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The Regime Change Ratchet

By Matthew Yglesias on August 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm

"The Regime Change Ratchet"

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A very smart piece from Eric Martin about how a series of plausible demands on the U.S. president can lead you down a slippery slope to unwise action:

Step 1: How can the President not at least condemn [Regime X] publicly for its abhorrent actions? A public condemnation is the very least the President can do. It wouldn’t cost much, but it would be an important show of our resolve and support for freedom!

Step 2 (with Regime X still in place): So what, the President condemned the regime publicly with some harsh words and called it “illegitimate.” Words are cheap and inconsequential. We need sanctions and coordinated efforts to isolate the regime. That will do the trick!

Step 3 (with Regime X still in place): Sanctions? Regime isolation? Is that all the President is going to do in the face of Regime X’s perfidy? Those timid jabs will never work, and the President’s dithering will make us look weak and lacking in resolve. Our enemies will be emboldened. The President must use our military to deal a swift blow. No one is advocating a prolonged occupation, just a decapitation maneuver, and then a rapid hand off to the indigenous forces for democratic change.

Step 4 (with Regime X toppled by our military): Now that we’ve committed our military, and brought about regime change, we have a moral obligation to see the mission through to the end. Besides, if we withdraw, chaos will erupt and our enemies will fill the vacuum. We owe it to the locals, we can’t afford to lose face, we can’t show weakness and our credibility depends on staying until a relatively stable, friendly nation emerges from the rubble.

Step 5 (repeat as needed): We’ve turned the corner, shifted the momentum and victory is within reach. The next six months should prove decisive.

A lot of this, I think, reflects the perils of keeping a lot of military “excess capacity” on hand. If someone asks the president of Chile about some egregious human rights abuses happening somewhere and he condemns them, that statement clearly is what it is—a condemnation. If he says “Dictator X should go,” he’s making an ethical observation about the impropriety of so-and-so’s regime. Nobody expects Chile to follow up its words with actions. Sometimes, though, you’ve just got to take a stand in much the way that an editorialist might. But precisely because the United States has a lot of military assets at our disposal that clearly aren’t needed to repel a Canadian invasion, it’s difficult to find a middle ground between turning a blind eye to atrocities and calls for military intervention.

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