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Jeb Bush’s review of our role in the Mideast omits a big event

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks to The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in Chicago on Wednesday.

Undeclared presidential candidate Jeb Bush spoke in Chicago Wednesday, outlining the arguments he will make, mostly about foreign policy, after he formally enters the race.

Compared to some of the craziness we will hear from some of the other candidates, Bush came across as sane and measured. He clearly would associate himself with the chief complaints that righties have employed against President Obama’s conduct of foreign policy — that Obama is weak, vacillating, “feckless” is a favorite word, and even that Obama doesn’t believe that the United States is an unmitigated and unselfish force for good in the world. But he kept it dignified.

Bush won’t literally be running against Obama, who has a Constitutional excuse not to seek a third term, but if Bush makes it to the general election he will likely face a former Obamian secretary of state, so dissecting Obama’s alleged foreign policy failures will be relevant.

Nothing concrete

Bush owes us a clearer outline of what he would do differently. As of Wednesday, he committed himself to nothing very concrete but implied that he has ways of reducing the chaos in the Mideast.

In outlining a return to proper American conduct, Bush certainly hewed to the self-serving, Manichean view that U.S. political rhetoric generally embraces to convert the complicated century-plus track record of U.S. domination of smaller powers into a simple tale of freedom and democracy versus dictatorship and oppression.

“In the post-World War II era, [Bush said Wednesday without anyone acting surprised] the United States has helped hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, secured liberty for an equal number, and has been a force for peace and security. This has happened because our presidents, both Republican and Democrats, have accepted the responsibilities of American power in the world with the belief that we are a force for good. I have doubts whether this administration believes American power is such a force.”

That last line borders on slander per se, although it may also contain a grain of truth. Obama has at times seemed to differ from other presidents in his assumptions about the unarguable “force for goodness” of every U.S. invasion or bombing attack, and that drives some of his critics slightly nuts.

Here’s an example, which I’ve cited before, but which is freshened up by Bush’s treatment Wednesday. (You’ll see in the excerpt below that Bush made a momentary slip of the tongue, saying “Iraq” when he meant “Iran,” which some are tongue-clucking over, but I am not. I’m going to a different place). Said Bush in Chicago:

“We’ve had 35 years of experience with Iraq — excuse me — Iran — 35 years experience with Iran’s rulers. They have attacked the United States and American troops directly and through their surrogates. They have used terror as a tool of intimidation.”

During those 35 years, I would note, the United States also attacked Iran, as when the Reagan administration armed and sided with Saddam Hussein during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. But that’s not my main point in this passage.

Why choose to start the history of U.S.-Iranian relations 35 years ago? That was the year religion-crazed Iranian mobs overthrew the Shah of Iran, who had run the country under U.S. protection and in accordance with U.S. policy for the preceding 26 years? Sure, it’s nice to have friends running important countries, and even nicer when they produce a lot of oil, although a little less nice when you fancy yourself the global arsenal of democracy and you cozy up to a monarch, just as the United States has done before and since with the nearby monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, etc.

Siding with monarchies is not the best feature of our “force for good” and “arsenal of democracy” pitch, even worse when then monarchies (like the Saudis) impose laws that led to the public flogging of bloggers.

What happened in Iran

But the case of Iran is much, much worse than the U.S. willingness to cozy up (and really much more than cozy up) to an unelected monarch. That’s  nothing. The United States, via the CIA and other assets, actually overthrew the only truly democratic government that ever held power in Iran. That was the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who was Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1952 and who had committed the unpardonable sin of nationalizing Iran’s oil and attempting to use the revenues from the sale of that oil for the benefit of the Iranian people.

I’ve written the story of that CIA-orchestrated coup before, including here. But it’s impressive how seldom the story makes into any general public discussion of the history of U.S.-Iranian relations.

No one can with certainty say that, absent that U.S.-organized coup, Iran would have developed into the model of a democracy in a Mideast Muslim country that would have changed everything. No one can say that it wouldn’t have. The Shah was not a monster on the Saddam Hussein level, but employed secret police and tortured his critics and Iranians knew that he worked for the Americans. 

So Jeb Bush has decided to start his review of U.S.-Iranian relations after the United States helped snuff out the only brief outbreak of democracy in Iran’s history and after the U.S. ally who replaced that democratic government had been overthrown, and he finds it to be a tale of good Americans and evil Mideasterners.

No U.S. president ever publicly mentioned the U.S. role in overthrowing Mossadegh until Obama, during his first year as president, on a trip to Egypt said:

“For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is, in fact, a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.” 

So yeah, I guess it’s true as Jeb Bush suggests, that Obama doesn’t hew as closely to the traditional all-party line about the United States as an unflagging defender of peace and spreader of democracy.

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Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Bill Davnie on 02/19/2015 - 10:38 am.

