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Past U.S. interventions offer lessons for today

The American government should consider only American interests in making decisions to intervene, and should not hesitate to do so either.

Chile is the best country in South America, both economically by GDP per capita and politically by the freedom index.

This year happens to be an anniversary year for two significant events in history — one in Chile in 1973 and one in Iran in 1953. They both happened around this time of the year (one in September and one in August) and may present a valuable lesson for current events.

The commonly presented story about what happened in Chile is close to this: Salvador Allende, who was freely elected a president, was conducting anti-Western policies. Then, with the help of the CIA, he was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet — who became a ruthless dictator, which earned America hatred in Chile in particular and South America in general. Events in Iran were very similar: Muhammad Mussadegh became prime-minister, conducted anti-Western policies and was ousted by the CIA-organized coup that returned the shah to power. That earned America hatred in Iran in particular and the Middle East in general.

Looked to Cuba 

A few more details may be helpful here even though they may not be a part of the general knowledge: Allende was a Marxist, and the basis for his economic policies, which included nationalization of major industries, was Cuba. Mussadegh was supported by the left in Iran and also, surprisingly, by the clergy; he, too, nationalized the oil industry and tried kicking major Western companies out.

So what do those events remind us of? Correct, Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela — except in those countries the coup attempts did not succeed. No one will dispute that people live much better and have much more freedom in Chile now than they do in Cuba and Venezuela. So in the long run the American intervention helped Chile thrive; in fact, Chile is the best country in South America, both economically by GDP per capita and politically by the freedom index.

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American actions helped Iran, too, as the shah used the oil wealth to modernize Iran and advance Western-civilization values. Unfortunately, the powerful clergy didn’t like it. President Carter did not do anything to help the shah when the Islamic revolution occurred in 1979 and theocracy was installed. He also let Iranian ayatollahs get away with taking American hostages, thus projecting the image of weakness and creating a hotbed of instability and terrorism in the Middle East.

The results are easily explainable: Socialism does not work and nationalization leads to mismanagement and lack of investment, while both Pinochet and Iran’s shah ran prudent economic policies based on the free-market approach. And when people live well, the chances for freedom to flourish are much better. Sure, America and the Western world won in 1953 and 1973 but not at the expense of Chile and Iran; it was a mutual win even though America, as all other countries always do, was acting in its own interests. Yes, both Pinochet and the shah used rough measures, but some socialist and Islamic leaders, if history is any guide, were much worse. Interestingly, in Grenada the day of the American invasion in 1983 is now a national holiday.

Three conclusions

What conclusions may one draw from all of the above? First, American interventions, even done in American interests, in most cases help those countries in the long run (in other words, what is good for America is usually good for the world). Second, it’s bad governments and leaders that should be targeted, not whole countries. Government overthrow works well in many situations; as an alternative, a military strike with the goal of destroying a bad government or its leader (preferably, by air assault or with small air or sea strike with quick immediate withdrawal like in Grenada invasion) may and should be considered. Both of the above options should not require many resources and involve long commitment. And third, letting attacks on Americans go unpunished (Hezbollah’s bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut in 1982 is another example of such an assault) always leads to more attacks, terrorism, and ultimately more Americans killed.

Therefore, taking into account the anti-American position of the world, the American government should consider only American interests in making decisions to intervene, and should not hesitate to do so either. And, most important, we, as American citizens, should not feel bad about it.

Now I am pretty sure at this point a lot of people are thinking of imperialism, exceptionalism, and of Iraq as an example of an intervention that went wrong. Well, imperialism actually helped a lot of nations to get ahead, and America is indeed the only country in the world which is free, wealthy, and powerful – hence, the envy and disdain of the world. As for Iraq, when all facts are considered, the intervention was not a bad idea (building democracy there was).

Ilya Gutman is an immigrant from the Soviet Union who now lives and works in Marshall, Minn. 


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