Toppling Foreign Leaders: The History of a Bad Habit

A foreign correspondent for The New York Times who has reported from more than 50 countries, Stephen Kinzer has met the enemy—and it is U.S. The invasion of Iraq, he claims, was not an aberration but part of a pattern deeply embedded in American foreign policy. Since the United States became a global power over a century ago, policymakers have “assumed the right to intervene anywhere in the world, not simply by influencing or coercing foreign governments, but also by overthrowing them.” Acting often at the behest of multinational corporations, sometimes covertly, they have supplanted at least 14 leaders, including Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii in 1893, Mohammad Mossadegh (Iran, 1953), and Ngo Dinh Diem (Vietnam, 1963). When American involvement came to light, Presidents cloaked their actions in the rhetoric of national security, democratization and humanitarianism. In the short term, regime change worked; but almost every coup, revolution and invasion engineered by the United States backfired, Mr. Kinzer concludes, destabilizing whole regions and unleashing anti-American terrorists.

Overthrow is a primer for political progressives. Its interpretations and evidence are distilled from the work of revisionist critics of American foreign policy. For four decades, Senator J. William Fulbright, historian Walter LaFeber and a legion of lesser lights have examined the economic and ideological forces shaping American imperialism. They have pointed out, as Mr. Kinzer does, that coups sponsored by the United States invariably replace democratizing governments with more repressive regimes. Almost all of Mr. Kinzer’s 14 narratives of regime change, then, are more than thrice-told tales of “the arrogance of power.” But that doesn’t make them any less compelling—or timely.

Unfortunately, Overthrow also overreaches, stretching and simplifying to grind some one-size-fits-all axioms. Mr. Kinzer doesn’t adequately acknowledge the anti-interventionist tendencies in American foreign policy. Signatory to the charter of the United Nations and a host of international treaties, the United States has committed itself on numerous occasions to respect the sovereign governments of other nations. American administrations haven’t always honored these commitments, but, as President George W. Bush’s tortured justifications for war in 2003 suggest, neither the nation’s traditions nor its practices justify the broad claim that Presidents have assumed a right to use force, anywhere in the world, to protect and promote the national interest.

Equally problematic are Mr. Kinzer’s principles of selection in Overthrow. Why include the unseating of Mullah Omar and Saddam Hussein, but not of Mussolini, Hitler and Hirohito? Each of these regime changes, some will argue, involved a war waged by a “coalition of the willing.” Why Mossadegh and not Milosevic? Under certain circumstances, hasn’t regime change been appropriate and even necessary? Haven’t the consequences at times been benign and even beneficial?

Mr. Kinzer assumes that events following regime changes were caused by the intervention—and that America is to blame for what’s gone wrong. Had the United States not disposed of President José Santos Zelaya in 1909, he writes, “Nicaragua might have emerged long ago as a peaceful, prosperous country.” If not for the coup against Mossadegh, Iran might now be, in the words of one Iranian diplomat quoted by Mr. Kinzer, “a mature democracy.” Had Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger not responded to International Telephone & Telegraph and Pepsi-Cola by overthrowing Salvador Allende, Chile “would have found a less violent, more constitutional way out of its conundrum.”

Evidence from other victims of American aggression is more difficult to fit into this analytical framework. Grenada is an exception, Mr. Kinzer insists, because the citizens of that country remain grateful for U.S. intervention in 1983. He also indicates that Hawaiians are pleased with statehood and that Puerto Ricans seem satisfied with their association with the United States. When America “assumes real responsibility for the territories it seizes,” Mr. Kinzer writes, “it can lead toward stability and happiness.” Regime-change programs, he implies throughout the book, should be judged by the outcomes they produce. President Bush would probably agree.

Mr. Kinzer often romanticizes leaders who stood up to the American colossus, especially if they supported land reform, nationalization of industries and the redistribution of wealth. Although he acknowledges that Zelaya took power in a coup, was impatient, egotistical, autocratic, stole from the public treasury and invaded Honduras and El Salvador, Mr. Kinzer calls him “the greatest statesman” in Nicaragua’s history, genuinely concerned with the downtrodden, a nationalist who built roads and schools and “embraced capitalist principles more fully than any other Central American of his era.” Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán of Guatemala may well have plotted the murder of Francisco Arana, his rival for the presidency, but Mr. Kinzer praises him as “an idealistic, reform-minded nationalist,” leading a “regime that embraced fundamental American ideals.” Mr. Kinzer also is enthusiastic about the “passion for social justice” of Omar Torrijos of Panama and proclaims Abdul Haq as Afghanistan’s “greatest hope for peace.”

Despite his tendency toward hyperbole, Mr. Kinzer is right to rail against American-sponsored regime changes. The policy is dangerous, usually ineffective and often illegal; it undermines respect for the United States. As John Kerry suggested, an initiative for regime change ought to be capable of passing “a global test.” And the United States, as Stephen Kinzer recommends, should find ways to support reformers, and to export economic opportunity and prosperity along with democracy. The trouble is, nobody in power seems to be listening.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. Toppling Foreign Leaders: The History of a Bad Habit