The Rhetoric of Regime Change
by Kim Petersen and B.J. Sabri - Dissident Voice
May 21st, 2017
From the end of WWII until the present, the United States has been borrowing, inventing, or inverting terms to label other nations and their political systems. Eventually, the repertoire of politically motivated rhetorical gadgetries swelled to become a convenient ideological arsenal for US expansions into the sovereign domains of all nations.
Noam Chomsky once noted, “Talking about American imperialism is rather like talking about triangular triangles.”1
Debating the rhetorical validity of Chomsky’s observation and if it effectively describes talking about the United States is not the subject of this article. However, the conclusion that US imperialism is highly adept at dispensing interminable triangular triangles is self-evident.
Terms such as “American exceptionalism,” “leader of the free world,” “God bless America,” and “our great American democracy” to describe the United States, and terms such as “dictatorship,” “totalitarian,” “closed-nation,” “rogue state,” “state sponsor of terrorism,” “regime,” etc. to describe targeted states are littered throughout the American political lexicon. Could such terms shape policies and determine events?
The manipulation of language can be baleful. In the documentary film Psywar, a compelling case is made that scourges, such as impoverishment and wars, arise from the abuse of language. Consider World War II. American Anti‑German propaganda used certain Third Reich terms (Lebensraum, Aryan race, Führer, Social Darwinism, etc.) as a rationale, among many others, to justify US entry into that war.
In Vietnam, the catch phrase was to stop the “Communist domino” in South East Asia. In the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the semantic ornamentation of US wars of aggression took the cynical names of “enduring freedom,” and “Iraqi freedom,” respectively.
Emphatically, people need to be well aware of words and the meanings they impart. It is all too easy to latch onto and use terms that have been integrated into mainstream discourse from media ubiquity. Language has significance, and it helps to shape consciousness and actions. Knowing this, some people who crave wealth and power will manipulate language to satisfy their cravings. But when imperialist ambition for other nations’ assets or strategic locations becomes state policy, the results can be calamitous for nations targeted by imperialism. Hence, the idioms of US imperialism cannot simply be harmless cravings.
What drives this imperialism is the quest for a global imperium, regardless of costs to others.
Within this context, the terms Regime and Regime Change play a role in shaping the linguistic landscape for the US militarism and unchallenged world hegemony. Earlier in US history, President Thomas Jefferson epitomized that drive. Hypothesizing on the “inevitable” collapse of the Spanish Empire in Latin America, he stated that the United States could wait “until our population can be sufficiently advanced to gain it from them piece by piece.”2
Because of incessant state propaganda and the media’s absorption of ideologized terms, the rhetoric of regime and regime change have become so pervasive that even progressive outlets are not immune from it. To evaluate how these terms seep into and embed in the culture and conduct of political systems, we will discuss a typical case as represented by Aaron Maté, a host and producer for The Real News.
On 25 April, The Real News carried an interview by Maté with former Bush administration official Lawrence Wilkerson. In the interview, Maté refers to the Syrian government as the “Assad regime.”When speaking of the US, however, he never uses the term “regime.”Maté refers to the “Trump administration” and the “Bush administration,” and Wilkerson speaks of the “Obama administration.”
Because the term regime is ambiguous, highly politicized, exceedingly ideologized, often used out of context, and invariably employed by the West as an instrument of political defamation, why does this supposedly progressive, independent news outlet use a clear imperialist jargon to demonize foreign governments?
Given that language conveys images through words, using figuratively pejorative wording such as regime implies that a government of such a country is illegitimate. Therefore, effecting “regime change” by military force becomes a purported corrective moral duty of the US. Has this been the case, for instance, with “regime change” in Iraq, Libya, and other Arab states?
Let us dispense for one moment with linguistic gimmicks. Because Wilkerson and Maté spoke of “regime change” throughout the interview, why not opt for straightforward clarity and say the violent overthrow of a foreign government directly or through proxy! In the case of Syria, it should be emphasized that the overthrow is largely being driven by foreign actors.
To dispel any misunderstanding on our part, and to clarify the intent of Maté, one of us, Kim, wrote to him. Here is the exchange:
KP: In recent interviews, you use “Assad regime” but you never refer to a Bush/Trump regime. They are called administrations. Since “regime” is pejorative, why do you call the elected Syrian government a regime?
