Trans-Pacific View | Security | East Asia | Southeast Asia

As US-China Competition Grows, Will Covert Regime Change Make a Return?

Many of the same incentives that pushed leaders into the covert sphere during the Cold War are present in the U.S.-China context.

By Michael Poznansky and Mindy Haas for
As US-China Competition Grows, Will Covert Regime Change Make a Return?
Credit: Rumlin via Wikimedia Commons

As the rivalry between the United States and China intensifies against the backdrop of a pandemic and (dis)information wars about culpability, some have wondered whether covert regime change might make a comeback. During the Cold War, the the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), almost always at the direction of the president, quietly engineered the overthrow of numerous regimes who drifted — or were perceived to be drifting — too close to the Soviet Union. It is not hard to imagine how competition with China for the allegiances of other countries might create similar incentives.

While covert regime change as a tool of foreign policy waned somewhat after the Soviet Union’s collapse, it did not disappear entirely. Throughout the 1990s, the CIA tried and failed to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq. More recently, the Obama administration quietly funded the Syrian rebels working to overthrow Bashar al-Assad before Trump pulled the plug in 2017. If there is a chance that these kinds of operations will grow in importance, it is imperative to understand their causes as well as their consequences.

The stakes are non-trivial. If covertly toppling hostile governments is indeed an easy, cheap, and effective way of promoting friendly regimes around the globe, U.S. policymakers would be wise to adapt the Cold War playbook to the current rivalry with China. Unfortunately, the track record of covert regime change is decidedly mixed, often producing negative and unintended consequences for intervener and target alike. Although many of the factors that pushed policymakers to embark on these operations in the past exist in the current competition with China, the potential downsides warrant careful consideration and, in many cases, restraint.

The Appeal of Secrecy

A common refrain in scholarly and policy writing on covert action is that it is attractive to policymakers because it is a low-cost way of achieving foreign policy goals. Covert operations do look cheaper if one compares the nearly $2 trillion dollars spent on the U.S. war in Iraq to the $1 billion spent on Obama’s secret war in Syria. But the latter was not covert because the U.S. kept costs down by sending arms and aid to rebels rather than using U.S. forces directly. Rather, it was covert because these efforts were meant to achieve plausible deniability. That is, Obama could have taken the same action and acknowledged complicity at roughly the same price tag.

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The main reason leaders find covert action attractive is that it reduces political costs. At the international level, plausible deniability can help states manage the thorny problem of escalation, even when rivals detect one another’s operations. During the Korean War, for example, U.S. policymakers learned that the Soviet Union was secretly participating in air combat but chose not to publicize the information for fear that the American public would call for blood. Covert action has also enabled leaders to circumvent their international legal obligations. In its capacity as a key architect of the modern rules governing intervention and use of force decisions, the U.S. has frequently turned to secrecy as a way of targeting hostile regimes without damaging its credibility and appearing hypocritical.

Covert action can also help leaders reduce political costs at the domestic level. Decision-makers may turn to secrecy when the American public would disapprove of the action being taken. Scholars often point to covert operations against elected regimes during the Cold War as a prime example of this dynamic. Because U.S. audiences may not have tolerated targeting a fellow democracy openly, the argument goes, presidents turned to plausible deniability instead.

While chief executives are typically the driving force behind covert action, Congress plays an important role in delineating the circumstances under which it is legal, permissible, and appropriate. They can write laws that prohibit the CIA from engaging in certain behaviors — like the ban on secret intervention in Angola in the 1970s — or enable the CIA to take action in the covert realm — as was read into the National Security Act of 1947. They can also write laws spelling out the process by which covert action is approved, like the presidential finding requirement, or which govern the substance of operations, including their locations and means.

Of course, presidents committed to covert action can always try to get around congressional restrictions. After legislators prohibited the Reagan administration from funding the rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s, some officials pursued extralegal methods to continue their efforts. The end result was the Iran-Contra affair. In ongoing research, Mindy Haas finds that when leaders circumvent substantive regulations, more violent forms of covert action may follow. After Congress cut off CIA funding to FNLA and UNITA, groups fighting the Soviet-backed MPLA in the Angolan Civil War in the 1970s, the U.S. sought additional support from Iran, other Middle Eastern states, and economically well-off African states. The CIA also hired hundreds of “foreign military advisers” — French and Portuguese mercenaries — to further the fight.

A Mixed Track Record

Understanding executive and congressional interests in the quiet option is essential for assessing the implications of a potential resurgence in covert regime change against the backdrop of U.S.-China competition. Taking stock of its track record over time is equally important. The most obvious metric on which to evaluate this issue is operational success. That is, how often did covert attempts at regime change actually accomplish their intended goal? The answer is not very often. According to Lindsey O’Rourke, such operations succeeded just 39 percent of the time. O’Rourke further notes that “the covert operations that easily toppled their targets also tended to be the ones that were least needed from a geostrategic perspective in that they involved overthrowing weak states with limited international political or economic influence.”

