By Matt Taibbi / Substack
Not long ago, candidate Joe Biden’s most troubling behavioral tendency was the surprise outburst of belligerence. Campaigning, he’d challenge questioners to push-up contests, jam fingers in the sternums even of supporters, and plunge into rambling monologues about leg hairs and chain-fights.
Now, the president’s face is often a mask of terror, like a man unsure of how he came to be standing in the middle of an intersection. Mental cars racing past, he met the press Monday, to clarify a statement made last week about Vladimir Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Many interpreted this as a call for regime change. Not at all, Biden said, reading from a large-print cheat sheet — this reportedly happened — that reminded him to say he was merely expressing “moral outrage,” and “not articulating a change in policy.” When he ran out of pre-prepared remarks, he drifted back to danger, saying:
It’s more an aspiration than anything. He shouldn’t be in power.
The AP writeup offered help: “He said he was expressing an ‘aspiration’ rather than a goal of American foreign policy.” (I’m sure nuclear-armed Putin appreciated the semantic difference). When Biden moved more toward candor, saying he made “no apologies” for his remarks, another reporter quickly tried to guide him back to a safe harbor:
Q: Your personal feelings, sir? Your personal feelings?
THE PRESIDENT: Personal. My personal feelings.
Biden even offered his Princess Bride/Vizzini-esque analysis that “the last thing I want to do is engage in a land war… with Russia”:
Although administration mouthpieces Tony Blinken and Jen Psaki scrambled to reassure a nervous world that the U.S. is not intent on “doing regime change” in Russia, officials everywhere have been telling reporters the opposite on background.
This cat was out of the bag weeks ago. As Joe Lauria at Consortium points out, Biden was asked on February 24th, at the start of the invasion, what sanctions would accomplish if they hadn’t prevented war. His answer:
No one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening. That has to sh- — this is going to take time. And we have to show resolve, so he knows what’s coming and so the people of Russia know what he’s brought on them. That’s what this is all about.
Biden said virtually the same thing in Brussels last week:
Sanctions never deter… The maintenance of sanctions, the increasing the pain … we will sustain what we’re doing not just next month, the following month, but for the remainder of this entire year. That’s what will stop him.
We heard this more explicitly from Boris Johnson on March 1st, “The measures we are introducing, that large parts of the world are introducing, are to bring down the Putin regime,” Johnson said. Lauria points out this was two days after British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey wrote in the Telegraph that “His failure must be complete… the Russian people empowered to see how little he cares for them. In showing them that, Putin’s days as President will surely be numbered… He’ll lose power and he won’t get to choose his successor.”
Jen Psaki’s non-committal answer to The Intercept’s question about whether or not Volodymyr Zelensky has autonomy to negotiate the end of sanctions, and the apparent disinterest of the United States in participating in peace talks, also speaks to this. Biden’s many “gaffes” on the subject have all let slip military or strategic initiatives, not diplomatic ones, like revealing that the U.S. is training Ukrainian troops in Poland.
As Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic noted, Blinken even went out of his way to throw cold water on supposed positive news coming out of Russia-Ukraine negotiations. The Secretary of State said he hadn’t seen any signs of “constructive” progress, and any indication that Moscow might be willing to pull back might be to “deceive people and deflect attention.” Even the New York Times vaporized a headline that briefly appeared Tuesday suggesting progress in negotiations.
This is the before shot:
Things could change at any moment. Biden could suddenly pivot to helping Zelensky secure a diplomatic solution. But as of this writing, evidence suggests the United States is not interested in a settlement, and is gunning for a long-term play that would unseat Putin, crack the Sino-Russian alliance, and reverse the political malaise that’s beset neoliberal democracies for years, with one Rumsfeldian “big move.”
Well, you say, so what? Shouldn’t America use the occasion of Putin’s seemingly disastrous and indefensible invasion to try to force him out of power?
Sure, that makes sense. Except for two things.
One, when Biden says, “This is going to take time,” and speaks about pressure for an “entire year,” he’s referring to time that will cost piles of Ukrainian lives every day. Maybe the Ukrainian people are willing to sacrifice those lives. But Zelensky only just said, “We are looking for peace, really. Without delay.” He’s repeatedly asked for help in negotiations and expressed a willingness to embrace a future of Ukrainian “neutrality.” There’s obviously ambivalence among American pundits and politicians toward any settlement that might be seen as rewarding Putin for his aggression, but the question is if that’s our call to make, or that of the Ukrainians bearing the punishment.