    Iran and Jeb Bush

    History is remarkably instructive — and discomforting, disconcerting and disturbing — when we pay attention to it. If only politics permitted us also to learn from it. Thanks for this.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/19/2015 - 11:22 am.

    Some blinders

    …practical, political, ideological, are bigger than others, or are used more consistently and self-servingly. This is certainly a quite sizable case in point.

    I don’t even limit the criticism to those who like to call themselves “conservative,” since those who like to call themselves “liberal” sometimes succumb to the same skewed vision. William Fulbright’s “The Arrogance of Power” still seems relevant and instructive to me in this regard, decades after it was written. Delusions of grandeur do seem to fall more heavily among those who lately are called Neocons, but they’re certainly not the only practitioners of “might makes right.”

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/19/2015 - 11:25 am.


    In the immediate post 9-11 world, the Iranian government started making overtures about sharing intelligence with the US, in order to defeat the common enemy of al Qaeda. Instead of grabbing this opportunity, the administration of Bush II decided to include Tehran in its “axis of evil,” thus nipping any potential cooperation in the bud.

    Given that Jeb’s shadow foreign policy team consists largely of the same people as the geniuses behind his brother’s policies, does anyone seriously think we can expect anything better from a third Bush administration?

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/19/2015 - 11:48 am.

    Classic misdirection.

    …these aren’t the Saudis that you are looking for…

    Shiny thing, shiny thing ! !

    Iran, Iran. Iraq, whoops–Iran…

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/19/2015 - 12:28 pm.

    We’ll see

    If American’s have had enough of this republican war mongering.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/19/2015 - 04:54 pm.

      Don’t Look Now

      But a majority of Americans, including at least 50% of Democrats, is ready for a ground war against ISIS. And Obama isn’t even banging the war drum!

      American’s desire to start foreign wars will never cease to amaze me.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/19/2015 - 07:00 pm.

        A modest proposal

        An amendment that any congersperson who votes for a war (or any unreasonable facsimile that involves being shot at) must immediately enlist and serve in combat.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/19/2015 - 08:16 pm.

    A little more obectivity

    First, how can anyone doubt that Obama does not believe that America is a positive force in the world if we consider how many times he apologized for American behavior and pulled back from hot spots?

    Second, “siding with the monarchies” on its own does not go against an idea of democracy since quite a few countries in Western Europe are monarchies and yet democratic. Of course Iran under Shah was not as free as Great Britain but at that time it was one of the freest countries in that part of the world – we have to remember that.

    As for Iran’s history, yes, America helped in overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh but there are a couple of points here that Mr. Black forgot to mention. First, not many people were defending overthrown Mossadegh and the shah returned with no problems – that wouldn’t have happened if he were really hated. And second, Mossadegh’s use of money to “benefit Iranian people” is really questionable. Remember, when communists and socialists come to power (and Mossadegh was a socialist) they always claim to help people; unfortunately, it never happens in real life (Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, China…). The shah, on the other hand, did try to modernize his country and succeeded in that – until 1979, Iran was very advanced by that region’s measures. I have written about Chile and Iran here:

    So yes, Jeb Bush is right – no matter where we start, America is a force for peace and Iran’s “death to America” policy is a true reflection of what America has to deal with (but Obama refuses). Anyone wonders what kind of force Russia or China would be in the world if America retreats?

    And by the way, Iran was making overtures to America after 9-11 not because it was afraid of al Qaeda but because it was afraid of America….

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 02/19/2015 - 10:47 pm.

      REJECT WN Wow so what. Regardless of conditions

      Which I doubt without sources, it was a legitimate govt in Iran which the US worked to overthrow. In my research, the Shah’s regime was brutal to its opponents with secret police, torture, etc. What sources do you have? BTW found any WMDs in Iraq yet Gutman? Jeb is just a tiny bit smarter than his brother.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/20/2015 - 01:27 am.

      Oh dear

      I think Obama does believe that America is a positive force precisely because he is willing to acknowledge our mistakes and use power judiciously.

      The counties in Westen Europe have symbolic monarchies only. What a silly argument.

      The idea that Iran was in any way free under the Shah is absurd. The lack of dissent over his coup was the result of the Shah’s brutal repression. He did modernize Iran, but his repressive rule led directly the backwards regime that had ruled since.

      Its possible that the democratically-elected socialists in Iran (and Chile) would have done a bad job. In that case, they would have been voted out of power. Do know how the Sandinistas lost power in Nicaragua? Not by a CIA-funded covert war. No, by a democratic election. And then they later got back in the same way. There is no justification whatsoever for overruling a foreign country’s democratic elections.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/20/2015 - 10:06 am.

      Iran was afraid of America?

      Is that why their position on developing their nuclear capability hardened after they were branded part of the “axis of evil?” Or why the general anti-American tone of their leaders’ public statements has not abated?

