August 13, 2014
The Hill has a report titled “Obama seeks Iraq regime change.” The Daily Beast has a similar report titled, “Exclusive: Inside Obama’s Push for Regime Change in Iraq.” Other outlets are using similar language. But the headlines are belied by the stories they herald.
Essentially, the United States government has grown frustrated with the incompetence of long-time Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and has been quietly pushing for the constitutional president to appoint a replacement under the procedures outlined in said constitution. That has now happened and Maliki is threatening to resist, going so far as to organize armed militias. Obama and company are sending strong signals that this will not be tolerated.
In recent years, common usage of “regime” has been in description of authoritarian governments. One typically sees references to the “Saddam Hussein regime” in Iraq or the “Assad regime” in Syria but not to the “Merkel regime” in Germany or the “Reagan regime” in the United States—although occasionally the latter form is used by opponents to imply that elected governments are behaving in undemocratic or unsavory fashion.
But a regime is only synonymous with the current political leadership in an authoritarian state. In Robert Fishman’s often-cited definition, “A regime may be thought of as the formal and informal organization of the center of political power, and of its relations with the broader society. A regime determines who has access to political power, and how those who are in power deal with those who are not.” He continues, “Regimes are more permanent forms of political organization than specific governments, but they are typically less permanent than the state.”
So, in the case of the United States, the current regime dates to the inauguration of George Washington as president under the Constitution of 1789. Forty-two men have held the office since but they’ve all done so through the processes established under the Constitution (as occasionally amended both formally and through custom, notably the evolution of how the Electoral College functions in practice). We’ve had incredibly bitter and contentious elections—and a bloody Civil War—but have handed off control of government according to our institutional processes this whole time. The last “regime change” in the United States, then, was when the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation. Before that, there was arguably a regime change when the Articles replaced British rule, although I’d argue that we established a new state rather than changed regimes.
In the case of Iraq, ascertaining the lines is admittedly more difficult. Wikipedia tells us that,
Iraq’s first constitution, which established a constitutional monarchy, entered into force under the auspices of a British military occupation in 1925 and remained in effect until the 1958 revolution established a republic. Interim constitutions were adopted in 1958, 1963, 1964, 1968, and 1970, the last remaining in effect de jure until the Transitional Administrative Law was adopted. In 1990, a draft constitution was prepared but never promulgated due to the onset of the Gulf War.
The current constitution was approved by a referendum that took place on 15 October 2005.
I would argue, then, that regime changes took place in 1925, 1958, and 2005. These represent true changes in governing systems—British rule, military-authoritarian rule, and something democracy-like. The last date is murky, in that the US-led Coalition ousted Saddam on 9 April 2003 and handed over power to a temporary Iraqi government shortly thereafter. There were even more-or-less legitimate democratic elections under the Transitional Administrative Law during that interim period. One could, then, reasonably argue that that constituted a “regime” as well.
Regardless, Iraq is still operating under the Constitution of 2005. So, in fact, the US government is backing the current regime against an apparent plan by the sitting prime minister to retain power through unconstitutional, perhaps event violent, means. That’s the exact opposite of regime change.