Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq
In the fall of 1963, US ally and Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem indicated he might negotiate with the communist insurgents in his country. President John F. Kennedy gathered senior foreign policy advisors for a final meeting to consider overthrowing Diem. Anxious about growing chaos in Vietnam, the advisors expressed doubts, and Kennedy never announced a clear decision. Three days later, Diem was murdered.
With “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq,” Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, analyzes the consequences of the US overthrowing regimes in 14 nations since 1893. The events typically warrant a page or less in average American history textbooks, but by exploring motives and settings, Kinzer turns each into an engaging short story. All but one of these tales have tragic endings.
Kinzer doesn’t come out and say it, but when policymakers disagree, leaders tend toward action. Leadership, as perceived in the US, depends less on patience than action. Presidents want to be seen as doing something, anything, to look good for the next election. Interventions and coups are often launched not because of decisive leadership, but, according to Kinzer, because the US is “so vulnerable to herd mentality.”
Juxtaposing vivid details, Kinzer reveals patterns behind the overthrow of governments in Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Honduras, South Vietnam, Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Grenada, Panama and Afghanistan: The US targets are small nations, some with democratic governments. The quests for power are impulsive, even frantic. Corporate interests spur interventions, and the supporters squash any doubters as weak and lacking in patriotism. Too often, the US provides training and arms to dictators or insurgents who eventually become fierce US enemies a generation or so later. Ultimately, the US loses interest in the target countries, allowing corruption or terrorism to flourish.
These patterns have converged with the current war in Iraq, and from the first page, Kinzer points out that the Iraq invasion is hardly an isolated episode in US history.
In “Overthrow” Kinzer allows the instigators to speak for themselves, blunt comments that reveal ambition, greed or ignorance. Often, US officials simply don’t comprehend why developing nations want to control their own natural resources. A Chilean foreign minister once accused Henry Kissinger of knowing nothing about the Southern Hemisphere, and the US statesman responded: “Nothing important can come from the South. History has never been produced in the South.”
With each overthrow, the US government repeatedly pursued short-term gains, never contemplating the tragic consequences that might develop decades later. Kinzer astutely highlights the interlocking events that followed regime changes in the Middle East: In 1953, the CIA overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh for the British, installing a dictator who had no qualms about welcoming foreign oil firms. That operation galvanized radical fundamentalists, who, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, orchestrated the 1978 revolt, and “their example inspired Muslim fanatics around the world.” Today’s Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon are the spiritual heirs of the Ayatollah and protégés of the radical Iranian clerics.
Kinzer details how five US presidents nurtured the Taliban in Afghanistan, initially trying to thwart the Soviets and later to secure an oil-pipeline route. On paper, each overthrow plan is brazen or shaky, but Kinzer demonstrates how organizers of such operations, once intent on their final goal, lose any long-term sense of financial accountability or national security. Throughout the 1980s, as the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, the US funneled money to insurgents through Pakistan and “never played or even sought to play a role in deciding who received its gifts.” As a result, the Pakistanis used the money to build up the Taliban and destroy leftist, nationalist or secular movements. One Afghan warned, “For God’s sake, you’re financing your own assassins.”
By invading Iraq in 2003, the US came full circle in the Middle East, once more boosting the influence of Islamic fundamentalists in Iran and throughout the region.
The goal of covering a century of policy and intrigue constrains Kinzer, but surprisingly, the book’s tone is more relaxed than terse. Informed readers will appreciate Kinzer’s fast pace and many ironies. He begins most of his overthrow tales with local details, followed by policy analysis and misjudgments of the administration in power. However, that format, a close-up followed by the wide-angle view of several events, can at times become repetitive.
Unfortunately, he only minimally tackles the US public’s disinterest in foreign affairs. Americans support policies that bring suffering to foreign lands, he argues, for two reasons: “American control of faraway places came to be seen as vital to the material prosperity of the United States” and the “deep-seated belief of most Americans that their country is a force for good in the world.” US citizens sometimes recognize the intervention as bullying tactics, yet continue to rationalize that people of foreign lands will eventually benefit from American-style democracy and capitalism, repeatedly puzzled about the repression and anti-Americanism that emerges.
Only briefly does Kinzer touch upon the US citizens who questioned government tactics in foreign lands. Like the politicians who ignored their critics, Kinzer largely neglects the stories of US opposition. Of course, such critics failed to end the meddling ways of the US, but it might be helpful to know more about those failures and Kinzer’s claim about a short US attention span shaping its approach to the world.
So in the end, Kinzer’s thesis - “A century of American ‘regime change’ operations have shown that the United States is singularly unsuited to ruling foreign lands” - is a useful reminder and yet unsatisfying as a future guide to action.
He expects his readers to detest these policies. So his historical analysis that covers the rising power of corporations and a century of miscalculations by presidents cries out for a final chapter that offers recommendations for government leaders or citizens who feel likewise. As Kinzer suggests at one point, “The rise of nationalism in the developing world was a complex phenomenon…for Americans to devise a sophisticated, long-term strategy for dealing with it would have been challenging and difficult.”
Unfortunately, leaders - describing their motivation as benevolence and a desire to liberate the oppressed - have learned how to win popular support for even the most outrageous regime change, and US citizens repeatedly fall for the bait.
With the ambiguity of post-modernist fiction, Kinzer declines to offer clues on ending the US patterns of overthrow - and that is the most troubling part of this otherwise compelling book.