      Yeah, they’re trembling in their boots.

  7. Submitted by Doug Gray on 02/19/2015 - 10:02 pm.

    Is not.

    The United States of America is not and never was a “force for peace” or for “good” in the world. Nations, particularly powerful ones, do not act in the world for “good” or “evil.” They act in the world to protect their interests, which usually if not always are the interests of their elites. The USA is no more a “force for peace,” and certainly not for “good,” than Russia, China, Israel, the Hapsburgs or Imperial Rome.

  8. Submitted by jason myron on 02/19/2015 - 10:53 pm.

    Okay, I give up…

    how many times has Obama apologized? And while you’re at it, we would all love to know what proof you have of your assertion that Iran was afraid of the US….or is this something that you were able to divine all by yourself?

  9. Submitted by Jim Boulay on 02/20/2015 - 05:15 am.

    The Shah

    Eric forgot to mention that the Shah was the one who started OPEC. He was trying to play up his middle eastern credibility by standing up to the US and formed OPEC which directly caused the 1973 gas crisis in America. People forget that WE were waiting in gas lines for hours trying to buy any amount of gas we could. There was even some rationing were you could only buy 5-10 gallons at a time. The Shah was also Sunni I think and was brutal in his policies towards the Shia. He ruled from the gem encrusted peacock throne and enriched himself at the same time that average people living in Tehran didn’t even have clean water and sewage. The revolution hapened bcause of deep seated resentment towards the heavy handed policies of the US to control the governments who sat on the oil! Should Jimmy Carter have sent US ground troops to prop up the Shah? What do the Testers and neocons say to that?

  10. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/20/2015 - 08:22 pm.

    Some answers

    Mr. Hintz, I brought up Western Europe monarchies just because the article put all monarchies together. And I never said that Iran under Shah was free, I just said that it was relatively free – and definitely freer than current regime. As for being voted out of power, do you have other examples of that other than Nicaragua? And as I keep asking: Who is happier now: Chileans or Cubans?

    Mr. Holbrook, Mr. Myron, Iran was afraid for very short period of time, right after quick victory in Iraq.

    Mr. Gray, you are correct that nations usually act for their own interests. However, interests of some nations may coincide with the interests of the world which is the case for the US. And if you do not see the difference between the US and China/Russia, it is sad…

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 02/21/2015 - 02:25 pm.

      Please explain — not to me, but to the people of Iraq, Guatemala or Vietnam, your choice — how US interests happen to coincide with the interests of the world, whatever those might be.

      LTG Daniel Bolger tells a story in his book Why We Lost about an Afghan village where US and Afghan government troops held daily battles with Taliban et. al. in order that the inhabitants of the village might vote in presidential elections. After absorbing significant casualties, those left in the village, about 100, indeed got to vote. When the votes were counted, Hamid Karzai had won, 4,000 to 0. That was obviously wrong, so they held a recount. Karzai won that, 10,000 to 0. The final tally was 25,000 to 0.

      Please explain, to me this time, how this differs from the “elections” Russia held in Crimea, other than that the troops were U.S. instead of Russian and the people fiddling with the ballot boxes were Afghani rather than Ukranian.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 02/22/2015 - 01:49 pm.

      What quick victory?

      Tell that to the families of all the dead soldiers that were killed after Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a big banner proclaiming “mission accomplished.” Sorry that you fell for a photo op.

  11. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/21/2015 - 06:25 pm.


    I will do it to the people of Iraq – just closer to our times and I was an adult so I could form my own opinion. So here it goes: Iraqi lived under brutal rule of Saddam Hussein and didn’t like him; America came and kicked him out; Iraqis were given a chance, with the American help, to build a better freer society. Now, the sad part of the story is that they didn’t use their chance and were not actually even ready to having that chance but how is it American fault and how does it undermine my statement that American interests in kicking Saddam out coincided with Iraqis’?

    Now to your second question. In Crimea, majority of people did indeed want to join Russia – after all most of them are ethnic Russians – so I do not think there was much of an interference with the election results there. In Afghanistan people who conducted elections had no clue what election was and did what they thought they had to do to please their masters whoever they thought of as such at that moment (and it is possible that they thought of Americans); but I am sure that American troops fighting and dying to give them a chance to be free did not interfere with elections (because if they did, they would not have come up with impossible result). So to sum it up, in both cases outside forces did not interfere but in one case because they did not want to and in another case because they got the desirable result without it. By the way, if anything, people fiddling with the ballot boxes in the Crimea were Russians, not Ukrainians (why would Ukrainians want to help Russia?)

    May I help you with any other questions?

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 02/22/2015 - 09:58 pm.

      to sum up

      Your explanation to the Iraqi people is that, having been invaded by a foreign power which then abdicated its responsibilities to provide public order after overthrowing the country’s institutions, however flawed, the resultant disorder is all their fault; and as for the other…well…after reading your “explanation” carefully and closely twice I confess I still cannot make out what it is you claim to explain.

