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|Posted April 17, 2006|
|Depose and Overthrow|
|Stephen Kinzer recounts America's history of toppling foreign governments|
|America's Century of Regime Change|
|From Hawai to Iraq|
|By Stephen Kinzer|
|Illustrated. 384 pp. Times Books|
|Henry Holt & Company. $27.50|
A senior member of a Washington research group once told me that he "could not believe" that the United States would ever help the Pakistani military overthrow a democratically elected government in Pakistan if that government refused to help in the war on terror. Now there's a man who really needs to read the latest book by the former New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer. "Overthrow" is the history of forcible regime changes by the United States and its local allies over the past 110 years, starting with the undermining of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, passing through Cuba (1898), the Philippines (1898), Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954) and elsewhere, and ending with present-day Iraq.
Kinzer has written a detailed, passionate and convincing book, several chapters of which have the pace and grip of a good thriller. It should be essential reading for any Americans who wish to understand both their country's historical record in international affairs, and why that record has provoked anger and distrust in much of the world. Most important, it helps explain why, outside of Eastern Europe, American pronouncements about spreading democracy and freedom, as repeatedly employed by the Bush administration, are met with widespread incredulity.
What's most depressing about Kinzer's book, however, is not the drastic clash it describes between professed American morality and actual American behavior. For, after all, the historical record of other democratic imperial powers, like Britain and France, has been even worse than that of the United States. Operating in the real world as a great power is not a business for the overly fastidious.
But if you are going to use the argument that making a successful geopolitical omelet requires breaking eggs, you'd better have something edible to show for all the shattered shells lying around. As Kinzer makes clear, the problem is that all too many of the interventions he recounts were not just utterly ruthless; they were utterly unnecessary.
It should have been obvious that the damage to the countries concerned was likely to be out of all proportion to the possible gains to the United States. But during the cold war, ignorant and ideological official cliques in Washington repeatedly convinced themselves that "you are with us or you are against us," and that a range of nationalist governments around the world, anti-American to a greater or lesser degree, were part of the Soviet global conspiracy and had to be destroyed.
In several cases, while the coups themselves were highly successful, the long-term results proved disastrous not just for America's reputation abroad but for American interests as well. That was true, for example, of the C.I.A.'s overthrow of the democratic nationalist prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh accused quite falsely of being pro-Communist and the restoration of autocratic rule by the shah.
That operation, run by Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy Roosevelt's grandson) was brilliantly executed, bringing about Mossadegh's downfall even after the shah himself had lost his nerve and fled to Italy. But as a result, the role of opposition to the shah was assumed by religious fundamentalists, and ended in the disastrous revolution of 1979. The deep Iranian popular fear of the United States that was fed by the 1953 coup continues to haunt American-Iranian relations to this day.
In the case of Cuba, the decision in 1898 to betray the Cuban rebels against Spain and impose American hegemony on the island fueled an anti-American nationalism that continues to preserve the Communist regime. Mass support for governments like those of Castro and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has also been fed by other American interventions in the region.
Of these, the ugliest was the overthrow of the democratic socialist government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1954 and its replacement by a military dictatorship representing the interests of the local oligarchy and the United Fruit Company. The result was a genuinely Communist insurrection and a savage American-backed military campaign of repression that cost the lives of more than 100,000 Maya Indians something that in other circumstances would certainly have been described in the United States as genocide.
I must confess that I put down this fine book with a feeling of deep disheartenment. For what, after all, is the point of such meticulously reported studies if the American public is repeatedly going to wipe such episodes from its collective consciousness, and the American establishment is going to make similar mistakes over and over again, first in the cold war and now in the "war on terror" each time covering its actions with the same rhetoric of spreading "freedom" and combating "evil"?
As Kinzer writes of the Iranian hostage crisis, "because most Americans did not know what the United States had done to Iran in 1953, few had any idea why Iranians were so angry at the country they called 'the great Satan.' " They still don't.
Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. His latest book is "America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New Times, Book Review, of Sunday, April 16, 2006.
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