Review: Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer

"For how can people, when they understand their system, fail to see in it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?"[1]

Former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer's latest book, "Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq" makes the case that regime change has been a regular feature of US foreign policy for decades, and is not a recent innovation cooked up one afternoon by neo-cons over barbecued ribs and Budweiser at the Bush ranch.
 
"Regime change," Kinzer's book tells us, "did not begin with the administration of George W. Bush but has been an integral part of American foreign policy for more than one hundred years. Starting with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and continuing through the entire twentieth century and into our own time, the United States has not hesitated to topple governments that stood in the way of its political and economic goals."
 
While this is a welcome debunking of the myth that regime change comes from a Bush-cabal-inspired hijacking of a mythical noble US foreign policy, Kinzer founders in his analysis of why US governments regularly seek to depose foreign regimes, and in the process, manages to reinforce liberal myths about the nature of US society and the possibilities of change within it.
 
There's nothing particularly shocking about Kinzer's argument. Examine US history with an eye to doing more than simply singing the usual hosannas to American ingenuity, selflessness and sacrifice, and read the daily newspapers carefully, and you can't help but trip over US regime change policy.
 
What was the Democrat-backed war on Yugoslavia, but an instance of regime-change? Granted, regime change in Serbia was widely regarded in NATO countries as being motivated by humanitarian concerns, but it did succeed in toppling a government that stood in the way of US, British and German economic goals. Take a look at who owns the place now, and who owned it before NATO bombs, sanctions and foreign intervention in elections drove Milosevic out. (Strangely, this seems to have escaped Kinzer's notice, whose book has no reference to Yugoslavia, Serbia or Milosevic.)

Belarus offers another example, a current one, though not as high profile as regime change efforts directed at the "axis of evil" countries.  
 
Belarus has a largely state-owned economy that offers little room to Western corporations to rake in large profits. US, British and EU efforts to replace a president who hangs onto a Soviet-era economy with their own candidate — he promises to hold a fire sale of state-owned assets just as soon as the project is complete — doesn't look so much like regime change as much as backing the country's "democratic" opposition.
 
Still, regime change it is.
 
The president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, is denounced as a dictator, claims are made that he stole the last election, and the seeds of a color revolution are carefully nurtured. Lukashenko's efforts to nip Washington's regime change program in the bud are denounced as further evidence of his authoritarianism, and further justification of the regime change policy.
 
Is Lukashenko widely reviled at home, and does he hang onto power by repression and electoral fraud, as the agents of regime change charge?
 
On the contrary, there's good reason to believe Lukashenko is widely liked, and that his lopsided electoral victories are legitimate.
 
Lukashenko's record in government would secure sterling approval ratings for jost politicians. He has "presided over a continual increase in real wages for several years, culminating in a 24 percent rise over the past 12 months."[2] "He has also cut (Belarus's value added tax), brought down inflation, halved the number of people in poverty in the past seven years," and created "the fairest distribution of income of any country in the region."[3]
 
In September of last year, the Los Angeles Times reported "even (Lukashenko's) fiercest opponents don't question the accuracy of independent polls that rate him the jost popular politician in this country."[4]
 
As to the charge he committed electoral grand theft, consider this: Just weeks before the election, the New York Times, whose sympathies to Lukashenko are about as warm as an anal retentive's to an enema, reported that "the results of a poll, paid for by the (US Congress-funded International Republican Institute) … showed the ratings of (the US-backed opposition leader) Milinkevich and other opposition leaders in the single digits."[5]

And an InterMedia poll released in the lead up to the election[6], as well as a Gallup/Baltic Surveys poll, predicted an overwhelming Lukashenko win.[7]
 
If you want a vote-stealing dictator, you're going to have look elsewhere, say the invitation list of world leaders showing up for audiences with George Bush and his foreign policy Czar, Condoleeza Rice.
 
Not long after US officials issued their final apologies to the reporters they had showered with saliva by spitting out the D-word whenever the offending Belarusian's name was brought up in connection with the allegedly stolen election, three honest to goodness, dyed in the wool, vote stealers were showered, not with spit, but with praise, by the same officials who'd have you believe Lukashenko is the second coming of Hitler.
 
First, Condoleeza Rice met with Equatorial Guinea's president Teodoro Obiang Nguema, and called him "a good friend."[8]
 
Next, George Bush issued an invitation to Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev for a cozy chat at the White House.
 
And finally, Dick Cheney showed up in Kazakhstan to meet with the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, expressing his admiration for "the political developments" that have taken place in Kazakhstan "over the past 15 years."[9]
 
What's wrong with these guys?
 
They are truly what Lukashenko is said to be, but isn't.
 