Second, and more important — regime change doesn’t work! It may be the most proven hypothesis ever. Our record is so bad, the standard for measuring “regime change” isn’t even success or failure anymore. It’s more like failure, or heads-on-sticks failure. As in, “Did the intervention end in American-allied locals hurling themselves at the landing gear of departing aircraft in an effort to flee World War Z-style crowds of bloodthirsty nationalists?” Any regime change effort that ends without Americans beheaded, barbecued, or castrated — even if it accomplishes nothing — now goes in the plus column by default.
The plot is always the same. Our diplomats speak loftily of self-determination, civil liberties, and democracy. Then the local population does something daft, like attempting to nationalize their own oil or copper reserves or voting for a nationalist or socialist, at which point the CIA is forced to intervene and install a responsible leader like the Shah, Pinochet, or Suharto. If the new U.S-friendly leader hangs on, he or she over time becomes increasingly dependent on arms, “security advisors,” and World Bank/I.M.F. loans, mass-disappearing dissidents into fingernail factories or wiping them out with death squads, while also often raiding the treasury as a carrying charge for services rendered. This results in more domestic fury, leading to more calls for “aid,” until the by-now-hated U.S.-allied figure is steamrolled by a nationalist/communist/fundamentalist movement 1,000 times more hostile to the U.S. than anything that existed previously. See: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and today’s Russia (hold that thought).
In 2016, the Washington Post published an article by a Boston College professor named Lindsay O’Rourke noting the United States had either toppled or attempted to topple other countries’ governments 72 times between 1947 and 1989. The list is an astonishing compendium of disasters. We apparently can’t even murder people competently, spending taxpayer money on Dr. Evil schemes to make Castro’s beard fall out or have him walk past exploding sea shells (the CIA even spent a million in Indonesia on a failed plot to make a porno movie using a man in a General Sukarno mask) while real assassinations, O’Rourke wrote, were only ever pulled off by foreigners:
Not a single U.S.-backed assassination plot during this time actually killed their intended target, although two foreign leaders — South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo — were killed by foreign intermediaries without Washington’s blessing during U.S.-backed coups.
O’Rourke also concluded that “after a nation’s government was toppled, it was less democratic and more likely to suffer civil war, domestic instability and mass killing.” The Cato Institute came to the same conclusion, noting that regime-change efforts “are likely to spark civil wars, lead to lower levels of democracy, increase repression, and in the end, draw the foreign intervener into lengthy nation‐building projects.”
“Regime change” is a theory of pre-emptive conquest and therefore based on the same lunatic logic that drove Putin to invade Ukraine. Our version posits that all threats can be eliminated by covering the planet all over with American-style liberal democracies. It is, no joke, a version of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s famous “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” the idea that “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.” This theory Friedman “confirmed” with McDonald’s for a 1996 Times column, and he wasn’t kidding. He wrote that while in the 50s and 60s developing nations thought “having an aluminum plant and a U.N. seat” made them “real countries,” having a McDonald’s was now the truer indicator:
When a country reaches a certain level of economic development, when it has a middle class big enough to support a McDonald’s, it becomes a McDonald’s country, and people in McDonald’s countries don’t like to fight wars; they like to wait in line for burgers.
The Russia-Ukraine war blew Friedman’s theory to shit, but was fun while it lasted. “Regime change” supposedly traces back over a century to Woodrow Wilson’s famous argument that the world must be made “safe for democracy,” but from the Cold War on presidents have bent it in an even more pre-emptive direction. Bill Clinton talked about “checking global threats abroad before they threaten our territory” by “enlarging the community of democratic and free market nations.” George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy described a need to “extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent,” and because “the allies of terror are the enemies of civilization,” we must “hold to account nations that are compromised” and “deny them sanctuary at every turn.”
