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America’s Century of Regime Change


March 20, 2007

Author Stephen Kinzer shows Iraq was not the first time, just the first time we all watched it happen.

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This month marks the four-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Democrats in Congress, most having voted to authorize the invasion, have been divided over how, and how soon, to withdraw troops. This week the Senate passed a spending bill with non-binding provisions to withdraw troops starting 120 days after the bill’s enactment and finished by March 31, 2008. The House passed a similar bill last week. In a BBC World News interview, Congressman Jack Murtha rallied for the position that troops should be called home immediately. He alluded first to the skewed intelligence the Bush administration used to justify the war and went on to declare that Iraq marks “the first time the U.S. has gone to war against a sovereign nation without provocation.”

Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq—not to mention History 101—indicate that the congressman is wrong. Overthrow traces the preemptive war to the end of the nineteenth century: Hawaii, Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Vietnam, Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq—it’s a long list. Though the justifications varied, archetypically, it was the same war again and again. A threat to U.S. corporate interests was disguised to the press (and then trumpeted to the public) as an act of humanitarian grace, paired with a move to protect American lives. The most important thread has been that, time and again, the imminent danger said to be facing the U.S. was simply a lie.

A former reporter for the New York Times, Kinzer writes that “the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not an isolated episode. It was the culmination of a 110-year period during which Americans overthrew fourteen governments that displeased them for various ideological, political, and economic reasons. Like each of these operations, the ‘regime change’ in Iraq seemed for a time—a very short time—to have worked. It is now clear, however, that this operation has had terrible unintended consequences. So have most of the other coups, revolutions, and invasions that the United States has mounted to depose governments it feared or mistrusted.” Indeed, Kinzer shows that overthrows consistently fail in the long term.

In Iraq, the failure has become clear. Marred from the outset by myopic planning and vacillating rationales, the invasion has sparked a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites that some have argued will rage for years. The war will cost American taxpayers an estimated two trillion dollars by the end of this year, according to economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. The toll on military families will emerge beside the ongoing strain on the U.S. budget, which will drain money from schools, health care overhauls, and other domestic programs, such as securing ports, cities, borders, and coastlines. The toll on Iraqi civilians will rise too; at present rates of killing, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis will have died in the conflict—perhaps as many as a million, according to Lancet. And, the war could easily spread to other corners of the region, pitting Sunnis against Shiites across the Middle East and beyond.

Kinzer also shows that in case after case yesterday’s strategic ally is today’s reviled enemy. Until they recognize this fact, Democrats like Murtha won’t be able to understand the enormity of the tragedy or its likelihood of happening again—especially if, as Kinzer shows, American politicians continue to conflate American interests with the profiteering of American corporations.

Overthrow came out in paperback this month.

—Joel Whitney

Guernica: Your book traces a long tradition of preemptive regime change in United States foreign policy. Is there much difference between what we’ve seen in Iraq and the thirteen prior examples you examine in your book?

Stephen Kinzer: In telling the story of each of these 14 times that the U.S. overthrew a foreign government, I asked three questions about each episode. First, what happened? How did we overthrow the government of this country? Secondly, why did we do it? And third, from the perspective of history and from the perspective of today, what has been the long-term effect of these interventions? I studied these overthrows of foreign governments not as isolated unrelated incidents but as part of a long continuum. By doing that, you begin to pick out certain patterns. You also begin to realize that it’s wrong to think of our invasion of Iraq as a great departure in American history.

The first thing that happens is a foreign government begins to bother, harass, restrict, regulate or nationalize some big foreign company. Usually, an American company. That’s what starts the trouble.

Guernica: Tell me about that pattern. For instance, who are some of the recurring players?

Stephen Kinzer: The first thing that happens is a foreign government begins to bother or harass or restrict or regulate or nationalize some big foreign company. Usually, an American company. That’s what starts the trouble. If governments do not become nationalist and do not try to control their own natural resources, they do not even come into the crosshairs of American leaders. The directors of these companies, outraged at attempts of some foreign government to regulate them, come to the White House and complain. That’s the first phase.

The second phase is what happens to the intervention process while it’s in the White House. American leaders do not intervene in foreign countries in order to protect foreign companies. They transform the motivation from an economic one to one that they call “political” or “geo-strategic.” They allow themselves to become convinced that any government that would be bothering, harassing, restricting or taxing an American company must be anti-American, anti-capitalist, evil, repressive, and probably the tool of some outside interest that’s trying to subvert American power in the world. That’s the way the motivation morphs in the political process.

