Monday, March 23, 2009

Thoughts on Reading "Overthrow"

I have been reading Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq by Stephen Kinzer. Kinzer writes and interesting story, and in this book he makes a good case that American governments over a period of more than a century have sought to overthrow foreign governments repeatedly and often successfully. He suggests that the results were often much worse than the instigating government officials perceived as a result of the unwillingness of the government to follow through with nation building support for the long periods such efforts require.

Because he has chosen to deal with many case studies in a short book, each is perhaps too brief to fully deal with the complexity involved.

I lived in Chile in the mid 1960s and am perhaps better able to evaluate Kinzer's treatment of the overthrow of Salvador Allende, that was completed in 1973. Kinzer describes overt and covert measures by the U.S. government to undermine the Allende regime, and rightly points out that some of these measures, such as limiting foreign assistance to Chile, were quite within the rights of the United States. Some of the covert efforts, when they were revealed, were widely condemned in the United States as well as abroad.

In my opinion, Kinzer ascribes too much influence to the American efforts and not enough to the Chilean. By 1967 a lot of people I knew predicted that Allende would win the 1970 election and that the military would overthrow the elected government. The rich and powerful in Chile, who were mostly against the leftest government were quite capable of raising public sentiment against Allende, and when the right wing of the military gained control there was little that the civilians could do to resist a military coup. Kinzer does say that the impact of the American actions may have been to change the timing and form of these coups, and I would accept the possibility/probability that the coup in Chile took place earlier and with a more right wing tinge than might have occurred without the U.S. interventions.

I would suggest that the leftest groups in Chile were more revolution and more subversive than Kinzer seems to indicate. I assume that the Chilians were quite capable of anti-American actions without much support from Russia or China, and that some factions of the Chilian left might well have had revolutionary intent. Chile might well have been on a course toward major troubles no matter what the United States did.

The book is very effective in painting senior officials in the United States foreign policy apparatus as elitists with very little understanding of the common man in foreign societies, and as very easily affected by biased inputs from foreign elites. Secretaries of State seem overly willing to ignore the advice of CIA and State Department staffers who have lived in and studied foreign societies for decades.

Kinzer writes that Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the president of Guatemala overthrown in 1954 was a nationalist rather than a Communist as perceived by the Dulles family and the Eisenhower administration. I think of "nationalism" as an ideology that seeks to allow nations to be self governing -- to align the boundaries of the state with the distribution of an ethnic group, creating nation-states. Guatemala is a multiethnic society which in the 1950s still had a strong colonial heritage of European and mestizo domination of indiginous peoples. I think of Arbenz as anti-imperialist and socially progressive politician. Still, my experience of Latin American leftists suggests that they are not likely to be willing to subordinate their own interests to those of distant powers.

It seems to me that there is a widely shared "leftest" ideology in Latin America that emphasizes social justice and national independence and opposes foreign multinational enterprises as neo-imperial. In that climate, many actors in many countries may independently choose anti-American positions and act against the rightist powers in their own countries. This did not necessarily imply an effective international Communist conspiracy. It also did not necessarily require U.S. government support of right wing regimes, no matter how coercive or venial.

I hope the government is not making the same error with respect to the Islamic peoples. It seems to me quite possible that there is a wide spread set of cultural attitudes that result in many individuals embarking on anti-American activities, without the need for a central terrorist network to plan and organize the efforts.

It seems to me that the way to deal with wide spread cultural attitudes is through both to recognize the justice in the complaints and reform, as well as to educate people as to the real situation. I hope that American policy makers share that approach.

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