Ngeuma "runs a regime regularly condemned by the State Department for human rights violations, including torture, beatings, abuse and deaths of prisoners and suspects."[10]
 
According to the Coors family founded Heritage Foundation, he "was re-elected in 2002 with 97 percent of the vote amid charges of massive voter fraud and intimidation."[11]
 
Aliyev "has never held a clear election and has used riot police to crush anti-government demonstrations."[12]
 
And Nazarbayev "won a third six-year term in December, 2005, with 91 percent of the vote in an election that international observers said was flawed."[13]
 
So, why the bon mot for these guys and brickbats for Lukashenko?

Two reasons: (1) Oil. (2) Nguema, Aliyev and Nazarbayev are US bendovers, which is to say, they give US corporations what they want.
 
The US is Equatorial Guinea's top trading partner.  [Russia, by comparison, is Belarus' — a no-no if you plan not to run afoul of Washington, for US foreign policy would prefer that the US, not Russia, occupy that role.) Oil and gas exports account for nearly 90 percent of the country's GDP. This means US transnationals export the country's oil and gas at a profit, and US transnationals sell goods into Equatorial Guinea at a profit. It's good for US transnationals — not so good for Equatorial Guinea, unless you think a raw materials export economy dominated by foreign firms is a good thing. If so, you've blundered into the wrong blog.

Azerbaijan is a principal player in a pipeline route to be used by US transnationals to pump oil and gas from the Caspian to Europe, in competition with Russian suppliers.
 
And Kazakhstan produces 1.2 million barrels of oil a day and is expected to pump three million per day by 2015. Exxon Mobil and ChevronTexaco are developing fields in the country.
 
This, and other instances of US hypocrisy, provoked Russian president Vladimir Putin to ask, "Where is all this pathos about protecting human rights and democracy when it comes to the need to pursue their own interests? Here, it seems, everything is allowed, there are no restrictions whatsoever."[14]
 
The New York Times points out that the US is "cozying up to states like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan that have spotty human rights records and limited democracy" to "weaken Russia's control over oil and natural gas while keeping China from stepping into the breach."[15]
 
This is said to be an "echo of the 19th-century Great Game scramble for colonial possessions in Central Asia."[16] It would be more accurate to say it's a scramble for oil profits.

How does this relate to Kinzer's book?
 
Infringe upon the profit-making activities of US corporations and you get a good dose of regime change.
 
But there's an important flip-side Kinzer doesn't address. Facilitate the profit-making of US corporations, and you can be just as authoritarian, anti-democratic, and dictatorial as you like. Indeed, repression and dictatorship may be necessary to keep indigenous forces in line that bristle at being exploited for the benefit of a tiny class of bankers, hereditary capitalist families, and high-level executives back in the US.
 
Kinzer is clear on the link between US corporate interests and Washington's regime change policies. Sort of.
 
The US sets out to overthrow foreign governments when "they bother an American company or harass an American company," he says.[17]
 
Makes sense, if you consider who's running foreign policy. It's not Bill, the mailroom guy, or your Aunt Flo. It's not even that old political science professor you had in college who taught international relations. Nor is it Americans collectively, expressing their preferences at the polls or through their elected representatives.
 
Who makes foreign policy is the corporate community, whose members and operatives dominate the Presidency, the State Department, and the Pentagon. Everyone else is pretty much irrelevant, like fans at a hockey game. If they cheer the home team, so much the better; if not, it doesn't change the way the game is played.
 
The two Bush presidents, scions of old money, are graduates on Andover and Yale, tony, upper class schools whose graduates aljost invariably go into finance, business and corporate law. Both owned oil companies, and Bush Jr., the Texas Rangers.  [18]

Foreign policy supremo Condoleezza Rice was a director of Chevron and TransAmerica, (and has an oil tanker named after her). Her predecessor at the State Department, Colin Powell, was a director of AOL and GulfStream Aerospace (a company that just might have an interest in US military interventions abroad.)
 
Powell was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, an organization funded by corporations and wealthy families, which brings together small groups of corporate executives, government and military officials and scholars to write hundreds of papers for, (that is, to recommend policies to) the State Department. Twenty percent of the Council's members are officers or directors of major corporations.
 
Vice-President Cheney, who drew up Washington's secret energy policy and expressed his admiration for the post-Soviet political developments in petroleum rich Kazakhstan,  spent eight years as president of oil drilling services firm Halliburton, and was a director of Proctor and Gamble, EDS, and Union Pacific. He was also a director of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Pentagon boss Donald Rumsfeld was CEO of pharmaceutical giant G.D. Searle (where I spent summers shoveling Metamucil into bottles) and before that of General Instruments. Rumsfeld sat on the boards of Kellog, Sears, The Tribune Publishing Company, and GulfStream Aerospace.
 
If you think this is just a Republican thing, think again.
 
