis. In other words, countries that had fewer civil liberties were more likely to produce terrorism from their populaces.[xiii] Similarly, Alberto Abadie found that the level of political freedom in a country is a key consideration when judging the likelihood of terrorism emerging from it. Like Piazza, he found that increased levels of political freedom, like that of a budding democracy may increase the threat of terrorism in the short-term, but in the long-term, increased political freedom coincided with a decreased terrorist threat.[xiv] Additionally, perceived U.S. and western abandonment and disinterest in the plight of those living under or fighting against a dictator feeds into the narrative Salafi jihadi organizations promote, further fueling recruitment initiatives among disenfranchised populations in the Middle East.

Given the abundance of research and historical context on the subject there is no easy judgement to make of the soundness of the Trump administration’s self-proclaimed shift from regime change and democratization efforts in the Middle East and beyond as a foreign policy. Research does tell us that greater civil liberties and political freedom–aspects of a healthy democracy–coincide with the decreased generation of terrorism in a given country. In this light, the promotion of aspects of democratization without leadership decapitation is a possible path to follow, albeit narrow. Downes and Monthen conclude that institutional change, rather than leadership change has a greater chance of implementing the desired domestic outcomes. “Interventions are more likely to succeed when the intervener takes concrete steps to build new democratic political institutions, such as sponsoring elections, but only in states where economic and social conditions are already favorable to democracy.”[xv] They also argue that several factors increase the chances of success for potential regime change efforts, which include the creation of democratic political institutions alongside decapitation, economic development, social and ethnic homogeneity, and a previous history of democratic government.[xvi]

Regime-change to increase political and civil freedoms, whether by military means or through other mechanisms of coercion and persuasion should remain in the toolbox of American foreign policy. It is against our national interest to abandon efforts to encourage such positive political change because even by the strictest of definitions. There’s clear evidence for and reason to continue to promote democracy and human rights. And there’s clear evidence against overusing outright regime change as a means of achieving it. A third path – shown to be partially successful in Tunisia and, at first, in Egypt – would be to abstain from directly intervening unless absolutely necessary but to support pro democracy movements that emerge organically and to use soft and hard power to facilitate the development of democratic and inclusive institutions in transitioning countries.


[i] Bryant Harris, “Trump Budget Nixes Aid to Opposition-Held Syria,” Al-Monitor, March 12, 2019,

[ii] Jack Detsch, “Pentagon Seeks $2 Billion Cut for Islamic State Fight,” Al-Monitor, March 12, 2019,

[iii] Sasha Ingber, “Pence On Venezuela: ‘We Will Keep Standing With You Until … Libertad Is Restored,’”, February 25, 2019,

[iv] Dion Nissenbaum, “White House Sought Options to Strike Iran,” January 13, 2019,

[v] Stephen M. Walt, “Regime Change for Dummies,” Foreign Policy (blog), May 14, 2018,

[vi] David C. Rapoport, “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism,” in Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, ed. Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2004), 46–73.

[vii] Alexander B. Downes and Jonathan Monthen, “Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Is Rarely a Path to Democracy,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, September 1, 2012,

[viii] JamesA. Piazza, “Regime Age and Terrorism: Are New Democracies Prone to Terrorism?,” International Interactions 39, no. 2 (April 2013): 246–63,

[ix] Piazza.

[x] John McCain, “Opinion | John McCain: Why We Must Support Human Rights,” The New York Times, January 20, 2018, sec. Opinion,

[xi] McCain.

[xii] McCain.

[xiii] Alan B. Krueger, “Where Does Terror Emerge?: Economic and Political Conditions and Terrorism,” in What Makes a Terrorist, REV-Revised, Economics and the Roots of Terrorism (Princeton University Press, 2007), 53–104,

[xiv] Alberto Abadie, “Poverty, Political Freedom, and the Roots of Terrorism,” American Economic Review 96, no. 2 (May 2006): 50–56,

[xv] Alexander B. Downes a nd Jonathan Monthen, “Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Is Rarely a Path to Democracy.”

[xvi] Alexander B. Downes and Jonathan Monthen.

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