The concept of regime change has a venerable history. The assassination of Julius Caesar by some of his close associates in 44 BC is a famous episode in the long history of this practice. Essentially, violent regime change is attempted when a group becomes disaffected with the status quo and views further negotiations as fruitless. In this context, the overthrow of English rule by the American colonists can be viewed as an example of regime change. It is evident, therefore, that regime change may encompass a broad spectrum of activities, from targeted assassination of individuals to large-scale conflict between armies.
At the heart of regime change are often political differences between competing ideologies. (In the case of Julius Caesar it was the idea of dictatorship or republic.) This is one reason why regime change is as popular today as it was two thousand years ago: There still exist major ideological conflicts between various groups (e.g. Islamic Republic vs. Secular Republic). However, in some cases, regime change is simply a contest between competing factions for spoils with no deep ideological differences at stake. In some third world countries violent regime change has become the norm. In the democratic West, violent regime change has largely given way to more subtle methods. Here, the (electoral) ballot has generally replaced the bullet as the preferred means of effecting regime change.
During the Cold-War, the two major ideological and military blocs (NATO and Warsaw Pact) engaged in competing episodes of violent regime change. One was never sure to which camp a “non-aligned” country might belong on any given day. The U.S. is reputed to have sponsored a regime change in Chile in 1973, when Salvador Allende was deposed in a military coup d’état. Apparently, Allende’s socialist rhetoric put him on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. The following year, 1974, Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, was deposed in a communist coup led by General Aman Andom and Mengistu Haile Mariam.
In December 1979, the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan with the intent to prevent a regime change by mujahedeen (holy warriors) against the Marxist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had come to power in a 1978 military coup against prime minister Daoud, who himself had seized power from King Mohammed Zahir Shah in 1973. The mujahedeen, with support from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, succeeded in seizing power and driving out Soviet forces in 1988.
The Afghanistan engagement may have expedited the demise of the Soviet Union, which collapsed three years later in 1991.
Since then, the U.S. has been on the offensive in effecting regime change in different parts of the world, based on an apparent philosophy of, ‘to the victor go the spoils’. So-called “color revolutions”, so named because of the colors chosen by pro-Western groups to represent the political movements have occurred in Georgia (Rose Revolution, 2003), Ukraine (Orange Revolution, 2004), and Kyrgyzstan's (Tulip Revolution, 2005).
Ironically, the U.S. entered Afghanistan in 2001 to effect a regime change against the beneficiaries of its earlier anti-Soviet policies in that country. Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the notorious September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. territory was said to be an honored guest of the mujahedeen. Later, in 2003, the USA mounted a large scale invasion of Iraq to effect a regime change and depose Saddam Hussein, like Osama bin Laden, a former ally of the Cold-War.
Since August 2008, a resurgent Russia has effectively announced its intention to prevent further regime changes at the expense of its influence, especially in what it regards as its ‘back yard’ (near abroad). In an armed conflict with Georgia over South-Ossetia, Russia wrested control of this province from Georgia and recognized it as an independent republic. Many Russians view this as consistent with the Western precedent set in the Serbian province of Kosovo in February 2008 when some members of the Western military bloc (NATO) confirmed 1999 gains against former Soviet ally Serbia by recognizing that province's independence.
Current top candidates for near-term regime change from the Western perspective are the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea). Both states are regarded as mortal threats due to the strident anti-Western rhetoric of their leaders and their alleged efforts to secure weapons of mass destruction, a privilege that Western leaders prefer not to share with others, wherever possible.
On the other hand, the U.S has lost some of its recent regime change momentum. As with the erstwhile Soviet Union, the U.S. is involved in an expensive and tiresome engagement in Afghanistan. Coupled with the cost of the war in Iraq and the current global economic and financial crisis, regime change appears to have lost some of its urgency. The focus now appears to be on mending fences and consolidating gains.
In the meantime, the U.S. has been asked by the government of Kyrgyzstan to vacate Manas Air Base by August 2009. This air base is said to be a major logistical hub in support of the Afghanistan war. This move is generally regarded as a gain for Russia in Central Asia.
Pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine have lost their glance, and earlier gains have yet to be stabilized. The question of NATO membership by these two countries is a hot button issue and the U.S., at this time, does not appear eager to push further, for fear that it might yet lose what once appeared to be a certain gain.
Of course, this definition leaves out many more examples of regime change. The deposal by the U.S. of a Marxist government in the island of Grenada in 1983 is one such example. There is also the regime change in Cuba led by Fidel Castro against the U.S. ally Batista in 1959. That regime change still stands, despite numerous efforts by the U.S. at reversal, including the notorious failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The U.S. engagement in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975 was an effort to support a pro-U.S. regime and thereby halt a communist inspired regime change. In 2002, regime change was attempted against president Chavez of Venezuela by pro-U.S. military forces under General-in-Chief Lucas Rincón.
The peculiarity of regime changes is that they are generally fueled by a mixture of motives. The regime change led by Mao Zedong in China that resulted in the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 is a typical example of this complexity. On the one hand, Mao adhered to a communist ideology inspired by Marx, Lenin and Stalin. On the other hand, he appealed to Chinese sense of nationalism. Thus, it would appear that, as a rule, the side that can command the patriotic feelings of the populace, regardless of political ideology, has an important advantage in any regime change confrontation. Outsiders who are perceived to be undermining the national will of a country will generally have a much more difficult time maintaining their regime change gains. Given the lack of will to continue a bitter battle for territory, where vital national interests at not at stake, the contestant whose heart is not in the fight will tend to be worn down first and forced to throw in the towel. From the Western perspective, Vietnam may be a textbook example of this thesis. For the Soviet Union it was Afghanistan Will it be Afghanistan again for another superpower in the coming years? Certainly, it does not appear at this time that the current potentate in Afghanistan has consolidated its regime and succeeded in making itself immune to the effects of ongoing regime change efforts.
1. 1948 - Communist coup in Czechoslovakia.
2. 1952 - Military coup in Egypt overthrows the monarchy.
3. 1953 - United States/U.K. coup in Iran codenamed Operation Ajax, against the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq.
4. 1954 - In Guatemala, the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was ousted by General Carlos Castillo Armas in an operation organized by the American Central Intelligence Agency codenamed Operation PBSUCCESS.
5. 1954 - Military coup in Paraguay with U.S. support.
6. 1960 - Military coup in Turkey.
7. 1960 - Military coup in Democratic Republic of the Congo.
8. 1966 - Military coup in Ghana.
9. 1966 - Military coup in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso).
10. 1966 - Military coup in Syria.
11. 1966 - Military coup in Nigeria.
12. 1967 - Military coup in Greece.
13. 1968 - Coup in Panama.
14. 1968 - Coup in Iraq.
15. 1969 - Coup in Libya.
16. 1969 - Coup in Somlia
17. 1969 - Coup in Sudan.
18. 1970 - Coup in Pakistan.
19. 1970 - Coup in Syria.
20. 1970 - Coup in Bolivia.
21. 1971 - Coup in Turkey.
22. 1971 - Coup in Uganda.
23. 1973 - Coup in Chile.
24. 1974 - Coup in Portugal.
25. 1974 - Coup in Cyprus.
26. 1974 - Coup in Ethiopia.
27. 1975 - Coup in Bangladesh.
28. 1975 - Coup in Comoros.
29. 1975 - Coup in Nigeria.
30. 1976 - Coup in Ecuador.
31. 1976 - Coup in Thailand.
An extensive, but not exhaustive, list of regime changes incidents can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_coups_d'état_and_coup_attempts