Regime change is a uniquely American form of xenophobic naiveté. It’s not ignorance of the “Chemicals TURN THE FREAKIN’ FROGS GAY!” variety. It’s an even more dangerous type: bushy-tailed products of the Kennedy School and the Hoover Institute somehow cruising straight from top schools into positions of authority at places like the State Department and the NSC despite knowing less about the world than the average Survivor contestant or Men’s Health editor. Each may be only barely literate at graduation, but they’re all always certain of one thing: inside every foreigner lies a loyal, McNugget-loving American waiting to get out, and all the world’s problems will be solved if only they are all empowered.
I never met Victoria Nuland, but I knew scores of people like her in the expatriate community in Moscow. On Friday nights they binge-drank in clubs like the Hungry Duck like they were still on campus, often even dressing in their Harvard, Penn, and Princeton sweatshirts. The drunkenness made them like everyone else in town, only being monolingual they tended to go home mainly with each other rather than risk contamination with locals (I always imagined they read chapters of The Great Game to one another as foreplay).
These people replaced the old Sovietologists who used to populate the embassy in Moscow, all linguists and accomplished historians who’d built careers mapping the vast geography of shadows behind the iron curtain. The old guard knew a lot but hadn’t been trained in the new binary language of “freedom” versus “evil,” and could never have been convinced that trying to turn Moldova or Georgia into Nebraska overnight would work. So they were replaced en masse in the Clinton years by people like Michael McFaul, human haircuts whose knowledge level was zero and whose idea of genius was Strobe Talbott, but were game for what they thought would be a simple social engineering project: just give all the old Soviet Republics, Russia included, little junior-America starter kits — constitutions, free markets, elections — and permanent ally states would instantly materialize.
Not only did this not happen, but the champions of democracy these people chose turned out to be a rogues’ gallery of wildly creative scoundrel-failures. Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili, taking office after the 2003 “Rose” revolution, was hounded not only by corruption charges but by accusations that his political prisoners were sexually abused in prison. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the Tulip revolution hero, put his son in charge of business matters and was so infamous for corruption he ended up having to flee for his life to Minsk, of all places. Boris Yeltsin nearly drank the entire net worth of the Kremlin State Property committee and was so unpopular that national referendums on his rule might have been fixed twice — once in 1993, and once in the infamous “Yanks to the Rescue” election of 1996 — just to keep the locals from voting in someone else.
Yeltsin’s rep as a Western puppet who brutalized the press, blew off a national non-payment crisis suffered by miners and other working-class laborers, and didn’t crack down on years of rampant capital flight (engineered by his thieving oligarch pals) out of a starving country, led directly to the widespread support for his hand-picked successor, the vicious nationalist Putin. This raises the question: if we succeed in deposing Putin over Ukraine, what evidence is there that we won’t end up with someone even worse than Putin in the Kremlin in very short order, like we did last time? Who thinks we wouldn’t screw this up on a grand scale, given that we already botched it once? Any replacement for Putin the U.S. would find acceptable would have to evince a range of views putting him or her directly at odds with most of the population, like for instance a tolerance for NATO expansion. The seeds of reaction would be there from the jump. That’s in the lucky case we don’t provoke civilization-ending nuclear war en route to helping install a new Russian leader.
The people who run our foreign policy look back at the incredible record of failure of American regime change efforts — hundreds of thousands dead in Indonesia, maybe two million in Indochina — and are incapable of seeing the basic truth on that was on display for all the world to see in Iraq, and also now in Ukraine: people will fight to the death rather than accept any kind of foreign rule. For people like this, regime change efforts never failed because they were doomed insane paranoia, but because of overlooked logistical errors, like not sending ground troops into Laos to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who became a #Resistance hero for speaking out about his differences with Donald Trump, wrote a whole book called “Dereliction of Duty” that argued America lost in Vietnam because Johnson and Kennedy wouldn’t listen to the Joint Chiefs, who “always knew what was needed to win in Vietnam,” like a “large increase in the number of advisers.” He leaves out our massacres of civilians, herding of locals into “strategic hamlets,” and use of child-disfiguring Agent Orange, and the resistance all this inspired. McMaster is now a go-to quote about the need for regime change in Russia. These people will never stop believing regime change just needs more time under the hood, and it’ll work the next time.
As was the case with Saddam Hussein, the argument here isn’t for leaving a monster like Putin in power. It’s about not inviting something worse to take his place — an Ayatollah, Islamic State, a resupplied Taliban — through inerrant arrogance and incompetence. Are we really going to do this again? How many times is enough?