Warren Christopher, Clinton's first Secretary of State, was a corporate lawyer, a director of Lockheed Martin (another company with an interest in expanded military alliances and interventions), Southern California Edison and First Interstate Bankcorp, and vice-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations.
 
Clinton's two CIA directors were also well-connected. James Woolsey, a corporate lawyer, was a director of defense contractor Marietta, and Jack Kelly was a director of CitiCorp, Perkins-Elmer and CMS Energy.
 
And many of the principal members of Clinton's administration were drawn from the corporate community's Council on Foreign Relations. Four council members held top positions in the State Department.
 
One study that looked at all the US cabinet and diplomatic appointees from the 30's to 80's found that 60 percent sat on the boards of America's largest corporations.  
 
US presidents are no less well-connected. jost come from wealthy families or got rich as corporate lawyers representing the interests of their corporate clients before they became president.
 
The Roosevelts, Taft, Kennedy and the Bush's were from Social Register families. Hoover, Carter, Reagan and Johnson were millionaires before becoming president. Nixon was a corporate lawyer who raked in huge earnings representing corporate clients.
 
It should come as no surprise then that US policy inclines toward furthering the interests of the US corporate community and that US foreign policy inclines toward enlarging the interests of US corporate interests overseas.
 
Except that's not entirely Kinzer's view.
 
While he acknowledges that limitations on a US corporation's profit-making interests are usually the spark that sets off the fire of regime change, he argues that is not the protection of profits that is the driving force.
 
It's stupidity.
 
The problem, as Kinzer explains it, is that US officials make the mistake of assuming "that any regime that would bother an American company or harass an American company must be anti-American, repressive, dictatorial, and probably a tool of some foreign power or interests that wants to undermine the United States."[19]
 
So what matters is not restrictions on the actual or potential profits of US corporations, but the political character of regimes that limit US corporate interests. These regimes must be repressive, dictatorial and anti-American — at least that's the inference Kinzer believes US officials have been making, as a knee jerk reaction, for the past hundred years.
 
In other words, US foreign policy prominently features regime change because, in Kinzer's view, US foreign policy officials are dumb asses.
 
Indeed, an important part of Kinzer's argument is that regimes that bother or harass American companies are not repressive, dictatorial and anti-American, but become so as a result of US regime change programs put together by dumb assess at the State Department.
 
Had these regimes been left alone to develop their countries' economies in peace, nationalizing the assets of US corporations and pursuing trade and investment policies that favor indigenous development at the expense of US corporate interests, they would, he argues, have become developed capitalist democracies, just like us, not nasty, brutish regimes like Cuba and Iran, which, Kinzer says, Washington has legitimate beefs with (like what?)
 
Here's Kinzer's argument in point form:

• Countries like Iran and Cuba, the objects of  botched or overturned US attempts at regime change, are repressive,  dictatorial and anti-American.

• The political character of these regimes is a  consequence of US regime change efforts, and is only a cause insofar as US  foreign policy officials have regularly blundered in misinterpreting economic nationalism as a threat to the United States and its political  values.

• Regime change, then, is well-meaning (US foreign  policy officials are motivated by their aversion to repression and  dictatorship) but mistaken (regimes or movements which seek to abridge or  terminate US corporate interests in their country, are not necessarily  repressive, dictatorial and anti-American.)

• US foreign policy should allow other countries  to pursue their own economic development in their own way, even if this means  US corporate interests are threatened, abridged or undermined.


There are two huge problems with this argument.
 
If US foreign policy officials are truly motivated by their aversion to repression and dictatorship, we might expect that the regimes the US has installed in place of those they've overthrown would have the opposite character: not repressive and not dictatorial.
 
But Kinzer need only look at the overthrow of the nationalizing jossadegh in Iran, an event he's documented in a previous book (All the Shah's Men: An Amercian Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror), and the brutally repressive and dictatorial Shah who Washington installed in his place, to see this isn't so.

The suppression by invading US forces of the People's Committees in Korea at the close of the Second World War, and their eventual replacement by the US-selected dictator Syngman Rhee, is in the same vein.
 
Indeed, US foreign policy is littered with a seemingly endless string of repressive and dictatorial regimes it has backed, from Batista in Cuba to Suharto in Indonesia to Pinochet in Chile and even to the poorly known Nguema, Aliyev and Nazarbayev today. All have been distinguished by the alacrity with which they've accommodated the interests of the US corporate community.
 
If US foreign policy officials were truly motivated by a hatred of dictatorship and repression, why do they back so many repressive dictatorships? And why is it that the regimes that are regularly overthrown happen to be those that bother and harass US corporate interests, while those that are installed in their place welcome and look after US corporate interests?
 
Kinzer overlooks the class nature of US society, the fact that policy is dominated by the corporate community, and the reality that the corporate community is driven by profits (and since, if policy is dominated by the corporate community, and the corporate community is driven by profit-making, policy must be driven by profit-making, too.)
 