It then morphs one more time when American leaders have to explain to American citizens and others around the world why we carried out a particular intervention. At that point, we usually do not use the economic, or even the political, motivations to explain our actions. Instead, we say that we are intervening out of charity—that we are doing it to help an oppressed people who are being brutalized by an evil regime. This rationale works very well in the United States for two reasons. First of all, because Americans are compassionate people. We truly hate the idea that people in other areas are suffering. We want to help them. And, the second aspect of our character that allows us to embrace this argument is that we’re actually very innocent and naive and, in many cases, ignorant about history and culture. This leads us to believe that anything we want to do is also possible. Generations of American leaders have played on this sense of American exceptionalism—the sense that the United States has a gift to give to the rest of the world in order to justify interventions abroad that have actually been planned for very different reasons.

The president we overthrew in Guatemala, the prime minister we overthrew in Iran, and the president we overthrew in Chile all came to power through strictly democratic means.

Guernica: Let’s talk about the role played by the media—which must hit even closer to home for you, since you worked at the New York Times for more than twenty years. How has this role changed from the days of the Spanish-American War and William Randolph Hearst, to the Cold War, and then to our current climate with the war against terrorism?

Stephen Kinzer: In many ways, the role of the media is the same as it has been during the entire regime-change era. Our press, like the press in many countries, acts like a cheerleader to our government rather than a critical observer. This is especially true, when it comes to foreign interventions. It has proven very difficult for the press to distance itself from administration efforts to promote intervention. The press in the United States tends to think of itself as being on the same team with the government. That means that when government leaders conclude that intervention in a foreign country is justified, the press rarely criticizes it. In fact, the press has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for many of our foreign interventions.

Guernica: For instance?

Stephen Kinzer: The Spanish-American War in 1898 is a great example. Spain had been the colonizing power in Cuba for a century. It was not until the summer of 1898, however, that the American press decided to begin portraying Spanish rule over Cuba as sort of the most evil, bestial, brutal regime imaginable. As always, the American press has to find a single individual to use as a demon. In this case, it couldn’t use the King of Spain because he was a twelve-year-old boy. It couldn’t use the regent because that was the King’s mother; she was an Austrian princess, so she wouldn’t serve either. As a result, the American press began to focus its attention on the Spanish commander in Cuba whom it began to characterize as full of blood lust and dedicated to brutal repression in Cuba.

This press campaign in the U.S., which greatly boosted circulation for American newspapers, reached a peak when the American battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbor. Huge headlines around the U.S., particularly in the Hearst press, described this as an outrage committed by the Spanish; “Maine was destroyed by an enemy’s infernal machine” was a typical headline. Hearst papers even had a big drawing on the front page describing how the Spanish placed their mine against our ship and wound up killing two hundred of our sailors. It was not until 75 years later that the U.S. Navy convened a board of inquiry under Admiral Haiman Rickover that concluded that the Spanish had nothing to do with that explosion. It was caused by an accident within the ship.

Nonetheless, at that time, it served as a great motivating factor. So, you had two strands of press coverage; first of all there’s the background that there’s a brutal, bestial evil regime tyrannizing a freedom-loving people; and then, secondly, that there was a particular episode, a particular aspect of this regime, that was not only oppressing its own people but was threatening the United States. This is the very same thing we saw more than a century later in Iraq. First, there were a number of stories about the unspeakable brutality of the Iraqi regime, which we had only just discovered conveniently right at this moment. And finally, the allegations that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq served to galvanize the American people, just as the destruction of the Maine did in 1898. It turned out not to be true that the Spanish blew up the Maine; it turned out not to be true that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. But, by the time those facts became clear, the intervention had already been carried out.

Guernica: But, most of the interventions during the Cold War were covert. Isn’t the press just as in the dark as the public, when all of this happens covertly?

Stephen Kinzer: Not quite. In the case of Guatemala, the United Fruit Company hired a very prominent public relations man to create—

Guernica: Sigmund Freud’s nephew, right?