AM: The Assads have been in power for more than four decades. And I don’t think Trump-Bush’s electoral victories and Assad’s are comparable — correct me if I’m wrong, but in the latter, there wasn’t voting outside of government areas and some foreign embassies. I can understand the argument against using “regime” if it can help legitimize regime change. What term would you use?
KP: First, the business parties of the US have been in power several more decades — since the US was established on Indigenous territory. Second, the 2014 Syrian election was open to international observers; it had a 73.4% turnout that garnered 88.7% support for Assad (64% of eligible voters … which, I submit, obviates the criticism of “outside government controlled areas” … difficult to control when foreign mercenaries and terrorists are wreaking havoc in parts of the country). And you are certainly aware of criticisms of US “democracy” and voting there.
I would refrain from using a pejorative term. I would refer to the “Syrian government” or the “Assad administration” … terms I use with the US or other western governments. I believe an unbiased (or a person hiding biases because most of us arguably have them) media person would not use (mis)leading language with readers/viewers. So I would not use the term “regime change.” I would say “coup” or “foreign-backed overthrow of an elected government.”
Lastly, I submit the US has no business determining for Syrians how they will be led and who will lead them?
AM: Exactly, the business parties have ruled in the US, not one intertwined family regime. I don’t see the 2014 elections, where opponents were state-approved and large parts of the country excluded, as you do. I think regime is exactly the right term for the Assad gang but I can see the argument for not using a pejorative term, even an accurate one. So I’ll consider it. I certainly agree re: your last point.
It was rather unsettling when Maté stated, “I can understand the argument against using regime if it can help legitimize regime change. What term would you use?” [Emphasis added]. It seemed evident that Maté was aware that using the word regime would predispose for violent change. So Kim asked The Real News host for clarification. Maté replied, “I’m saying I wouldn’t want to use language that can can legitimate regime change. I think the Assad regime is a regime, a horrible one, but I don’t support regime change.”
Maté calls the Assad government “the Assad gang.” This is problematic because Maté knows that George W. Bush launched the war that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet did anyone hear Maté saying “the Bush gang”? We are also unaware of, to use the descriptor of Maté, the “Bush administration” (not a regime according to Maté) being described as “a horrible one” (although Maté might agree Bush was horrible; however, if one leaves unchallenged that the “Assad regime” is horrible,3 then the question arises whether the “Assad regime” is more horrible than the “Bush administration,” “Obama administration,” or “Trump administration”).
We suspect that Maté decided to qualify the Assad government according to his ideological leaning and not according to neutral metrics of journalism or political judgement. Of interest, by saying, “I can see the argument for not using a pejorative term, even an accurate one,” Maté demonstrated an intention to persist in his prejudicial charge of “regime” despite his capability to see the “argument for not using a pejorative term.”
Further, Maté questions the decades-long father-to-son Assad governance in Syria. We agree. However, such aspect must not be questioned parochially. First, the United States loves dynasties that serve its plans. One example is the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua (1936-1974). The other was the planned transfer of power from Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal that the US encouraged and blessed until the Egyptian people put an axe to that plan in 2011. Second, we should place the question of dynastic rule in the political context of independent states. That is, the status of who rules in an independent state is exclusively an internal affair of said state.
Explanation: most modern nation-states—especially in Asia and Africa—that emerged after WWI and WWII are the result of myriad historical, domestic, and external (i.e., foreign power intervention) factors. (Israel, being a state created by the West as a homeland for Jewish Europeans is an exception. The western hemisphere, Australia, and Aotearoa/New Zealand are also another subject.)
After the dust settled, many nation-states came to exist as political systems with boundaries arbitrarily demarcated by European powers. Consequently, we deem that criticizing, destabilizing, indicting, partitioning, or overthrowing the legitimate (according to prevailing international agreements) governments of these states is not only absurd but patently criminal. Legally and morally, no foreign states, institutions, groups, or individuals have any right to rearrange the political configuration and type of power of any other country.
Of course, we have every right to question the power assets of a specific state if they negatively affect other nations. We also have the right to question the power structures of all other states be they the business duopoly of the United States, the medieval system of Saudi Arabia, or the moribund but obstinate colonialist system of Britain.
Conclusion: Leaving aside the question of the moral cogency of the system of nation states, it is elementary to uphold the notion that the configuration of any national government is a matter for the citizenry to decide. However, no one need defer from taking a critical position in evaluating its policies and actions. Further, if one insists on indicting a country based on any premise, then the metrestick used to judge that country must be extended, first of all to one’s own country, and second, be extendable to all other countries without exception.
