Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq
By Stephen Kinzer
Times Books, 2006. 385 pp., $27.50
Stephen Kinzer is one of our most distinguished and honored journalists, having reported from locales as varied as Turkey and Guatemala. He has spent the last several years writing books about the failures of American foreign policy, most notably in Iran and Latin America, and his new book, "Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq" (Times Books, 385 pages, $27.50), contains a series of thumbnail sketches of American defenestrations of foreign leaders, most all of which he disapproves, even when he reluctantly admits (as in Hawaii and Grenada) they made the world a better place, and most of the locals are glad we did it.
Were it not for the author's high standing, serious readers should skip this book altogether, but under the circumstances it is well worth the pain to work through this tendentious, reductive, lopsided, and at times almost unbelievably narrow-minded work. You won't learn much about history; what "Overthrow" does show is the lack of historical culture and serious scholarship in the works of our leading journalists.
"Overthrow" is first and foremost a philosophical mistake. "What do all games have in common?" Wittgenstein asks in his "Philosophical Investigations." After several futile efforts, he concludes that the question is wrong. It should be "is there something that all games have in common?" Asking the empirical question saves you from heading down a blind alley. So it is with overthrows, which Mr. Kinzer unsuccessfully tries to define as a meaningful class of historical events.
He writes that he is only going to discuss policies "arranged to depose foreign leaders," but then omits all three 20th-century world wars, which certainly were aimed directly at regime change, while including Afghanistan and Iraq, which seem to me to be examples of the same sort of policy used in the first two ground wars.
"Overthrow" is also a strikingly uncultured book. "In most cases," Mr. Kinzer believes, "[the United States] acted mainly for economic reasons--specifically, to establish, promote, and defend the right of Americans to do business around the world without interference." That sort of pidgin Marxism hardly passes muster outside Noam Chomsky's classroom, and Mr. Kinzer isn't even skilled at the inner workings of the dialectic. "By a quirk of history, the United States rose to great power at the same time multinational corporations were emerging as a decisive force in world affairs," he writes. But if economic forces are the driving force of international affairs, the conjunction of the rise of American power and the emergence of multinational corporations is hardly a historical "quirk." It's the heart and soul of the matter.
Mr. Kinzer makes a few feeble pretenses at expanding his purview, but they often come at the expense of common sense and abundant evidence to the contrary. For example, he writes: "Some of those who directed Cold War interventions, like John Foster Dulles, devoted their lives to the service of American corporate power. Others, like Henry Kissinger, had no real interest in business and even regarded it with disdain." But Mr. Kissinger was the protége of Nelson and David Rockefeller, who hardly regarded business with disdain. Neither has Mr. Kissinger, who has proved an outstandingly successful businessman.
Predictably, "Overthrow" is what the great historian J.H. Hexter once called "tunnel history," a narrow focus that makes it all but impossible to understand great events. Late 19th-century American imperialism is analyzed without mentioning that every serious country in the world pursued empire, and if anything special about America in that period, it was the weakness of the imperial impulse at the expense of a missionary zeal for spreading freedom. And nothing suggests that American policy in the Cold War was a legitimate reaction to aggressive moves by the Soviet Union, which had its own policy of regime change under way in the Central and Eastern European satellites, as well as in Turkey and Iran. Instead of providing proper context, Mr. Kinzer homes in on American meddling, and even sounds distinctly pleased with Soviet power when he writes:
After World War II ... American presidents ... could no longer simply demand that unfriendly foreign leaders accept the reality of American power ... nor could they send troops ... without worrying about the consequences. This was because for the first time, there was a force in the world that limited their freedom of action: the Soviet Union ... Castro's bloody regime in Cuba is blamed entirely on American support for previous dictators.
Castro was a pure product of American policy ... If the U.S. had not crushed Cuba's drive to independence in the early twentieth century, if it had not supported a series of repressive dictators there, and if it had not stood by while the 1952 election was canceled, a figure like Castro would almost certainly not have emerged.
That may well be true, although I don't think our understanding of human events reaches the degree of certainty Mr. Kinzer evinces. One reason he's so confident is that he ignores the support the Soviet Union gave Castro, and he neglects even to inform his readers that Castro was a committed communist. Sometimes our enemies' regime change policies succeeded, after all.
But such discussions have no place in "Overthrow," whose clear purpose is to blame the United States for human misery whenever and wherever possible. It is no accident that the book jacket blurbs come from Seymour Hersh, Chalmers Johnson, and that great meddler in the internal affairs of other countries, Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr. Mr. Kinzer's message is not historical at all, but political: The Iraq invasion is part of a misbegotten pattern, and, like most of the other regime changes, this one "has had terrible unintended consequences."
Mr. Kinzer is so intent on convincing his readers that regime change is a bad thing that he even extols the fall of the Spanish Empire as a good thing for Spain and a model for the rest of us:
[Spanish intellectuals'] belief that a nation can achieve greatness within itself, rather than through empire, helped lay the foundation for the Spanish Republic that came to life in the 1930s and, more successfully, for the vibrant Spain that emerged at the end of the twentieth century. Some have even seen in Spain's resurgence a model for the way countries can not only survive the loss of empire but emerge from it to become stabilizing forces in the world they once sought to dominate.
It is at least equally compelling to argue that once-powerful, now-feeble countries like Spain, France, Germany, and Britain do not contribute to stability, but to its opposite, that their weakness and fecklessness invite aggressive, imperialistic religious fanatics to attack the West. And someone at Times Books would have done well to remind Mr. Kinzer that Spain's "resurgence" was led by a man who insisted that his country once again play a global role, while the present Spanish leaders have made their country largely irrelevant. Mr. Kinzer neatly ignores Aznar, a great leader, and pretends that modern Spain is embodied in the modest figure of Zapatero, just as he would have us believe, contrary to George Orwell's brilliant evidence to the contrary, and without ever breathing the two words "civil war," that the Republican experiment of the 1930s was a glorious triumph.
Mr. Kinzer's compulsion to condemn American foreign policy at all costs leads him to distort several other events, such as the invasion of Grenada in the 1980s.The diplomatic trigger for that action was pulled by Eugenia Charles of Dominica, but her name is not found in "Overthrow." And Mr. Kinzer's description of the communist dictatorship we removed is right out of the old manual: He describes its leaders as agrarian reformers, a bit wacky to be sure, but good people trying to do good things. Mr.Kinzer apparently didn't have time to look at the nasty repression and surprisingly widespread torture inflicted on the islanders by the New Jewel Movement. It wouldn't have been hard for him to find the evidence; all the internal documents of the regime are easily accessible in our National Archives.
It's lousy history, but it's a great window into the political culture of a generation of press stars. Alas.
Michael A. Ledeen is a freedom scholar at AEI.