Stephen Kinzer: Freud’s nephew. His job was to create what he described as a campaign of pitiless publicity depicting the Guatemalan government not as the reformist democracy that it actually was but as a brutal Marxist tyranny and a tool of the Soviet Union. That press campaign included paying for [junkets] by a number of American reporters who wound up writing a number of terrifying stories about what was going on in Guatemala — all of which were based on propaganda from the United Fruit Company. There was the case of one American reporter — a reporter for the New York Times, who stumbled on what was really happening in Guatemala. The CIA, through contacts with the New York Times, quickly arranged for him to be withdrawn.

There have been other cases like this in the history of American intervention. The key factor, however, is always that a press campaign is launched to soften up the American public in order to create a climate in which any attack on a particular regime is thought of as a blow for freedom. That’s what happened in Guatemala. A democratic regime was described inaccurately in the American press as a communist one. And, the military tyranny that followed the government we overthrew was portrayed in the U.S. as just the opposite of the oppressive dictatorship that it was.

Guernica: And, this happened in Chile and Iran as well; these men were not at all how the U.S. [government and press] characterized them, according to your book?

Stephen Kinzer: Actually, the president we overthrew in Guatemala, the prime minister we overthrew in Iran, and the president we overthrew in Chile all came to power through strictly democratic means. All would have left office at the end of their terms. And, probably been replaced by more conservative figures. Instead, we replaced them with regimes whose leaders despised everything the United States stands for. Those were victories for the United States only in the narrowest sense.

In the U.S., he was portrayed as crafty, Machiavellian, and sometimes as a person, who either was pro-communist or who was so weak that he might fall and leave room for communists. Actually, he was a convinced democrat, who despised Marxism and all leftist ideas.

Guernica: How do the long-term consequences look from the twenty-twenty hindsight of history?

Stephen Kinzer: In most cases, these operations have brought far more pain than liberation. They’ve not only cast whole regions of the world into poverty and instability but have greatly undermined American national security. It used to be that it took years and decades for the negative effects of these operations to become clear. Now, as we see in Iraq a revolution in technology and communications, the ill effects become clear much more quickly.

It used to take much longer.

Take Iran as an example. In 1953, we overthrew the government of Iran. We placed the Shah back on his throne. He ruled with increasing oppression for 25 years. His repression caused 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 began their rule by sanctioning the taking of American diplomats hostage and then spent the next 25 years working intensely, and sometimes very violently, to undermine American interests all over the world. Now, we are confronting a major crisis with Iran, regarding its nuclear ambitions. This crisis would never have emerged. And, in fact, that religious regime would never have come to power in Iran had we not intervened in 1953 to push Iran off the path of democracy.

Guernica: You’re saying that the current crisis in Iran that we’ve been trying to deal with is the direct result, not an indirect side effect, of our own policies?

Stephen Kinzer: Absolutely! We would never have had to deal with this crisis or even this group of religious fanatics in the Iranian government, if we had allowed the parliamentary democracy that was beginning to flower in Iran in the early 1950s to thrive and find its own path. Instead, we were so horrified that that government nationalized its oil industry that we mistook it for an enemy of the United States and set Iran on the path that has brought it to the very sad state it is at today.

Guernica: The prime minister of Iran whom the U.S. overthrew, Mossadegh—you create a very colorful character in him in your book. Tell me a little about him.

Stephen Kinzer: Mossadegh was the most formidable leader Iran had ever produced. He was a highly educated aristocrat, the first Iranian to earn a doctorate in law from a European university. He came to power when the winds of nationalism were sweeping across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In Iran, nationalism meant taking control of the oil industry. Iran was a country that had a huge source of wealth, but it was controlled by a foreign company. It was Prime Minister Mossadegh, with the unanimous approval of the Iranian parliament, who moved for the nationalization of the oil industry. Mossadegh was a very colorful figure. He was the man of the year on the cover of Time magazine at the beginning of 1952, beating out Douglas MacArthur, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. That was a correct choice by Time because, in the early 50s, he was one of the most important figures in the world. No leader of a poor country had ever challenged the rich countries in the world as boldly as he did. In the U.S., he was portrayed as crafty, Machiavellian, and sometimes as a person who either was pro-communist or who was so weak that he might fall and leave room for communists. Actually, he was a convinced democrat, who despised Marxism and all leftist ideas. In fact, it was his commitment to democracy, his insistence on allowing newspapers to function freely and free speech to flourish, that gave the CIA the tools that it needed to overthrow him.

