Critics of America’s plans to oust Saddam Hussein militarily have mounted powerful arguments, but not one has articulated a coherent nonmilitary strategy to bring about the demise of the monstrous Iraqi regime. But there is an alternative strategy, one inspired by an extraordinary but little-noticed political trend that has been under way for more than thirty years. During this period the number of authoritarian regimes around the world has dropped by more than half.
In almost none of these transitions did the regime succumb to the sort of coercive economic sanctions that have crippled Iraq’s economy over the past decade, nor to an external military assault like the one the United States is now planning. In most cases the overthrow of dictators–Albania’s Hoxha, Romania’s Ceausescu, Serbia’s Milosevic and dozens of other brutal autocrats–has taken even close observers by surprise. In different circumstances Saddam’s demise could be equally swift and just as unexpected.
Authoritarian regimes ultimately fall because, as societies become more developed, more complex and more interdependent, they also become increasingly difficult to govern by brute coercion. The decline of autocracy has been accelerated by the growing dominance of market-oriented democracy and the crisis of legitimacy all authoritarian states confront sooner or later if they fail to deliver the political and economic goods.
Nonviolent “regime change” is not something that can be easily engineered from outside, of course. But the international community can help create the conditions that will facilitate the transition. Responsibility for actually effecting and sustaining change will, however, always rest with the citizens.
In the case of Iraq there is much that could be done. A sweeping reform of the United Nations’ disastrous sanctions would be an important start. In the last decade sanctions have had the perverse effect of strengthening the regime domestically and increasing its control over the economy while enriching Saddam’s henchmen, who control the black markets generated by the sanctions regime. Sanctions have devastated the Iraqi economy. Agricultural, sanitation, health and industrial infrastructures have been crippled, and the structural power of the once-thriving middle class, the most important source of potential opposition to the regime, has been in effect destroyed. Middle-class professionals–engineers, scientists and academics–now hawk cigarettes and drive taxis to earn enough to eat.
Sanctions have not only strengthened the regime, devastated the economy and wrought immense humanitarian harm, they have also failed in their goal of coercing Saddam into compliance with UN resolutions. Sanctions theory is predicated on the idea that imposing economic pain on citizens will lead them to pressure governments to change the policies that led to the imposition of sanctions in the first place. But in authoritarian regimes the people who feel the pain have no power; those in power feel no pain. Sanctions almost never work against dictatorships for this reason.
Lifting the world’s most draconian sanctions and allowing foreign investment back in would revive Iraq’s crippled economy and relieve the appalling suffering the Iraqi people have had to endure for more than a decade. Without sanctions, Saddam would no longer be able to capitalize on the visceral anti-Americanism the sanctions have generated. A resurgent market-based economy would erode the economic power of the state, rebuild the middle class and create the political space for effective opposition to the regime. The existing ban on major weapons imports and on precursors of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) should stay in place, of course.