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Jewish World Review Nov. 7, 2002 / 2 Kislev, 5763

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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Begin the Régime | There's nothing so powerful as a slogan whose time has come. In 2001 there were a total of nine mentions of the phrase "regime change" in major newspapers; since January of this year there have been more than six hundred. Yet there's nothing new about the notion of regime change itself. I've found the phrase in political science articles from as far back as 1968. And regime has suggested impermanence ever since it first entered the English political lexicon just after the French Revolution. That was the mother of all regime changes, and it gave us the phrase "ancien régime," or "old regime," as a name for the form of government that was about to come to a decisive end.

Regime has been used since then to refer to a country's form of government. In that use, it needn't be disparaging -- people talk about democratic or parliamentary regimes as easily as about totalitarian regimes. But when we call a government a regime, there's usually a sense that its hold on power is insecure or unsteady, as if you could hear the tumbrils rolling in the distance. We talk about the democratic regimes of Latin America, but not about the democratic regimes of North America or Western Europe -- those we just call democracies. As best I can tell, the difference between a democratic regime and a democracy is that with the latter you figure you don't have to keep checking in to see who's in charge.

But regime has another, more recent use, where it refers to the particular people in power in a country, rather than to its form of government. That's the sense that regime has when it's paired with the name of a ruler or a political party, like "the Castro regime" or "the Sandinista regime." Or people sometimes talk about "the Havana regime" or "the Beijing regime," with the implication that the rulers just happen to be squatting in the seat of government. In those cases, regime always implies that the government is illegitimate or undemocratic. We don't talk about the Blair regime or the Ottawa regime or the Washington regime. And the only people who talk about the "London regime" are Irish nationalists referring to the Unionist government in Belfast, which sort of proves the point.

You can get a sense of just how high a government ranks on the current public enemies list just by seeing how likely the press is to describe it as a regime. When I did those counts on the names of current rulers, Saddam Hussein came in first, and second place was a tie between Castro and the Assads of Syria. Then came Gadhafi, the North Koreas, and the Iranians, with the Chinese and the Saudis trailing well behind.

There's a clear tendency here for the press to use regime more for governments that the US has particularly antagonistic relations with. The Castro government is more than twice as likely to be called a regime as the Beijing government is, and the Syrians are six times as likely to get the label as the Saudis or Musharraf are. Still, I can see the journalistic logic to this. The label regime implies impermanence, after all, and historically speaking, governments that have gotten on the wrong side of the US haven't generally proved very stable.

In the past, in fact, the press has used regime most frequently of leaders that the US was actively trying to topple, like the Sandinistas, Noriega, Milosevic, and the Taliban. The only difference between then and now is that the phrase "regime change" seems to make that principle a matter of official policy.

What makes "regime change" such an inspired slogan is the way it plays on the ambiguity of regime itself. Of course, everybody knows what the Administration's supporters have uppermost in their minds when they talk about regime change. Ari Fleischer made that quite clear when he said that regime change in Iraq could be accomplished for the cost of a single bullet. But in the language of diplomacy, "regime change" plays a lot better than a slogan like "let's take out this bozo" -- it suggests that what the US is ultimately interested in is replacing the current Iraqi system with something more benign. "Regime change" -- you have the picture of a country gleaming with all the appurtenances of a modern democracy: a League of Women Voters, Sunday morning with Tim Russert, attack ads and hanging chads.

Well, stranger things have happened in the last few decades. But regime change can be an unpredictable business, as liberals like Condorcet and Lafayette discovered at the time of that ur-regime change of 1789.

In the first flush of revolutionary hope, they coined the phrase "le nouveau régime" to describe the new democratic order that they were building. But the phrase never caught on the way "ancien régime" did, probably because it was quickly overtaken by events.

Over the following decades, the French went through a series of dictatorships, despotisms, monarchies, communes, and short-lived republics, throwing the whole region into a turmoil that it took a hundred and fifty years to recover from.

It wasn't till eighty years after the fall of the Bastille that the French finally stopped lurching from one regime to the next and settled into a more-or-less stable democratic system that nobody was tempted to describe as a regime in the first place.

It's easier to get rid of regimes than to create a world where we don't actually have to use the word.

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JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg is a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Geoffrey Nunberg