The Meddlesome Uncle Sam
America's Century of Regime Change
from Hawaii to Iraq
By Stephen Kinzer
Times. 384 pp. $27.50
Do you think George W. Bush and the neoconservatives inducted "regime change" into American foreign policy's hall of fame? Think again. Long before Iraq, U.S. presidents, spies, corporate types and their acolytes abroad had honed the art of deposing foreign governments.
As Stephen Kinzer tells the story in Overthrow , America's century of regime changing began not in Iraq but Hawaii. Hawaii ? Indeed. Kinzer explains that Hawaii's white haole minority -- in cahoots with the U.S. Navy, the White House and Washington's local representative -- conspired to remove Queen Liliuokalani from her throne in 1893 as a step toward annexing the islands. The haole plantation owners believed that by removing the queen (who planned to expand the rights of Hawaii's native majority) and making Hawaii part of the United States, they could get in on a lucrative but protected mainland sugar market. Ever wonder why free trade has such a bad name?
Over the decades, a version of this story repeats, and repeats. Kinzer, a New York Times reporter, writes that the United States has thwarted independence movements in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Nicaragua; staged covert actions and coups d'etat in Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam and Chile; and invaded Grenada, Panama and obviously Afghanistan and Iraq. Over 110 years, Kinzer argues, the United States has deployed its power to gain access to natural resources, stifle dissent and control the nationalism of newly independent states or political movements.
Kinzer's narrative abounds with unusual anecdotes, vivid description and fine detail, demonstrating why he ranks among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling, especially for those on the left. His 1982 book Bitter Fruit (which he co-authored with Stephen Schlesinger) described the 1954 CIA covert action campaign that overthrew Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. The book became a classic on college campuses in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration used attempts to "roll back" Soviet-backed communism as the rationale for funding the Nicaraguan contras and a massive counterinsurgency campaign against leftist rebels in El Salvador. For many Americans who cut their political teeth not on Vietnam but on the Central American wars (as well as for the Latin Americans who witnessed these displays of imperial hubris more directly), such interventions raised profound doubts that American meddling -- whether packaged as rollback, preemption or democracy promotion -- could possibly be worth the human or political cost.
Kinzer fills in the blanks left by those historians and policymakers for whom America's rise is mainly about the macho stuff of maneuvering around the other big guys on the block, be they France, Spain, Germany, Great Britain, the Soviet Union or China. Overthrow cautions against such parochial thinking and warns that the consequences of playing fast and loose with American power are almost always bad -- for the stability or the democratic aspirations of the target countries, for the well-being of their citizens and, because of the often vicious anti-American backlashes, for the welfare of the United States itself. Even so, Kinzer asks at each juncture whether a different cast of characters -- in the White House, at the CIA or on the ground -- would have acted more cautiously. He concludes that although the particular instincts or politics of this or that American president often helped shape U.S. behavior abroad, a reckless imperial impulse is simply part of America's DNA.
Provocative as all this history is, Overthrow stumbles when its tone shifts from lively storytelling to World Book Encyclopedia entry. It also sometimes slips into deliciously tempting caricature: John Foster Dulles, the evangelical Christian, Wall Street power broker, sits cozily in his wood-paneled library, using his finger to stir his evening Scotch and contemplate where next to fling American power; Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega is venal and sadistic one minute, a crybaby the next.
Although Kinzer's objective is to highlight the downside of covert and overt overthrows, he provides a better sense of what made the Americans tick than of what motivated those they tried to push around. Surely these foreign leaders, whom Kinzer depicts as U.S. victims and pawns, had their own strategies for dealing with American power, understanding (just as America's great-power rivals or Cold War allies did) that the United States could be -- had to be -- manipulated to their own ends. With some notable exceptions, Overthrow does not tell us enough about the domestic environments that shaped the perspectives of those leaders whom the United States was busy overthrowing, isolating or provoking.
Too tall an order? Perhaps. But it goes to what fans of gunboat diplomacy will see as a fundamental weakness of Kinzer's book: the assumption that regime change is necessarily harmful for the United States and the target country. After all, they will argue, Panama now controls its own canal and has a democratically elected, center-left government. Chile's democracy and economic probity are a model for Latin America. Afghanistan (and even Iraq) could defy the odds and emerge as stable and somewhat democratic. To be sure, eliminating the Taliban was hardly an objectionable use of U.S. power. But even in Afghanistan, the United States laid the groundwork for the Taliban's return by so quickly shifting troops and resources to Iraq, demonstrating the difficulty that the United States has in coping with the consequences of even a successful and morally correct intervention.
Unfortunately, the very audience that should read this book -- those who theologically defer to the shifting diktats of the national interest and still endorse deploying U.S. military power to remake countries -- is the least likely to bother picking it up. Twenty years ago, Bitter Fruit motivated a generation to think seriously about the impact of U.S. interventions in the southern hemisphere. I have a sad suspicion that, with Iraq's seemingly endless toll, Overthrow will likewise become required reading. ·
Julia E. Sweig is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century."