Guernica: You write also that he was often ill or tired and would receive visitors in bed—and was prone to crying in public …

Stephen Kinzer: Yes, he had some personal traits that made him easy to ridicule in the West. He would sometimes faint dead away in the Iranian parliament, while giving one of his passionate speeches about the suffering of the Iranian people. Tears would well in his eyes, and he would actually begin to weep as he began speaking of the injustice that his nation faced. In the outside world, these were thought of as weak characteristics — perhaps suggesting that Mossadegh was unbalanced. In fact, they served in Iran only to endear him to his people. Most Iranians took them as signs of how profoundly he shared the suffering of his people.

Guernica: And, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala was equally committed to the democratic process—elected fairly—but was also planning to nationalize Guatemalan industries.

Stephen Kinzer: Arbenz was a somewhat different case. He was a much younger man, and I think he was intrigued by Marxist ideas, which Mossadegh definitely was not. He faced a very similar challenge from the one that faced Mossadegh. That challenge was a miserably poor country with a great resource that was a source of huge national income that could be used for development. The source of income in Guatemala was agricultural land — in particular, banana growing. The United Fruit Company was the dominant economic and political force in Guatemala, [and it was] trying to respond to the demands of ordinary Guatemalans, when that country was under democratic rule.

The Guatemalan Congress passed a land reform law, under which any foreign company that owned large amounts of unused land would have to sell it to the Guatemalan government. That affected United Fruit, which had half a million acres of the best, most fertile land in Guatemala that it was not using. This was just land that it was holding for some future eventuality. Under the Land Reform Act, United Fruit had to sell that land to the government, and—even more outrageous to the company—the Guatemalan government announced that it would pay for this land the amount that the United Fruit Company had itself declared as its value on its past year’s tax return.

This naturally sent the company into apoplexy, and they said that, of course, no one puts the real value on those tax returns, and the real value would be something like ten times what they had declared. But, the Guatemalan government insisted on paying what the company itself had declared, which sent the company off to Washington to complain and that led to Arbenz’s overthrow.

Guernica: With its recurring characters and families that come up, your book almost reads like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. John Foster Dulles seemed like he was cast as the villain, though there were definitely others.

The Soviets did not even know that Guatemala existed and made no attempts to contact, much less influence, the Guatemalan government.

Stephen Kinzer: Dulles was a very important figure in the history of American regime change. I try to explore or uncover the reasons that led him toward this. Dulles had been the most successful and highest paid corporate lawyer in the United States. He represented almost every giant American multinational corporation, including United Fruit. By the time he became Secretary of State, he had come to identify the interests of the U.S. almost exclusively with the interests of U.S. corporations. He didn’t see any other important role for U.S. foreign policy. Dulles was also a militant anti-communist, who opposed negotiation with any communists on any subject. He was against summit conferences between Soviet and American leaders. He opposed all cultural exchanges with communist countries. He fought for years to be sure that American reporters would not be able to go to China. He thought that any agreement with any communist power on any subject was a defeat.

Guernica: You write that he played an active role in Arbenz’s overthrow in Guatemala by just blatantly recasting Arbenz as a communist?

Stephen Kinzer: Yes. And later, we discovered that there was no truth to this. The Soviets did not even know that Guatemala existed and made no attempts to contact, much less influence, the Guatemalan government. Nonetheless, this would have been unthinkable to Dulles. He just assumed that nationalist efforts to retake control of resources were part of a giant communist plot. The other aspect of Dulles’s character that made him so perfect for the regime change era was his very deep Christian faith and his belief that the world was locked into a struggle between Christian-capitalist countries and others that were evil and repressive. He truly believed that the U.S. was a gift to the world that God had created—

Guernica: You mean that’s not true?

Stephen Kinzer: It depends on who you ask. Overlay this [corporate incentive] with the strong religious background that the United States has and the religiosity that many of our leaders have felt, and you find an argument — if not to persuade yourself, at least to persuade many other people — that this is an obligation that has fallen on the U.S.

Guernica: The regime change, policeman role?

Stephen Kinzer: Yes. The argument is that providence has blessed us with so much freedom and prosperity and so many other lavish gifts that we have not only the right but, perhaps, even the God-given obligation to go out into the world and share our good fortune with other people, including those who may not realize how much they want our influence.