Take the example of Jordan. Imperialists abstain from referring to Jordan as the Hashemite “regime,” which Britain fostered to allow for the installation of a Zionist state in Palestine. A similar imperialist impediment exists against calling the house of Windsor the monarchical regime, even though it descended from houses that conquered Scotland and Wales?
Additionally, in terms of power as a family affair, familial lineages are now an entrenched trait in US politics: the influence of the Kennedys, the Bushes, and the Clintons in politics are recent examples. Where do we hear the protests against the power of such dynasties or their being dubbed as regimes transplanted in power roles through elections?
If the explanation is that free elections led to that, then the validity of elections (as a process for attaining power for specific families) should be scrutinized and categorized. Moreover, because the validity of US “democracy” and US elections are questionable,4 is it not throwing rocks from a glasshouse when criticizing forms of government elsewhere?
We understand that that not all governments are elected in a popular vote with multiple parties. But to assert that governments determined through US-style elections are more democratic is preposterous.5
This brings us to question of what has been learned from “regime change” wreaked by the United States and other western powers such as helping racists overthrow the socialist government in Libya, for example?
The US Department of State in its “2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” provides a rather damning example of what can result from “regime change”:
The most serious human rights problems during the year resulted from the absence of effective governance, justice, and security institutions, and abuses and violations committed by armed groups affiliated with the government, its opponents, terrorists, and criminal groups. Consequences of the failure of the rule of law included arbitrary and unlawful killings and impunity for these crimes; civilian casualties in armed conflicts; killings of politicians and human rights defenders; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; and harsh and life-threatening conditions in detention and prison facilities.
Other human rights abuses included arbitrary arrest and detention; lengthy pretrial detention; denial of fair public trial; an ineffective judicial system staffed by officials subject to intimidation; arbitrary interference with privacy and home; use of excessive force and other abuses in internal conflicts; limits on the freedoms of speech and press, including violence against and harassment of journalists; restrictions on freedom of religion; abuses of internally displaced persons, refugees, and migrants; corruption and lack of transparency in government; violence and social discrimination against women and ethnic and racial minorities, including foreign workers; trafficking in persons, including forced labor; legal and social discrimination based on sexual orientation; and violations of labor rights.
Given the contemporary history in Libya, what would one predict for “regime change” in Syria?
It is agreed that rhetoric can nonplus media consumers. Now, even though Maté uses the “regime” rhetoric, he nonetheless declares he is anti-“regime change.” This is a contradiction. For the record, we view Maté as an informed journalist worth listening to; but if we want to identify the conceptual dichotomies forced upon the use and misuse of such term, we need to dissect Maté’s ideological construct of regime and regime change
If logical arguments matter, then it is one thing when the French once referred to the monarchic system prior to the French Revolution as the Ancien Régime—that when the term regime came into usage. However, it is something else when the West uses it as a means to express dubious political paradigms. The reason is simple: such expression comes with the implanted code/pretext for military intervention.
In post-WWII imperialist practice, the moment a government of a given country gains the enmity of the United States (or Israel), it becomes a “regime.” For example, when Muammar Gaddafi was considered an enemy of the West, they called his government a regime. But when he gave up his advanced weapons programs and rudimentary equipment, the US and Britain refrained from using the word “regime” and started using the standard term: Libyan government. To show the change of heart of the West toward the Libyan leader, Tony Blair, a bona fide war criminal, went to dine with him in his tent.
And when the Egyptian people were about to force the then incumbent ruler Hosni Mubarak to step down from power (in 2011), CNN anchor Anderson Cooper shouted from Cairo against the “dictator” Hosni Mubarak. Yes, Mubarak was a dictator. He was also an obedient stooge of the United States and Israel. But how did the United States and Israel call their stooge during the 32 years that preceded the Maidan al-Tahrir (Liberation Square) revolt?
Former Israeli official Benjamin Ben-Eliezer called Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak “Israel’s greatest strategic treasure” and Haaretz’s editor-in-chief said Egypt under Mubarak was “Israel’s guard,” and the United States called Mubarak our “ally.”
