Last week I attended a talk by Stephen Kinzer, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and recent author of Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change at the World Affairs Council. It's taken me a few days to write about because it unleashed a torrent of thoughts and questions.
His premise for the book is that President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq for the purpose of regime change was, rather than a strategic departure from normal US government foreign policy, merely a continuation of "business as usual". He went on to cite 14 instances over the past century when the US government either overtly or covertly replaced (or attempted to replace) the existing ruler or government. Much of this history was not new to me given my reading of Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. However, Mr Kinzer drew three main conclusions from these 14 regime changes which were new to me.
First, they were all driven initially by business interests, which ultimately became cloaked in government interests. Second, other countries have much longer collective memories than the US government and citizens. Third, America wanted to install leaders who were sympathetic to the US and popular with their populace, but by definition this was almost always mutually exclusive so the US installed tyrants rather than promoted democracy. Thus, the long term effects of installing unpopular tyrants ultimately led to governments even more hostile to US interests.
The story behind the regime change in Iran was particularly enlightening. In 1953, Prime Minsiter Mossadegh, head of a democratic government, was removed from power in a plot orchestrated by British and U.S.intelligence agencies to protect their oil interests. The operation was conducted following the Prime Minister's temerity to re-nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil company. The US and UK reinstated the Iranian monarchy, handing power back to the Shah whose rule became increasingly dictatorial and with strong support from the US and the UK crushed the opposition Shia clergy. This resulted in Ayatollah Khomeini gaining tremendous popularity among the Iranian people which led to the Iranian revolution in 1979 and ultimately the current escalation of the nuclear crisis.
So given this history, imagine how hollow the exhortations that "freedom is on the march" from the US government sound to the people of Iran. Rather depressingly, this evokes the President Truman quote "There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know."
One final footnote. Mr Kinzer deliberately does not address the regime changes of Germany and Japan which were not driven by economic interests and were truly far sighted and impressive acts of nation building. I understand why he did this as he wanted to limit himself to acts of intervention where the US acted unilaterally without a broad coalition. However, if we want to avoid falling foul of Truman's observation we should study both forms of intervention.