Why does the U.S. overthrow regimes in other countries?

How does the United States come to arrogate to itself the right and the need to overthrow the governments of countries that have not attacked ours?

One guy who has a theory on that is Stephen Kinzer, the long-time New York Times foreign correspondent. Kinzer has written book-length treatments of some of those overthrows – most recently and notably, the CIA’s overthrow of the democratic government of Iran in 1953. That book, titled “All the Shah’s Men,” gives Kinzer a window onto the potential next foreign policy crisis.

In his 2006 book, “Overthrow,” Kinzer flew at a higher altitude and surveyed what he considers to be the 16 cases, starting with the overthrow of the native queen of Hawaii in 1893, in which Washington has played the regime change card.

Kinzer gave a recent videotaped interview to Maya Schenwar of Truthout.com that focused a lot on Iran. Kinzer is quite worried about a U.S. attack on Iran. The whole interview is excellent, and not very long. But my favorite exchange was Kinzer’s answer to the question of whether the interventions are as nakedly economic as many lefties believe, or whether he credits the altruistic public motives for many of them, such as spreading democracy. I’ve transcribed his answer below: 

“One of the advantages of studying these interventions all together, as I did in my book, ‘Overthrow,’ is that you begin to pick up patterns. You begin to see what ties these different interventions together.  One of the things that ties, not all of them but many of them together, is what I detect as a three-part process of motivation. Why do we do it? Usually, it’s this three-phase explanation.

“The first thing that happens is that the government of Country X, bothers or harasses or taxes or nationalizes or interferes with some big foreign economic interest. And then the owners of that interest complain to Washington.

“That’s the first thing that happens. If the government of that country doesn’t bother some American corporation, then that country doesn’t even get on the radar screen in Washington. So that’s the key, that’s how the process usually begins. However, the U.S. government doesn’t actually overthrow governments to protect the interests of U.S. corporations.

“Inside the foreign policy process — inside the White House if you will — the motivation morphs. It changes. We decide that any government that would bother or tax or harass or restrict or regulate or nationalize an American corporation must be anti-American, anti-capitalist, brutal, repressive, possibly even the tools of our global enemies.

“Therefore we decide that we need to overthrow that government, not because of what it did to those companies, but because the fact that it did those things shows that it poses a political or geostrategic threat to the United States. So that’s the second phase

“Then the Third phase comes when it’s time for American leaders to explain or justify the intervention: ‘We did it to liberate oppressed people. We not only didn’t do it in order to gain something, we sacrificed ourselves in order to help poor suffering people in that country.’

” This is a very potent argument in the United States. On the one hand, we’re very compassionate people. We hate the idea that people are suffering or being tortured or starving in some other country. We really want to do something about it.

“At the same time we’re quite ignorant about the actual situation in those countries.

“When we hear that we’re undertaking a long, difficult, expensive, costly intervention in another country in order to help the people there, that usually sounds OK to us. So we give our seal of approval as a people.

“So that’s the three stages. It starts with the economic thing. Then it morphs into these political, strategic motivations, And In the end, it’s explained as an operation that was only in defense of human freedom, human rights.”

I haven’t read “Overthrow,” although I ordered as I was transcribing. But I figured I had better at least provide the list of the 14 countries that Kinzer considers the “overthrow” cases:

Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Chile, Iran, Grenada, Afghanistan and Iraq.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/06/2008 - 12:35 pm.

    Stephen Kinzer has described current US policy in South America to a tee.

    To the list he described as “overthrow” cases, please add Venezuela (Hugo Chavez has nationalized some industries, increased the country’s share of oil profits, trades oil to Cuba for medical care, almost wiped out illiteracy, and grows the economy at 10-20% per year; the Bush administration has been trying to get rid of him since 2001 by undermining his government with the help of the country’s rich elite), Bolivia (where State Dept “democracy building” funds are being used to stir up residents of the oil-rich areas of the country because President Morales wants to restructure the economy to include the indigenous peoples in its wealth), and Ecuador (where Correa, like Chavez, will no longer allow the US to site military personnel within its borders).

    The mainstream media have described Chavez as anti-American for years and have recently begun to print articles and editorials that accuse Morales and Correa of the same. Only our “friend” Uribe of Colombia is depicted favorably as an ally in the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. He, whose government kills union organizers with impunity, gets kazillions of aid every year for military purposes and to destroy coca plants.

  2. Submitted by Kevin Judd on 05/07/2008 - 11:13 pm.

    I’m surprised that Kinzer does not include our bloodiest overthrows; Germany in WW1 and WW2. Germany did not attack the U.S. (Hitler declared war based on a treaty with Japan).

  3. Submitted by Justin Adams on 05/09/2008 - 03:19 pm.

    It is interesting that the recent examples weren’t cited. Perhaps the fact that the current administration is still in power has something to do with it. Chavez in particular should have been included.

    I too am quite worried about US relations with Iran. I am very interested to read these books, as my understanding of regime change has largely been shaped by economics books.

    I must say that regime change is offensive to my philosophy. For one thing, it does not respect the separate and equal station of the other powers of the earth, and therefore it shows a nationalist hubris, an overreaching by our nation which corrupts the principals of our founding.

    We need to attend to ourselves. I’m not isolationist, but I also think it is ridiculous that we bear everyone’s defense costs and build democracy abroad when we can’t as a people nominate our own political candidates and when presidential contests are settled by vote of 5-4.

    We will stay in this business under McCain. I hope President Obama gets us out of it. I think this is the central question of the campaign.

  4. Submitted by Bryce Elson on 05/10/2008 - 08:08 am.

    May I recommend another book…”The Dominion of War-Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000″ by Fred Anderson and Andrew Clayton. The authors discuss basically the same theory in the context of American history with emphasis upon the the usage of the third stage as noted by Kinzer. The book is scrupulously documented and focuses on several individuals as chapter topics(Champlaign, Washington, Jackson, Macarthur, etc.) and the relation of the dynamics of the use of military conquest as perhaps the dominant theme in American history. Most forget the longest and most successful such overthrow– the 400 year long war and conquest of the Native Americans.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/11/2008 - 09:09 pm.

    I’ve always found it instructive to listen to and read foreign media, something that is especially easy to do nowadays with the Internet.

    We Americans like to think of ourselves as always being the good guys, but it is most instructive to see ourselves as others see us.

    It is sad to find out that much of the rest of the world sees the U.S. not as a valiant, noble bringer of democracy and enlightenment (our self-image) but as a meddlesome bully.

    (To the commentator above who referred to Germany and Japan: those two countries were blatantly trying to conquer the world at the time they underwent “regime change.” The other countries mentioned were not.)

  6. Submitted by Margaret Reinhardt on 05/11/2008 - 10:05 am.

    It’s interesting to look in comparison at the countries where we haven’t intervened. Sudan and Myanmar/Burma, for example, are on the front page with human rights atrocities, but looks like no moneyed interests are involved so US takes a hands off approach. Seems to confirm that economics more important in decisions about regimes than human life.

  7. Submitted by John E Iacono on 05/11/2008 - 04:16 pm.

    Perhaps our history sheds some light.

    “Don’t tread on me!” seems to be still in play.

Leave a Reply