      Naturally, if you assume that the interests of the USA are identical with the “interests of the world” (and I guess I still would be interested to know just what those might be), and that the USA can do no wrong when it acts in defense of those interests, then everything wrong with the international actions of the USA must be some other country’s or people’s fault. That may be the myth propagated by the “American exceptionalism” crowd; it may even be the majority opinion. But from that myth and from that opinion I strongly dissent.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 02/23/2015 - 03:58 pm.

      How is it America’s fault?

      Did the Iraqi people ask for Americas “help?” Let me help you…Let’s say I have a carpet in a room of my house that I don’t really like. It’s worn, the color has faded, but it’s in a room that used very little. I mention that to my neighbor who decides to “help me” by coming over, barging his way into my house and ripping out that carpeting, but leaving behind broken floor boards, trim and knocking holes in my drywall on the way out the door. Sound familiar? It’s essentially the same foreign policy that the US has applied to Iraq.

  12. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/23/2015 - 09:44 pm.

    Let’s try again

    Mr. Gray, yes, my explanation to the Iraqi people is that they did not use a chance that America gave them.. And no, America did not have any responsibilities after winning the war. Japan and Germany used their defeat wisely, Iraq did not – it is that easy.

    OK, I will try again for the second thing: You see, Americans in Afghanistan did not use, or threatened to use, the force to make Afghans vote a certain way – they distorted the election out of their own lack of understanding, to put it mildly. In Ukraine, on the other hand, Russian soldiers were ready to use the force to achieve desirable result – they just didn’t have to. Is it better now?

    I never said that American interests are identical to the interests of the world – I just said they coincide. America wants stability in the world and so should the world; America wants freedom and prosperity and so should the world. Neither did I say that America can do no wrong – of course it can. It can be more or less forceful than necessary; it can misinterpret its own interests like in Iraq reconstruction; or it can act against its own interests in what it thinks are the interests of others like in Libya. But you can’t disagree that stability in the world is in the best interests of every country and only strong American leadership can provide it…

    Mr. Myron, I think your analogy is wrong and here is the right one. You live in a bad neighborhood and one thug is terrorizing everyone. So a “magnificent seven” comes and kills a thug. But instead of enjoying the peace, all the neighbors start feuding and killing each other. I guess your old bad carpet did not try to kill you…

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 02/24/2015 - 10:16 am.

      My point

      is that there is no significant difference between employing US military force to enable Afghan electoral fraud and employing Russian military force to enable Crimean electoral fraud; nor is there any significant difference between Russia (or China or Israel or France or the Hapsburg or Roman Empires) flaunting international law to act in what it perceives to be its own interests and the US doing the same, as it has throughout its history, regardless of the interests of the world or other any nation in it. And if “America wants stability in the world” then perhaps it should stop invading other countries and overthrowing their stable, if distasteful, governments. As our most recent international debacle has shown, that more often than not leads to less stability, not more. The rise of ISIS is not all the Iraqis’ fault.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 02/24/2015 - 10:19 am.


      It is a settled principle of international law, codified in treaty, that an occupying power does have responsibilities to ensure public order and public health a country whose government it has overthrown by force, responsibilities the US more or less abdicated in Iraq.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 02/25/2015 - 01:35 pm.

      Nice try…

      but the Magnificent Seven was just a movie and has no relation to real life, much less foreign policy in the Mideast. I didn’t ask for my carpet to be fixed and the Iraqis didn’t ask to have their leadership disposed.

  13. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/24/2015 - 06:39 pm.

    The difference

    Mr. Gray, there is huge difference between Russian troops in Crimea and American troops in Afghanistan and I feel sorry that you can’t see it. Russia annexed Crimea and America is trying to get out of Afghanistan – what can be more different?

    As for Iraq war (I assume you refer to it as debacle even though our latest international debacle(s) are Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, etc.) I can’t see how it would have been in the interests of the world to have Saddam with nukes.

    And if a country may have an obligations to ensure security and order in a country it occupies, it does not have those responsibilities as soon as it leaves.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 02/25/2015 - 11:44 am.


      Well since the US is such a force for good and order in the world, so much different from Russia, perhaps we could give back some of the territory we annexed in our long history, say from Spain, Mexico and the Dakotas? As for Libya et at., as I said in a different post, who do you imagine created the chaos?

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/25/2015 - 07:17 pm.


        Mr. Gray, I do not see how giving back land to Mexico is connected to America’s being a force for good in the world… However, I highly doubt that people in Texas or California would want to be given back to Mexico… And I did say that America makes mistakes – Libya was definitely one of many we did lately… By the way, I am getting curious, if you think America is not a force for good, who is in the world?

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