6+1 Questions

30 October 2021, 1504 EDT

Name Of The Book… And Its Coordinates? 

Payam Ghalehdar 2021. The Origins of Overthrow: How Emotional Frustration Shapes US Regime Change Interventions. New York: Oxford University Press.

What’s the Argument?

The United States has repeatedly used its military to overthrow foreign regimes – at least sixteen times from 1906 to 2011 – but these interventions seldom work out particularly well. So why does Washington continue to engage in violent regime change? The answer is that U.S. leaders forcibly overthrow regimes to relieve emotional frustration. For example, the Bush administration did not overthrow Saddam Hussein because it wanted to turn Iraq into a Middle Eastern showcase for democracy. It did so because the Iraqi dictator was George W. Bush’s bête noire. Bush – and many members of his administration, saw Hussein as an obstructive menace who was bent on destroying the United States.

Tell Us Why We Should Care.

Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten describe the United States as “the greatest repeat offender” when it comes to the use of force to remove foreign governments. Regime change is highly disruptive for target states, perhaps even “the most shattering domestic political event a country can experience.” It rarely enhances U.S. security and prosperity. Understanding why it happens might help prevent unnecessary wars.

Why Should We Believe Your Argument?

I cover five cases in which the United States engaged in militarized regime change: Cuba 1906, Nicaragua 1909-1912, the Dominican Republic 1963-1965, Iran 1979-1980, and Iraq 2001-2003. These episodes span almost one hundred years of U.S. foreign policy and two world regions – the Western hemisphere and the Middle East. Frustrated presidents play an important role in all these overthrows. My analysis draws on a wealth of archival government documents obtained from presidential libraries – the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta, Georgia – and the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. For the Iraq case, I used some of the declassified material collected by the National Security Archive in Washington, DC.

Why’d You Decide To Write It In The First Place?

 To me, like to many others, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 seemed extraordinary. There were no immediately obvious reasons for the Bush administration to turn from Afghanistan to Iraq. Richard Haass, then-director of policy planning at the State Department, professed that he would go to his grave “not fully understanding why”. Chris Reus-Smit urged me to adopt a broader perspective and go beyond the single case of Iraq. Looking for answers in the literature, I was inspired by John M. Owen’s Clash of Ideas in World Politics, but realized that we knew surprisingly little about the causes for U.S. overthrows. When I started looking at some U.S. cases myself, I did not know that frustrated presidents would be the focus of my book. In fact, I was not really familiar with the literature on emotions at that point. After more research, I realized that foreign regimes that thwarted American expectations and the subsequent emotional reactions of U.S. presidents played a consistent role in decisions to overthrow foreign leaders.

What Would You Most Like To Change about the Book, and Why?

If I could change the book, I would do two things: First, I’d spend more time justifying my focus on the presidency. This would include more engagement with arguments that focus on the role of Congress or public opinion. Second, I’d discuss the concept of regime change and propose a key distinction. Most scholars think of regime change as a tool that introduces new regimes in target states. After all, why would a state go to war to depose foreign leaders if not for the opportunity to install new rulers? But regime change can also simply mean overthrow with no particular focus on what regime comes next. That distinction between regime change as transformation and regime change as overthrow is implicit in the book. Making it more explicit would strengthen my point that U.S. leaders rarely cared about the aftermath of overthrow and spent little time planning the aftermath of their interventions.

The +1: How Difficult Was It To Get The Book Published?

The book went through two rounds of revisions. The first round required major changes to the original manuscript and introduced new chapters to it. The second was also significant. But it worked out well in the end.