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.