Another US oddity: the Al Saud family that is ruling Saudi Arabia, with its shuttered female population and head chopping meted out to malcontents, is a regime from top to bottom. When about 14,000 “royals” are placed in every crevice of power, then that power is the pure expression of a regime. And yet, we do not recall Western governments ever calling the Saudi family rule as regime. What is the mystery?
There is no mystery. As stated, the term regime is all of the following: expedient, arbitrary, politicized, ideological, and to make sure, it is a tool of denigration for multiple objectives depending on who are the users. Thirty years ago, the Iraqi government of President Saddam Hussein called the Syrian government of President Hafez Assad a “regime.” Likewise, the Assad government (until the death of Hafez) has called the Iraqi government a “regime.” Interestingly, both Iraq and Syria called the Saudi ruling family a “regime.” Saudi Arabia (and the West) called the Iranian government the “mullah regime.” Today, US media have no qualms dubbing the Russian government as “the Putin Regime.” (It is easy to capitulate and wield the language in reverse. We, too, have called the G.W. Bush and the Obama administrations “regimes.”)
Where do we go from here? What is a Régime?
The notion that a government cannot be called regime because it is elected is a defective way to look at how things work. In the US, for example, the president is elected. Fine, but the entire administration is first appointed and then approved. Technically, therefore, the said administration is a specific regime convened within the framework of certain strictures. Consider this: no one elected Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and other Zionists to take decisions for war against Iraq. Yet, their influence in making decisions transcended the role of elected governance. Arguably, therefore, the US government is a particular regime that responds to special interests among its ruling elites.
Consequently, when the United States calls any foreign government a “regime,” we immediately know that the appellation is dictated by the need of the imperialist system to appear as an expression of a “democratic government.” Meaning, while the US is a normal and democratic state, the other state is not.
Recently, Paul Craig Roberts, an economist and former US Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan, joined the ideological skirmishes surrounding the use of the word regime. It is rare in US politics that elements belonging once to the Establishment acquire enough intellectual independence and honest lucid thinking to turn against it, and in the process, expose its making and who really rule it. Roberts is such a courageous element. However, in his article, “How Information Is Controlled by Washington, Israel, and Trolls, Leading to Our Destruction,” Roberts does not go all the way to investigate all aspects of a matter. He writes:
I hold Israel and the Israel Lobby accountable, just as I held accountable the Reagan administration, the George H.W. Bush administration, the Clinton regime, the George W. Bush regime, the Obama regime, and the Trump regime. (I differentiate between administration and regime on the basis of whether the president actually had meaningful control over the government. If the president has some control, he has an administration.) [Emphasis added]
Roberts tried to walk a very thin line between two concepts with different meanings and purposes: administration and regime. In short, his method to differentiate is critically flawed. He attributed the conceptual distinction to one factor: Control. The scheme does not work. Control, whether exercised in a “regime” setting or in an “administration” environment neither elucidates nor qualifies the structural quality of governance and its hierarchical order.
For instance, it is known that Ronald Reagan, the governor and the president, was in the habit of delegating many if his responsibilities to others due to serious shortcomings (William E. Leuchtenburg, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina, described Reagan with these words, “No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed.”) This means, although Reagan might have had what it takes to appear as the one in charge, he lacked the expertise to run the complex system he was supposed to govern. However, both delegation of power and decision-making do not entail exercising control by those who give it because ultimately those who undertake such delegation are only theoretically responsible for it, while the delegator takes only nominal responsibility.
Further, if the head of a given “regime” tightly controls the apparatuses of his government, would that be enough reason to qualify that regime as administration? On the other hand, even if Roberts meant to confine his distinction to the United States, his approach would not work either.
Explanation: Roberts often uses the Deep State paradigm as the true pattern of power in the United States (we endorse this paradigm, too). But an altered reality, where patterns of power are preserved and repeated like clockwork, is the corollary of Deep State. Evidently, therefore, Roberts overlooked how the Deep State works. If this state is effectively in control of the US government, then that government is no longer an administration but a regime that carries the orders of that state.
Considering that the American political system—since inception—responds positively to the financial and political interests and pressure by its capitalistic class, top oligarchs, and special interest groups, then all US administration are regimes—by concept and by fact—under the control of powerful circles.
Curiously, is the Chinese government an administration or regime? When answering, we have to keep in mind the role of the Chinese Communist Party. Because this party appears to control the totality of the Chinese governmental policies and its economic plan, then do we have a regime? Would the Chinese government accept to be called a regime? Would any government accept to be labeled as a regime if such a term is heavily infused with derogatory attributes that could be used against them by aggressive states?
