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Overthrows ‘R’ U.S.

Stephen Kinzer (CAS’73) argues that “regime changes” are nothing new for America”

Stephen Kinzer Photo by Deborah Donnelley

Many Americans, and most of their elected leaders, seemed shocked when the triumphant toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in 2003 was followed in a matter of weeks by thousands of suicide bomber and “improvised explosive device” attacks and an incipient civil war.

They shouldn’t have been, according to Stephen Kinzer (CAS’73), longtime New York Times correspondent and former bureau chief in Turkey, Germany, and Nicaragua. In his latest book, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (Times Books, 2006), Kinzer picks apart 14 American “regime change” operations — true tales of corporate power, willful ignorance, and unintended, often calamitous consequences.

Kinzer begins with the sugar-company coup (supported by U.S. marines) against the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and moves on to Cuba and the Philippines (1898), Nicaragua (1909), Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973), and Panama (1989), among several others, ending with the most recent regime change in Iraq. Whether they were predominantly colonial land grabs, corporate power plays, or Cold War or war-on-terror geopolitics, all of these overthrows were supported by the persistent American belief, Kinzer writes, that “American power is intrinsically benign because the political and economic system it seeks to impose on other countries will make them richer, freer, and happier.”

In reality, according to Kinzer, the United States was usually “willing to support any governing clique, no matter how odious, as long as it did America’s bidding,” even if that meant “overthrowing democratically elected leaders and leaving tyrants in their place.” And when the United States did overthrow repressive rulers, such as Ngo Dinh in South Vietnam, Manuel Noriega in Panama, or Saddam Hussein, they were often former allies-of-convenience who’d stepped too far out of line. In almost every case, Kinzer shows that the U.S. action hurt American interests in the long run, with the sad corollary that Americans seem largely incapable of thinking long-term when it comes to using power in the world.

“There is a tendency in Washington to believe that the lessons of history no longer apply to the United States. Some people have come to believe that because the United States is so much more powerful than any other nation in history, we have nothing to learn from what happened before,” says Kinzer. “I find this a terrifying view.”

What started you down the road of writing this book?

For years during the 1980s, I covered the Contra war in Nicaragua and also the terrible civil conflict in Guatemala. After covering these stories on a day-to-day basis for a long period, I began asking myself why these situations were happening. Why was Guatemala in such a terrible conflict? Why was Nicaragua constantly the center for rebellion and repression? Why were these countries so poor? The more I talked to people and read books, the more it became clear to me that American intervention was part of the reason for the backwardness and violence of these countries.

I’ve concluded now that in order to understand episodes like the American overthrow of the Nicaraguan government in 1909 or Guatemala in 1954, you have to consider them as part of a continuum. You cannot really understand the history of the 20th century or modern American history or what we’re doing in the world today without understanding these episodes from our history.

To what extent would you say these “regime change” operations were rooted in uniquely American motivations, as opposed to following the path of many great world powers throughout history that have overreached and later regretted it?

I see a three-part process that leads us to intervene in foreign countries. Usually, the first thing that happens is that the leader of that country, moved by nationalist impulses, tries to restrict or bother or harass or nationalize some foreign business, usually an American corporation.

American leaders allow themselves to become convinced that any government that would restrict or bother or try to tax an American company or try to nationalize its assets must be anti-American, anticapitalist, repressive, brutal, and probably the tool of some giant foreign enemy that is trying to subvert us.

Then the third and final phase comes, when it’s time for American leaders to explain or justify this action to Americans and other people in the world. They do not use either the economic or the political explanation. Instead, they portray these operations as efforts to liberate people in foreign countries who are being brutally oppressed by an evil dictatorship. This touches two very deep strains in the American character. In the first place, it addresses our compassion. We don’t like the idea that anyone anywhere in the world is suffering. We want to help.

In addition, we believe that because we are America, we can accomplish whatever we want. We feel that we’ve been blessed by Providence with democracy, prosperity, and so much bounty. This gives us not only the right, but perhaps even the divine responsibility, to go out into the world and share the benefits of our civilization with people in foreign countries.

What particular United States–instigated regime change do you think readers of your book would be most troubled by?

In the period after World War II, the winds of nationalism were blowing very strongly around the world, including in Iran. While it’s hard for us today even to think about using the word Iran and the word democracy in the same sentence, in the early 1950s, Iran was a functioning democracy. And that democracy, responding to great pressure from ordinary people and a unanimous vote of the elected Iranian parliament, tried to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, which was controlled by one single foreign company. That set in motion the CIA coup that destroyed the only functioning democracy Iran ever had.

We placed the shah back on his throne. He ruled with increasing repression for 25 years, leading to the explosion of the late 1970s, which we call the Islamic Revolution. That revolution brought to power a clique of fanatically anti-American clerics who have spent the last 25 years intensely, and sometimes very violently, trying to subvert American interests all over the world. Now we are facing another world crisis with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. This crisis would never have happened, indeed, this religious regime would never have come to power, if we had allowed Iranian democracy to thrive in the 1950s. I can hardly wrap my mind around how different the Middle East might look today if we had been patient enough to restrain ourselves.

Turning to the current intervention in Iraq, I wonder if you think there were any major decision makers in the Bush administration who believed the foremost reason to invade was to promote democracy.

In my book, I make a list of about 10 different reasons why we invaded Iraq. I think what happened is that different people in the administration had different reasons for wanting to do it. Some wanted to do it because they thought America needed a steady supply of oil. Some wanted to do it because Iraq could be a platform from which to project American power in the Middle East. Some wanted to protect Israel. Some wanted to take pressure off of Saudi Arabia. And I think some did believe that it was possible for the United States to go off to this very foreign, very different country and simply by removing a clique of gangsters at the top, turn it into a thriving, pro-American, Middle-Eastern version of Switzerland. It’s frightening to reflect on the ignorance that is required to come to that conclusion.

Critics would say that America is a world power with real world responsibilities and that you are arguing for isolationism and appeasement in the face of threats. How would you respond?

The interventions that I’ve studied almost all resulted not just in great pain for the target countries, but also in a weakening of American national security. Now, in the future the United States is going to continue to intervene in the world. This is inevitable given the international balance of power. And there are even places in the world that are crying out for intervention. I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about interventions that went wrong, interventions that never should have happened. The logical next step would be to think about how interventions can be done right. I’m hoping that some of the lessons in my book will discourage the unilateral use of power by the United States and will help people realize that overthrowing foreign governments is only to be done in very extreme cases.

You discuss recurring patterns in the past 100-plus years of regime changes –instigated by the United States. Do you think that the American people and their leaders will ever learn or will we just keep falling into the same patterns?

Many of the episodes I describe in my book are largely unknown to Americans. They were certainly largely unknown to me when I started writing the book. I think that the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into in Iraq may be leading many Americans to ask themselves for the first time very seriously about the wisdom of these foreign interventions. If there could be some silver lining to the Iraqi crisis, it might be that not only ordinary Americans, but also American policy makers, will become more reluctant to launch these kinds of operations and will begin to ask themselves the crucial question of what happens the day after we invade.

This is something that Americans have not bothered to ask themselves. Perhaps the Iraq experience will lead some Americans to wonder if there isn’t a better way to guide world politics than by overthrowing foreign governments.