08 September, 2006


Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq by Stephen Kinzer, reviewed by April Howard:

One of the most provocative analyses Kinzer carries out is a critique of the American Political Psyche. Kinzer describes the dangerous and easily abused American idea that our foreign interactions are implicitly good, that as far as politics goes, what works for us should work for them, and that we have a right to foreign markets and resources. Kinzer identifies the acts of regime change as the failures of diplomacy before the conflict, and a lack of nation building plans after. These short, violent interventions leads to chaos, violence, poverty, and an anti-Americanism that comes back to bite the US later on, when we again misinterpret nationalism as anti-Americanism. [snip]

The invasion of Iraq in 2003," he writes in the second paragraph of the introduction, "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." Furthermore, Kinzer asserts, though these operations, including Iraq, are often seen as "victories" in the short term, the vast majority have "had terrible unintended consequences." This pronouncement is made devastatingly clear in the histories of Hawaii, Cuba, the Phillipines, Nicaragua, Honduras, Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Chile, Panama and Afghanistan and Iraq. By the time the story turns to Afghanistan and Iraq, the first 11 chapters begin to seem like a rock-solid introduction to the argument that Kinzer really wants to make. And by that time, statements like the following, which might be easy for pro-interventionists to condemn as the ravings of a leftist conspiracy theorist, are chillingly well-proven: ""Fateful misjudgments by five presidents had laid the groundwork not simply for the September 11 attacks but for the emergence of the world-wide terror network from which they sprung," (275). [snip]

The second reoccurring theme that Kinzer introduces is that of administrators who want to hold a regime change in order to create an image of victory and success, especially after previous "victories" have started to look like failures, and the belief deep seated in the American psyche that "their country is a force for good in the world. . . . When they intervene abroad, for selfish or ignoble reasons, they always insist that in the end, their actions will benefit not only the United States but also the citizens of the country in which they are intervening – and, by extension, the causes of peace and justice in the world" (107). This idea has been cultivated and made useful to American political and business leaders time after time. Kinzer describes successive administrations motivated by power and a desire for publicly perceived success, such as that in Puerto Rico in 1898. This has strong repercussions in later chapters as modern politicians discuss the invasion of Grenada as a feel-good and easy invasion, of Afghanistan in 1979 as an easy way to score a victory against the Soviets, and the first invasion of Iraq as an attempt by Bush Sr. to escape the "wimp factor." All of these invasions served economic and public relations purposes for leaders. [snip]

. . . the "open door" economic policy prevented the development of local industry and established the idea in the American psyche "that their solders might have to commit atrocities in order to subdue insurgents and win wars." Protests of such atrocities committed in the Philippines were "drowned out by voices insisting that any abuses must have been aberrations and that to dwell on them would show weakness and a lack of patriotism," (106). Kinzer doesn’t have to mention the present here to make his point. [snip]

. . . the Cold War years from 1953 – 1973, in which regime changes in Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam and Chile were motivated by the ever present corporate interests as well as a rabidly anti-communist paranoia. Under the influences of secretary of state John Foster Dulles and national security adviser Henry Kissinger and the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon and, American leaders hysterically overestimated the threat of Soviet influence around the world and misinterpreted "developing" countries’ nationalistic impulses to own and control their own resources as evidence of Soviet control and Communist tendencies. This is one of the tragedies at the heart of Kinzer’s historical continuum: Americans, and mainly American corporations interpretation and reinterpretation of a country’s nationalistic desire for self sufficiency and self determination as anti-Americanism.