We resolutely consider a change of government imposed by foreign actors as an aggression and act of war. Definitively, it is illegal under the prevailing international law that imperialist states themselves co-wrote and endorsed. What constitutes a legitimate change of government?
A change of government should be an expression of the will of a domestic population—be it through revolution, massive civil unrest, or peaceful transition of power. Consequently, we deem all states that are not installed by colonialist powers as having the inalienable right to be considered legitimate and viable for further development.
Does voting confer legitimacy? Broadly, does western-style “democracy” imposed by the mass destruction of weaker nations give legitimacy to governments installed by aggressors? Why does the Vichy Regime installed by Hitler in France still evoke opprobrium but comparatively few criticize regimes installed by the United States in Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, and Libya? In the end, could such regimes ever evolve into a genuine democracy—assuming that we have settled on its acceptable definition and mechanisms? We submit that the answer is no.
We view a government imposed by invaders as a means to satisfy the plans of the power that installed it, not the aspirations of the country’s people. Iraq is an example. The post-invasion Iraqi political system cannot be but a regime. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it dissolved its legitimate governing structures, the army, police force, ministries (except the oil ministry), banks, currency, and so on.
Apart from geopolitical demarcation, the Iraqi state ceased to functionally exist including, of course, its political status. That is, we had no idea what it had become: anarchy-land, fiefdom, sect-land, republic, or just mere colony without face or name. And yet, the United States of George W. Bush went ahead and installed a “president” (Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar) for a shell republic. If the post-invasion political system was not a regime exemplar, then what is a regime? With all that, the United State never called the illegitimate and illegal order it imposed on Iraq (still in power today) with any label except the “Iraqi government” to convey the impression of normalcy.
Since the dawn of history, no government has ever reached a theorized- or aspired-to perfection. Is such perfection possible? Societies and governance are an evolving process. In the example of Syria, the struggle of the Syrian people to liberate their land from French colonialism, to confront the installation of a militarized, expansionist Zionist state on its flanks and US plots to overthrow successive Syrian governments have all shaped political attitudes and considerations.
Like most developing countries, the Syrian government has flaws. Shall we then accept the killing of over 350,000 Syrians and destruction of their cities in order to enlarge Israel, to allow Turkish intrusions against Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, to provide passage for Qatari pipelines, to re-design the maps of the Arab world, and to turn Syria into an American and Israeli vassal?
Consequent to these arguments, and when confronted with denominating the plethora of political systems existing today, our position is based on simple logic. First, we define any ruling entity of a country as government, and give the name administration to its political configuration. Second, we reserve the term regime to any entity—elected or not elected—that is ruled, directly or indirectly, by special interest groups, by clans, by families, by organizations, by personalities of dubious loyalty to the people, by lobbyists, by oligarchs, by ideologues, by militarists, and by servility to foreign governments. But in the first place, we reserve the term regime to any entity that declares itself above the laws of humanity, above the laws of nations, above criticism, and beyond moral accountability.
To close, we believe clear-minded and critically thinking writers could take the lead in naming any government as “regime” if objective conditions—as explained (or further improved upon)—would support the designation. Again, a middle way exists: that we simply call the entity that rules a country as “government.”
Ultimately, this could avoid the diatribe as to what a government is and how it differs from a regime. Having stated that, we do have serious problems when writers, using circulating clichés, uncritically follow the naming system promulgated by the US hyperpower.
- Noam Chomsky, “Modern-Day American Imperialism: Middle East and Beyond.” 
- Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, W. W. Norton & Company, 1993, p 19. 
- For a rebuttal see Robert Roth, What’s really happening in Syria (available for download here). 
- Noam Chomsky, who Maté admires (according to one bio), holds the US is not a genuine democracy. As for the validity of US elections, Greg Palast has been an outspoken critic of stolen elections. See his Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps. 
- See Arnold August, Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion (review). See also Wei Ling Chua, Democracy: What the West Can Learn from China (review). Both August and Chua provide compelling narratives on what approximates “democracy” and how favorably Cuba and China stack up compared to the United States. 
Kim Petersen is a former editor of Dissident Voice and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
B.J. Sabri is an observer of the politics of modern colonialism, imperialism, Zionism, and of contemporary Arab issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.