Washington Wasn’t Always So Afraid of the Term ‘Regime Change’

Iranian protesters cry foul as administration officials bend over backwards to avoid any appearance of wanting the mullahs to be overthrown.

AP/Middle East Images, file
Iranians at Tehran protest the death of Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, September 20, 2022. The Associated Press obtained the photo outside Iran. AP/Middle East Images, file

There was a time when America was willing to stir things up abroad in working to promote liberty and U.S. interests, but that was before the term “regime change” became unspeakable among Washington’s foreign policy mavens. 

Over the weekend President Biden’s apostle of appeasement, Robert Malley, the administration’s Iran point man, angered supporters of the weeks-long Iranian revolution. Yesterday a leading advocate of overthrowing the mullahs’ regime, the journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, was joined by tens of thousands who signed a petition calling for Mr. Malley’s firing. 

This followed Mr. Malley’s reaction to an Associated Press article under the headline, “Iran Protests Trigger Solidarity Rallies in Europe, US.” In a viral tweet, Mr. Malley wrote, “Marchers in Washington and cities around the world are showing their support for the Iranian people, who continue to peacefully demonstrate for their government to respect their dignity and human rights.” 

In fact, as a huge number of angry Twitter respondents noted, the demonstrators aren’t risking their lives merely to beg Tehran for “respect.” Rather, their main focus is overthrowing the regime. 

Mr. Malley later apologized, saying his tweet was poorly worded. “Neither I nor the US government can claim to speak for protesters,” he told the website Iran International. “Only they can do that, and I’d never intend to imply otherwise.” 

The state depratment’s spokesman, Ned Price, echoed that sentiment yesterday. Pressed by reporters who noted that the protesters carry signs demanding regime change, Mr. Price said, “It’s not for me to either interpret or to speak on behalf of the people of Iran.”

“Let’s say that if I walk down the street carrying a sign saying oranges are bad,” the AP’s state department leg, Matt Lee, said, “what would you say that my message is?” An evidently exasperated Mr. Price shot back, “I’m the spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State. I am not the spokesperson for oranges.” 

Thus, a rift grows between the Biden administration and protesting Iranians due to America’s fear of being seen to favor regime change. 

Last night Ms. Alinejad launched a petition calling for the removal of Mr. Malley from his role steering America’s Iran policy. By midday the petition was signed by 50,000 people. “We ask President Biden to appoint a new Iran team that respects America’s commitment to freedom,” Ms. Alinejad tweeted. “It is time for ⁦‪@SecBlinken‬⁩ to sack Robert Malley.”

A leading advocate of negotiations with the Islamic Republic who studiously avoids any reference to the illegitimacy of his Tehran interlocutors, Mr. Malley is far from alone. Nor is Iran the only place in the world where the state department’s brahmins fear to discuss regime change.

Asked yesterday about the recent call by a former national security adviser, John Bolton, for changing the Pyongyang regime of Kim Jong-un, Mr. Price pushed back: “Diplomacy and dialogue represents the most effective means by which to address the challenge that North Korea poses.”

After being confirmed as America’s top diplomat, Secretary Blinken vowed that the Biden administration would not “promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force.” America has “tried these tactics in the past,” he said in March 2021. “However well-intentioned, they haven’t worked,” 

Well, perhaps someone important didn’t get the memo. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Biden said President Putin “cannot remain in power.” The president’s apparent advocacy of regime change was quickly walked back by White House officials.

In the past Mr. Biden often favored regime change. As head of the Senate’s foreign relations committee in 1998, he called for “taking this son of a — taking Saddam down,” referring to the Iranian dictator.

His tune changed only after he became vice president under Barack Obama, who won the presidency based on his opposition to the Iraq war. By then Washington’s received wisdom was deeply etched: That war the mother of all bungled regime changes.

It didn’t stop President Obama from half-heartedly helping Europeans precipitate the overthrow of Libya’s “mad dog,” Muammar Qaddafi, or from interfering in Egyptian, Israeli, and even British politics. As a concept, though, “regime change” was erased from Washington’s playbook.  

Yet, America’s desire to help people across the world overthrow the regimes that oppress them has been a foreign policy cornerstone at least since President Monroe issued his famous doctrine. 

Monroe’s ideal of shaping the hemisphere to enhance American values and interests is much maligned today, yet could anyone argue, for one, that creating the country of Panama by confiscating land from Colombia in 1903 was a bad idea? The Panama Canal is an extremely valuable sea lane for today’s global commerce. 

The historical record of interfering in the affairs of foreign countries is uneven. Yet, helping the oppressed to overthrow tyrants — as they’re attempting to do in today’s Iran — is too deeply ingrained America’s ethos for Mr. Biden and his aides to dismiss the idea completely. 

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use