The fear that an insurgency or rebellion might overthrow a government that is relatively friendly toward the United States and replace it with an unfriendly one dominated U.S. thinking about substate conflict during the Cold War. It drove U.S. policies toward civil wars in Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. The prime U.S. objective, simply stated, was to prevent the establishment of new pro‐Soviet regimes. The objective was not to tamp down the conflicts and save lives. The resulting policies entailed provision of aid to incumbent regimes, sponsorship of alternative resistance movements such as in Angola, and—in the extreme case of South Vietnam—large-scale U.S. military intervention.
Within the context of a global competition with the Soviet Union, that approach at least had a superficial logic to it. If one perceives a largely zero‐sum contest in worldwide power and influence, and if the contestant on the other side is active across the game board in exploiting internal conflicts and aiding its own clients, pushing back at all points on the board seems to be an apt response. The coming to power of new regimes through insurrection and civil war and the alignment of those regimes with either the United States or the Soviet Union were entries on the scorecard of the global Cold War game.
That way of looking at substate conflict had deficiencies that were not widely recognized during the Cold War. Chief among those deficiencies were that worldwide communism was far from monolithic and that—even within the Cold War context—competition between Washington and Moscow in violence‐wracked regions was not zero‐sum. The dynamics of civil war and insurgency helped keep that competition from being zero‐sum. Resistance movements that are in the pocket of an outside power are less likely than others to obtain the legitimacy necessary to establish a stable new regime, barring direct military domination by its patron.
Conversely, movements that have such legitimacy are more likely to have independent foreign policies once they gain power. Tito and his partisans in Yugoslavia and Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh both demonstrated that approach. Tito’s break with Moscow was sharp enough that even myopic Cold Warriors recognized that fissure in the communist world, but some U.S. policies seemed oblivious to other fissures, including those between North Vietnam and both China and the Soviet Union. Today, we hear echoes of monolith‐perceiving Cold War thinking in the “World War IV” notion that the United States faces a radical Islamist adversary that would use the establishment of any new regimes as steps in the creation of a new caliphate.
Other deficiencies were not unique to the Cold War and should serve as qualifications to any assertions made today about dangers of substate conflicts bringing hostile regimes to power. It is difficult to look at an insurgency or any other kind of resistance movement and to make accurate predictions about the orientation and foreign policy of any regime into which the movement may convert itself in the future. The difficulty is partly a problem of making accurate assessments amid the fog of civil war. It is partly a matter of the inherent difficulty of foretelling how someone will behave when making future decisions.
It is also partly a matter of ends and means being two different dimensions. It is possible for a movement to use extreme methods to gain power and then pursue relatively moderate policies once in power—or vice versa. Some regimes that were established partly through the use of terrorism (e.g., Israel or post‐apartheid South Africa) became friends or partners of the United States. Some that came to power through more peaceful means have come to be viewed as nasty adversaries; think of the Iranian presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And, lest we forget, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany after his Nazi Party won a large plurality in a free election.
Claims that the behavior of future regimes is more predictable than that are mostly exercises of hindsight. Looking at internal conflict in real time, we see it is often hard to distinguish agrarian reformers from totalitarian communists—or strong leadership from vile fascism. How, for example, should one have regarded Meles Zenawi and his Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front while still fighting a civil war, before a victory in that war led to Zenawi’s 17 years in power as ruler of Ethiopia? It was not clear. On one hand, almost anything might have been better than the military junta that Zenawi’s movement displaced. On the other hand, that movement had an ethnically narrow base and was led by a man with a Marxist‐Leninist background. The final result was mixed: a regime that had human rights problems but that the United States came to see as a useful partner in dealing with security problems in the Horn of Africa.
Assertions that the horrible experience with the Nazis could easily have been foreseen and was “all in Mein Kampf” reflect hindsight; they also reflect how that one traumatic piece of history has done much to stimulate the ringing of many later alarm bells, including ones about how particular movements would pose a threat if they were to gain power. The Nazi rise has repeatedly been invoked, probably more than any other historical episode, as an analogy in sounding alarms about purported threats, including threats from nonstate movements. The analogy figured prominently in deliberations in Lyndon Johnson’s administration before the U.S. intervention against the communist insurgency in Vietnam.7 The tendency to overestimate one’s ability to forecast threatening behavior of a group not yet in power is sometimes a matter less of historical comparisons than of confidence in one’s gut sense. Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace said in the late 1960s, looking back a decade, that “any cab‐driver in Alabama could have told you, just by looking at him, that Castro was a communist.” But the Cuban leader’s foreign policies were less predictable while he was putting together an insurgency in the Sierra Maestra; his later association with communism was more a function of the choices and situations he faced once in power.8
Besides such unpredictability, U.S. policies toward many substate conflicts will understandably be diffident because, even if the behavior of the contenders once in power could be foreseen, U.S. interests do not all run in the same direction. What outcome of a domestic conflict the United States should want is not always evident. The upheavals in the Middle East known collectively as the Arab Spring have presented such situations. If U.S. policy toward Egypt, for example, has appeared vacillating, that is partly because different possible outcomes of the struggle for power in Egypt would serve in contradictory ways the different U.S. interests involved, including privileged access to the Suez Canal and the expansion of democracy as a way of discouraging radicalization. The civil war in Syria has also presented no clear answer to the question of what outcome would be most consistent with, or least damaging to, U.S. interests, given that there is much to dislike on both sides of that struggle.
