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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

regime change

(1980’s | bureaucratese? academese? | “overthrow”)

A phrase that first bobbed up around 1980 in industry publications mainly interested in the business climate in this hotspot or that, or so says LexisNexis (Google Books shows a few examples from the seventies). It grew slowly through the mid-nineties, usually but not always in discussions of foreign policy; Variety used it to talk about boardroom wars in Hollywood, and the business press more generally did the same thing. I even saw it in an article about the weather, deploring a prolonged spell of rain and low pressure. Ronald Reagan used it in 1987 in regard to Libya, but I recalled that a later war or covert action had vaulted the expression into prominence — Iraq (the first one)? Bosnia? Former Soviet Union? Not until 1998 did “regime change” come into its own when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced a revised policy toward Iraq, then led by the much-demonized Saddam Hussein, from containment to “containment plus regime change.” That seemed to give everyone else license to use the phrase more often. The Clinton administration’s strategy of fomenting resistance to Hussein inside Iraq coupled with regular bombings and discreet aiding and abetting from Arab neighbors didn’t do the trick, but the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis finished the job a few years later, ultimately handing Iran much greater regional influence and still costing us huge amounts of money. It was heartening to read recently that Trump, like Obama before him, will withdraw most U.S. troops out of Iraq; we’ll see how long he keeps it up.

I tend to think of regime change as imposed from without. One nation (or an alliance) inflicts regime change on another, or at least triggers or sponsors it. But the phrase doesn’t have to be used that way. A regime change may just as well be imposed from within, through an election or coup (either of which may be initiated or influenced by a foreign power, of course). And why does “regime change” have to mean “replacement”? I don’t know, but it does. “Regime change” is never used to refer to an existing government reforming itself. Maybe that should be “regime changes” (as in “going through changes”) — the plural sounds gentler somehow. I’d like to see an expression that gives room for rulers to see the error of their ways and forge a new path.

We do not refer to changes and successions in the U.S. government as “regime change.” That’s because “regime” retains its authoritarian sound, and we do not own up to our authoritarian tendencies, which are not as strong as in many other parts of the world, though they are arguably stronger than they used to be. Trump may covet the power of Putin or Duterte, but he is much more constrained than they. And it’s still hard to imagine any single country, or even several, strong enough to remove the federal government by force. (Taking over Washington would be easy enough, but pacifying Arkansas?) The Russians have had some success recently at undermining it, and, of course, they may have more.

I realized something as I looked through LexisNexis hits from the past month on “regime change.” Throughout the nineties, the results contained a lot of false positives, closely related phrases like “how regimes change” or “if you want the regime to change,” but “regime change” as a compound noun was not common. Now you encounter very few false positives. It made me realize, rather belatedly, that when a new expression takes charge, previous variants get funneled into it. Once “regime change” became the way to say it, the variants all but disappeared, because everyone took to using the new phrase and making whatever grammatical and syntactic adjustments were necessary.

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