Guernica: I know that, much like the pictures of Saddam Hussein in his underwear, Jacobo Arbenz was made to strip out of his uniform and humiliated on his way into exile. Given that parallel—pictures of Hussein of course were leaked to the New York Post—I wonder what other humiliations were in store for these deposed rulers?

Stephen Kinzer: The Hawaiian queen was imprisoned after being charged with aiding a counter-revolutionary plot. Zelaya came to New York after being deposed in Nicaragua, made a big splash in the New York Times with charges that the U.S. had deposed him, was briefly imprisoned, then expelled from the U.S. He later returned to die in New York, in a small apartment on upper Broadway. Grenadan and Panamanian ex-leaders went to jail and are still there. Then there’s the two who ended the episode dead, which is also a humiliation of sorts.

Guernica: I interviewed Ayaan Hirsi Ali last month. She has argued that Islam is unable to build or sustain democratic institutions. It sounds like your book is making a similar claim about American government, particularly when it comes under the influence of powerful corporations.

Guernica: Iran had an established democracy in the Muslim Middle East in the middle of the century, and this was going to be the model for Western-style democracy, even more so, perhaps, than Turkey. [The US] crushed an experiment that might have been profoundly important in the Middle East. What happened is on the historical record. The US put the Shah back on the Peacock throne; he ruled with increasing repression for twenty-five years; his repression led to the Islamic revolution of the late 1970s; that revolution brought to power a clique of fanatically anti-American clerics, who spent the last quarter century working very violently to undermine American and Western interests all over the world. That religious regime might never have come to power and this nuclear crisis we’re facing with Iran might never have emerged, had we allowed Iran to flower into a democracy. What is not on record—and is more speculative—is what might the other path have been if we had allowed Iran to develop as its people wished and to take control of its natural resource—oil. We might have had a thriving democracy in the heart of the Muslim Middle East all these fifty years. And, I can hardly wrap my mind around how the Middle East might have looked had we done so.

Guernica: What would a more appropriate U.S. foreign policy look like, in your view?

Stephen Kinzer: I’d like to see at least two principles try to replace the hyper-militarism that seems to characterize much of American foreign policy. One would be multilateralism. In an ideal world, the United Nations would bless international interventions. In the real world, the UN is not constituted to do that and does not seem able to reform itself into an institution that can do that. But, perhaps, we could at least seek the approval of our own friends. If we could persuade our closest allies, represented by those that are in NATO, that our decision about a hostile regime is correct, then I would have more confidence that it is correct. I don’t think it’s right that any one country should be able to make the decision that another country is so dangerous to the world order that it must be crushed. In practice, when one country does that, it can often come down to three or four people in a room making that decision. I’d like to see us move away from that toward at least a consultation with the allies with whom we confronted many world crises successfully for the last half-century. The other thing I guess I would like to see infuse American foreign policy is more serious assessment of our national interest. I don’t have any problem with the United States acting on behalf of its own interests. That’s what big powers do; that’s what all countries do. I would just like to see us analyze in a serious way what really is in our interest. Let’s not take such a short-term view of success and failure. Sometimes we intervene in foreign countries in ways that seem successful at first. In the end, however, we wind up with unpredicted consequences that make us regret those operations.

Guernica: Is there any sign, given the catastrophe that has been our Iraq intervention, that the regime-change era is coming to a close?

Stephen Kinzer: It’s certainly true that the amount of time that has to pass between the seeming success of an intervention and the reality of its long-term failure is now very much compressed. It used to take decades or even generations before the ill effects of our interventions were clear. Now, partly due to this explosion in new technology, it’s a period much shorter than that. I do think that the debacle in Iraq may lead to a reluctance, at least for a time, on the part of Americans, to endorse foreign interventions. I think there will be less of a sense that the United States is invincible and that it can accomplish all of its goals simply because it is the United States. It’s possible that this very traumatic experience may teach Americans that there are some things in the world that we don’t like that, nonetheless, we can’t do anything about. If it results in a return to a more pragmatic and realistic view of the world and a retreat from the messianic idea that the United States has found the single truth about how countries should be governed and that we need to export it, I think, then, that maybe something positive can come out of this terrible experience.

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