This misinterpretation was facilitated by the convenience of the anticommunist doctrine, which allowed the wealthy a religious excuse to consolidate their own power "for the greater good." In the case of Foster Dulles, an important protagonist in this chapter, the Soviet threat was actually a beneficial tool that could allow the U.S. to expand its power and coerce Americans into helping to preserve the rights of multinational corporations. These "covert actions" used American money, weaponry and strategies to create artificial, CIA run "revolutions" to "out" undesirable leaders. Like earlier coups, the Cold War regime changes occurred "only when economic interests coincided with ideological ones." [snip]

. . . The CIA has been perceived as a dastardly, corrupt and sometimes autonomous force during the Cold War, leading administrations in the fight against civil liberties and rebellion. Kinzer brings to light an interesting parallel between that event and the role of the CIA in the Chilean coup against Salvador Allende in 1973. Though the CIA did what they were told in Chile, Kinzer presents several instances where CIA employees warned against the intervention as a huge mistake. Not only was the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet proof of this sentiment, but when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigated the coup in years after, it found president Nixon, not the CIA, most responsible. The committee’s report describes CIA information as accurate, but "at best, selectively used or, at worst, disregarded by policy makers when the time came to make decisions regarding U.S. covert involvement in Chile," (213). It is here that another constructive function of the book acts on the reader. Though the first section of the book sets the stage for events to come, it is the exposure of the covert regime changes of the Cold War Era that change the way the reader sees the present, even before Kinzer gets there.

. . . the decision to include Chile where "the American role was decisive," and exclude Haiti signifies a border area in which access to information, and the test of time plays a key role. Where exactly is the line between "influential" and "decisive" in American actions against foreign leaders, and is that information always available?

Whereas Kinzer was able to access transcripts and recordings of Nixon and Kissenger’s meetings with other key players in the over throw of Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973, information about the American role in the overthrow of Haitian president Jacques Bertrande Aristide is not yet so forthcoming. However, according to Aristide himself, American congress member Maxine Waters, Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based attorney who has served as General Counsel to the Haitian government since 1991, and Emmanuel Constant, a member of the FRAPH paramilitary death squad in Haiti, the US had a great deal to do with the supposed "resignation" of the president. According to interviews and reports collected by Democracy Now!, "Aristide did not resign as President and was instead kidnapped by US officials, ushered onto a plane at gunpoint and brought to the Central African Republic where he held and surrounded by US military."

Howard exposes the limits of Kinzer's book; still, it's a nice fissure in the edifice of 'exceptionalist' fantasy that a mainstream journalist is publishing a book like this today. That the CIA is a tool of the Executive branch bears repeating.

As'ad AbuKhalil:

The debate was about "the New Middle East" that the US is promising. 95% of Al Jazeera's viewers said (in an on-line poll) that the American "new Middle East" will only mean more destruction and devastation, while only 4% believed that it will mean more prosperity and welfare. The host told [US Department of State official] Fernandez that people in the region speak about Ash-Sharq Al-Awsakh, when talking about US plans, as opposed to Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat (The Filthiest East as opposed to the Middle East).


Blogger Nanette said...

Furthermore, Kinzer asserts, though these operations, including Iraq, are often seen as "victories" in the short term, the vast majority have "had terrible unintended consequences."

I think Kinzer is looking at these events with a more idealistic eye than I can manage, when he suggests that the consequences were unintended. I could see that if it happened once or twice, but when it seems to happen over and over again, as a matter of policy - the leaving behind of broken, "backward" societies and governments, some of whom claw their way back up only to be knocked down again if they are not sufficiently pro- US/pro- Western... well, then it looks more like a feature, not a bug.

I came across this article during the recent Israeli/Lebanon war, and thought it offered a reasonable explanation for a lot of things (even if not fully accurate, which I don't have the knowledge to judge), not only about events there but also elsewhere.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Arcturus said...

A lot of what he says makes sense, though I find myself wary of a lot of his phrasing. "Blind alley" indeed! His: ". . . a growing political maturity in Lebanon side by side with Hizbollah's military capability. This is something new in the Israeli-Arab war." is certainly part of the motive-mix.
similar (w/out the military part) to the fear of Fatah & Hamas coming to a meeting-of-minds? Instability as a strategy has been, as you note, not limnited to Israel.

as far as "unintended consequences": There's a guy named Kevin Snow who's published some interesting pieces about CIA/Mossad operations in sub-Saharan Africa that go into this. & of course, there's $$$ in running guns.

7:22 PM  

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