Running a government, as well as a country, is starkly different from running a resistance movement. Incumbency involves demands and equities that strongly shape the motivations of leaders and constrain what they can do, at least without sustaining major costs and losses. That difference is the biggest reason for disconnects between the ideologies and behavior observed in a resistance movement and the policies followed once the same movement is in power. Happily, the disconnects are mostly in the direction of greater moderation when in power. The fundamental reason is that a regime has more to lose than an opposition group does. It has national interests, including strategic and economic ones, to protect, and it has to behave as a normal and responsible member of the international system to do a good job of protecting them. It also has national assets, with a fixed address, that are more vulnerable to reprisal should it misbehave.
The history of Vietnam-U.S. relations reflects those realities. Bitter enemies in the most costly struggle the United States has waged in an effort to keep an insurgency from gaining power in a contested state, the two countries now have cordial relations. It is in the Hanoi regime’s interest to have such a relationship, to benefit from economic interdependence, and to play power politics in a way that helps protect its interests from any Chinese encroachment. The containment of Chinese power in the South China Sea is the foremost of several shared interests that have formed the basis for a deepening relationship between Washington and Hanoi.9
Globalization has increased the costs to incumbent regimes of misbehavior. It is more costly to be a pariah now than it was in a less globalized world. The costs include the opportunity costs of not benefiting from full participation in an integrated global economy as well as any direct penalties, such as specially imposed sanctions. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s sharp turnaround in the late 1990s—after heading one of the more troublesome regimes in the world over the previous quarter century—demonstrates the motivations involved. Qaddafi felt the pain, politically as well as economically, of the sanctioning and ostracism of Libya that the international community imposed largely in response to Libyan involvement in terrorism. The later unfortunate undoing by Western powers—when they intervened in an uprising in Libya to overthrow Qaddafi even after he had given up terrorism and his unconventional weapons programs—of that salutary lesson for other troublesome dictators does not negate the logic involved.10
That same logic provides most of the explanation for the significant decrease in state‐sponsored international terrorism in the past 25 years. (A further and related explanation is the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, which made it more difficult for those ostracized by one set of great powers to find succor elsewhere.) State‐sponsored (including state‐conducted) terrorism is today only a shadow of what it was in the 1970s and 1980s.11 The U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism has dwindled, while some that remain on it, such as Cuba, do so for reasons other than terrorism. All of those facts should put into perspective one of the most frequently expressed worries about substate violence that might lead to regime change: the fear
that a new “terrorist state” will emerge. Old Cold War habits of thinking about regime changes in relation to a single international scorecard die hard. Even those observers who do not impose a “World War IV” template often apply a modified notion of good guys and bad guys aligning against each other. A model of the Middle East that is often applied sees Iran and its allies lining up against everyone else. That view gives rise to unrealistic concepts, such as a coalition of “moderates” that includes the United States, Israel, and Arab regimes with which the United States happens to have good relations, as if those players did not have at least as many differences among themselves as each of them does with the Iranians.12
Much American discourse about the conflict in Syria has used, explicitly or implicitly, such templates in assessing possible outcomes of that war. Outcomes get rated by the effect on a broader competition with the Syrian regime’s major allies, Russia and Iran. That way of looking at the Syrian civil war is misguided. The war can affect some U.S. interests at least indirectly—although, as noted, it is unclear which overall outcome would affect those interests relatively favorably or unfavorably. But the effects will not be measured primarily by a reenergized Russia dreaming old imperial dreams of obtaining warm‐water ports or of making inroads throughout the Middle East. Neither will they be measured mostly by the strength or weakness of Iran, for which Syria has been a rather troublesome ally—all the more so since the Assad regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons against anti‐regime forces in 2013 attracted the attention, as well as the opprobrium, of the international community.