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.

The emergence of an effective opposition is likely to be a long-term process. But the prospects for resistance in Iraq are not as hopeless as the media portray them to be. As a recently released report from the International Crisis Group points out, the regime has lost a great deal of legitimacy in the past decade and there have been repeated coup and assassination attempts. Although none of them came close to bringing the regime down, they belie the notion that Saddam’s control is so pervasive that resistance is impossible.

Skeptics argue that this scenario will never be realized in Iraq because leaders like Saddam, who exercise near-total repressive control over their citizens, will never relinquish power unless defeated militarily. This pessimism echoes that of cold war theorists of totalitarianism in the 1970s, who argued that political change in the Soviet Union was impossible. Just over a decade later totalitarian Communism had ceased to exist. The history of the past thirty years has repeatedly demonstrated that authoritarian regimes are highly vulnerable to internal opposition.

What are the main objections to such a strategy? First, Administration hard-liners argue that it is profoundly dangerous. Any failure to depose Saddam militarily will give him more time to develop weapons of mass destruction. They have a point, but make too much of it. The Iraqi leader has had such weapons for many years and has used them against the Kurds and Iran. But since the Gulf War, Iraq has not perpetrated a single act of aggression outside its borders–let alone one involving WMD. This is no accident. The omnipresent threat of allied retaliation has been very effective. There is no reason to assume that deterrence will be less effective in the future.

Second, there is the nightmare scenario that sees Saddam transferring WMD matériel and technology to terrorist organizations. This is indeed a horrific prospect, but there is no evidence that Iraq has ever attempted anything like this, despite ample opportunity. Al Qaeda certainly would not have bothered trying to make its own crude chemical and biological weapons had Iraq supplied it with the far more lethal ones it has possessed for decades.

There are good reasons for Iraqi forbearance. Middle East politics are so volatile that Iraq’s secular leaders could never be certain that any weapons of mass destruction transferred to Islamic extremists would not at some stage be used against them. Moreover, the number of persons that would necessarily be involved in weapons transfers would make concealment of Iraq’s role almost impossible over the long term. The mere revelation of such transfers, let alone actual terrorist use of the weapons, would certainly lead to massive US military action against the Iraqi regime.

But the fact that the war option is so flawed does not mean that the approach advocated here is a panacea. There are no good solutions to the challenge that Saddam Hussein poses–just less-bad ones. But there is much to be said for a strategy that seeks regime change by re-creating the conditions that have led to the demise of countless other brutal autocracies around the world. It will incur fewer costs and pose less risk than the massive military assault the United States is planning. And–unlike war and sanctions–it has a remarkably successful track record.