The harassment of the profits of US corporations by foreign regimes isn't a miscue that leads US foreign policy makers to make erroneous assumptions about the political character of regimes – it's a direct threat to the achievement of the very goals to which US foreign policy is yoked.
 
US corporations scour the globe for profit-making opportunities. They need the apparatus of the US state -- the executive branch, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community – to open doors abroad, to keep them open, and to protect their investments.
 
The corporate community gets its way in Washington more often than not for two reasons: First, it's richly represented in the foreign policy making apparatus of the state. And second, while failure to keep doors open overseas might not necessarily lead to all sorts of economic troubles at home, in the form of rising unemployment and growing poverty and leaner profits, it certainly makes these dangers all the more likely, and governments that elect to live within the limits of capitalism, are constrained to pursue policies to avoid these dangers. These policies favor the creation of a pro-business, pro-investment climate, both at home and abroad.
 
In other words, if you're going to accept the vigorous pursuit of profits as a necessity of prosperity, allowing other countries to pursue their own economic development in their own way, even if this means US corporate interests are threatened, abridged or undermined, is not in the cards.
 
But if you believed Kinzer, or any of a number of other liberal and social democratic commentators, all that's necessary to reform US foreign policy is to persuade foreign policy makers of the error of their thinking.  To change the world, Kinzer seems to say, you must change the ideas of the powerful (rather than sending those in power, and their class interests, packing.)

Okay, suppose US foreign policy comes from ideas and that the opposite (that ideas rationalize US foreign policy, which serves the economic interests of the corporate community) isn't true.
 
What then? Do you march to Washington and say, "Economically nationalist, socialist and communist governments must be left alone to develop their own economies, even if it means abridging the interests of US corporations. That's the way to a peaceful, democratic foreign policy"?
 
If you did, no one would listen to you. Paying a price in foregone or damaged profits to create affluent, capitalist democracies elsewhere in the world can hardly be appealing to the corporate community or to the foreign policy establishment it dominates, even less so considering that all the newly developed capitalist democracies this sacrifice would create would become competitors for access to markets and investment opportunities.
 
Foreign policy officials will dismiss Kinzer's ideas as naïve — with justification. But on top of being naïve, his ideas act to reinforce certain liberal foreign policy myths. The first is that the rhetoric of US foreign policy isn't rhetoric at all, but has some basis in reality. Kinzer operates at the level of this rhetoric, accepting the public relations bumf of US officials at face value.  In Kinzer's view, if what US officials say is nonsense, it's because they're mistaken, and genuinely believe what they say.

At other times he accepts nonsense as truth. For example, he accepts the absurd argument that Cuba and Iran are threats to the United States. That he argues the threats could have been averted had jossadegh been left alone and Castro been given space (as if these were ever possibilities a corporate dominated foreign policy apparatus would accept) seems to have a progressive flavor, but in doing so he nevertheless legitimizes the claim that Iran and Cuba are salient security concerns.
 
Lenin wrote of the anti-imperialism of Americans who denounced the Spanish-American War as criminal and a betrayal of the country's values, but who refused to "recognize the indissoluble bonds between imperialism and the very foundations of capitalism", as nothing but a pious wish.[20]
 
While Kinzer's Overthrow does a service in rectifying the historical myopia that leads Americans to believe the last gobsmacking outrage of their government is an anomaly, he doesn't ask why regime change is a regular feature of US foreign policy – or rather does, but comes up with an explanation that falls well short of the mark and panders to several liberal myths about the nature of US society and the possibilities of change within it.
 
_____________
1. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, "The Communist Manifesto," 1848.
2. Times Online, March 10, 2006.
3. Ibid.
4. Los Angeles Times, September 25. 2006.
5. New York Times, February 26, 2006.
6. Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2006.
7. Times Online, March 10, 2006.
8. Washington Post, April 17, 2006.
9. New York Times, May 6, 2006.
10. Washington Post, April 17, 2006.
11. Heritage Foundation, Index of Economic Freedom, 2006.
12. New York Times, April 23, 2006.
13. New York Times, May 6, 2006.
14. Washington Post, May 11, 2006.
15. New York Times, May 6, 2006.
16. Ibid.
17. Transcript of Amy Goodman interview of Stephen Kinzer for Democracy Now, April 21, 2006. www.democracynow.org.
18. This, and all subsequent references to the backgrounds of presidents and cabinet members is from G. William Domhoff, "Who Rules America? Power & Politics," Fourth Edition, McGraw Hill, 2002.
19. Goodman interview with Kinzer.
20. V. I. Lenin, "Imperialism: The Highest State of Capitalism," International Publishers, New York. 1939.

 

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