Some of the failures of covert regime change are well-known. Perhaps most infamous was America’s unsuccessful attempt to covertly oust Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Others, like Eisenhower’s failed attempts in the mid-1950s to quietly overthrow Sukarno in Indonesia or the anti-Western regime in Syria, are not as widely researched or discussed.

The relatively high failure rate of covert regime change might be less worrisome if America’s role remained secret. But that, too, was often not the case. As planning for the Bay of Pigs was underway, newspapers like the New York Times ran headlines such as: “U.S. Helps Train an Anti-Castro Force At Secret Guatemalan Air-Ground Base.” Two decades later, Reagan’s covert attempts to arm the Contras in Nicaragua and the mujahideen in Afghanistan were an open secret.

To be sure, this kind of publicity may not always be a bad thing. Under some conditions, it can help states signal resolve to adversaries. It can also be useful for domestic political purposes. According to Gregory Treverton, Reagan viewed the publicity surrounding many of his covert operations “as good policy and good domestic politics.” But it is not always welcome, particularly when an operation violates sovereignty norms and fans the flames of nationalism in the target state and surrounding region.

It is also worth noting that advances in information and communication technology are making it harder than ever for states to maintain any semblance of plausible deniability. The secret raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden in May of 2011 is a prime example. Although it wasn’t technically a covert operation since Obama announced it to the world afterwards, the fact that the whole ordeal was inadvertently live-tweeted by a Pakistani IT consultant in the Abbottabad neighborhood highlights the challenges of secrecy in the 21st century. Similarly, social media posts from Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine containing geolocation data made it nearly impossible for Vladimir Putin to deny involvement. Indeed, the Russian government recently banned soldiers from using smartphones for this very reason.

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Another way of evaluating the effects and consequences of covert regime change is by assessing its impact on targets and their subsequent relationships with interveners. With respect to the former, the track record is not encouraging. Targets of covert operations were less likely to be democratic and more likely to experience internal conflict in the years after an intervention. A quick look at some of the most prominent episodes of covert action during the Cold War is telling. The 1954 coup in Guatemala contributed to decades of civil war, and the Nixon administration’s covert efforts to oust Salvador Allende in the early 1970s resulted in nearly 20 years of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.

The track record of subsequent relations between the intervener and the target is more complicated. While one recent study finds that regime change in general can disrupt bilateral trade, another finds that covert action resulted in a surge of imports of American goods. Things appear worse outside the context of trade. Downes and O’Rourke find that these operations rarely resulted in better relations with the U.S. and often created further conflict down the road.

It is worth noting, however, that assessing whether covert intervention improved or worsened relations with the U.S. is often more complicated than simply asking whether things eventually turn bad. When the U.S. helped overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, policymakers were deeply concerned that the Soviet-aligned Tudeh Party might co-opt the government. If Eisenhower had done nothing and that concern came to fruition, would that have been better or worse for U.S. interests than having 26 years of a friendly Iranian regime under the Shah? This is a hard question to answer, but important nevertheless for evaluating the efficacy of covert action. And of course, even if such operations produce temporary victories for the intervening state, the end result for the targets — as already mentioned — is often years of dictatorship and repression.

Charting the Path Ahead

This discussion has wide-reaching implications for thinking about the likelihood — and the wisdom — of a potential resurgence in covert regime change. For starters, many of the same incentives that pushed leaders into the covert sphere during the Cold War are present in the U.S.-China context. It is well within the realm of possibility that policymakers looking to pursue regime change somewhere on China’s doorstep in East Asia might see covert operations as a way to reduce the chances of escalation while also signaling resolve. For their part, Chinese leaders might be willing to tacitly collude by declining to publicize any such activities for fear that doing so could inflame nationalist sentiment and create added pressure for a confrontational response.

The ongoing battle over the rules of international order also means that U.S. policymakers may be especially keen on hiding violations of existing laws governing intervention — laws that they helped create. Given China’s own embrace of the principles of non-intervention and non-interference, brazen violations could cede the moral high ground and result in greater support for the Chinese model. It is conceivable that these dynamics could play out in regions like Africa where the United States and China continue to compete for economic and military influence.

Finally, any consideration of using the quiet option to topple regimes that tilt too close to China must include a full accounting of the inherent risks. These include the prospect that a covert operation will become public knowledge prematurely and the possibility that it could destabilize the target state and create longstanding ill-will in the process. Whether trying to meet foreign policy goals covertly and failing in that attempt is preferable to doing nothing requires a careful assessment of not only the costs and benefits, but also moral and legal repercussions.

Michael Poznansky is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is also the author of In the Shadow of International Law: Secrecy and Regime Change in the Postwar World (Oxford 2020).
Mindy Haas is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University, focused on international security and international law, with her dissertation examining how congressional regulation can have unintended effects on the types of covert action used in U.S. foreign policy.