Patterns of Regime Change Operations by the U.S.- How It Has Remained Constant in the Past Century

For political science class, as a response to:

Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow. New York: Times Books, 2007.

Patterns of Regime Change Operations by the United States-

How It Has Remained Constant in the Past Century

Kinzer provides readers with a historical overview of how the American foreign policy has been characterized by military overthrows, especially in the developing world over the past century. Kinzer adopts a critical tone as he goes from discussing the United State’s conquer of Hawaii in 1898 to present day situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. He tries to answer why the pattern of “regime changes” as performed by the U.S. has continued since its came to power. Kinzer states that the periodical overthrows of governments by the North, or the United States has been both a benefit and an impediment for the places trying to develop in the world. Having been a world power since the end of the 19th century, using its power for “regime changes” are not radical acts but rather in accordance with our “long established law of history” (Kinzer, 319). Overthrow is an excellent representative of North-South relations, with the U.S. representing the North- a true fact given our reality today. After all, no other nation has arranged to depose foreign leaders as much as the U.S., for example (Kinzer, 2). Kinzer narrows down the motives of America’s obsession with “regime change” to three reasons- to increase their power, to impose their ideology, and to gain control of resources. In this paper, I will use Iraq as an example to show how these three reasons apply, and in turn how Iraq is not unique-these motives have remained the same in the past one hundred years with the North’s interaction with the South.

The motive of increasing power has definitely played a role in the war that began in 2003 with Iraq under President Bush. His cabinet, comprised of many members that were also in his father’s team saw Iraq as an unfinished business (Kinzer, 286).  Kinzer explains that the administration sought a place in the Middle East to project their power because of their concern for Saudi Arabia’s (the current regional proxy) future stability. Many, especially Rumsfeld felt that a pro-American Iraq would be the ideal replacement. Bush predicted a swift, overwhelming victory, which in turn would then serve as a “powerful warning” to any “real of potential” threat (Kinzer, 293). Iraq would thus be a venue for the U.S. to show its power and how strong it had become to the world.

This showing of power using military might is of course nothing new, according to Kinzer’s observation of history. Kinzer expresses how the U.S. rose to prominence in the international playing field faster than any other empires, thus leading it to be filled with the “exhuberance and self confidence of youth” and a feeling of “unlimited possibility” (Kinzer, 321).  For example, in 1984, Commodore M. Perry used military power in Japan and coerced the signing of a treaty to open up their ports to American traders (Kinzer, 81). Another example is Reagan and his actions with Grenada in which a quick invasion took place with six thousand soldiers- more than double of what was necessary. The action was strongly opposed by many leaders, with one hundred UN members agreeing that it was a “flagrant violation of international law” (Kinzer, 238). However, Reagan brushed aside these criticisms, instead claiming that it was a victory: “our days of weakness are over! Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall” (Kinzer, 238). Clearly, the motive of showing off power is nothing unique but rather an expectation from American invasions into the developing world.

Gaining control of resources is another motive that has reappeared over and over again in American foreign policy history. In discussing Iraq, Kinzer implies that the issue of oil was indeed involved as an intention, though continuously denied by the administration (and one which remains controversial). Kinzer points that the U.S. has been, and will continue to be the largest consumer of energy in the world, and given that Bush came from a background of oil barons in Houston, the connection should not be surprising (Kinzer, 291). Having 10% of the world’s oil, Bush was convinced that the control of their oil sources in Iraq would guarantee a steady flow into the U.S., and thereby ensuring American security (Kinzer, 291). In addition, Kinzer argues that the war also helped many of America’s large corporations. Companies that make weapons such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, etc. also benefited greatly from the new demands; these companies also happened to be large contributors to Bush’s campaign and the Republican Party. It seemed that with the war in Iraq, national and corporate interests matched conveniently (Kinzer, 292).

Defending corporate power has become an expectation since the beginning of the 20th century. The “regime change” attempt was observed at the beginning of 20th century in Hondurus when the government was deposed in order to give American banana companies the freedom to make profits. In 1954, John Foster Dulles ordered a coup in Guatemala in reaction to the nationalist party preventing United Fruit from exercising their power. United Fruit happened to also be an old client of the law firm Dulles represented. Because these multinational companies, whether Halliburton or United Fruit are large and wealthy, they also gain politic al influence. They identify with the public by saying that they hold ideals of free enterprise, hard work, and individuality (Kinzer, 3). Kinzer argues that these corporations became the “vanguard” of American power; they became the policy makers (Kinzer, 4). Given the pattern of the U.S. to walk away when personal interests are no longer fulfilled, Kinzer attributes much of the poverty and lack of development in Central America, such as in Honduras in part to the U.S. today.

The final motivation factor used by U.S. governments in defending their “regime change” projects is rooted in ideology. We can see how the ideological belief system of the U.S. follows logically of most countries defined as the “North”- Western, modern, usually capitalist societies placing some kind of importance on individuality and rights. As for Iraq, when it was proven that no weapons of mass destruction actually existed in the country, Bush and his administration turned to say that in actuality, they also had a “deep desire to spread liberty around the world” (Kinzer,, 293). Forty three days after the war began, Bush declared the war as “a noble cause” and “a great moral advance” (Kinzer, 298). This argument became the only real justification Bush could use with least amount of criticism, especially since he knew very little about the regional culture and history. He genuinely believed that the Western form of democracy is the best and ideal for every society, and he had a duty to spread it.

Dulles did a similar change in justification as Bush with Iraq with the handling of Guatemala. After admitting that that there were no hard evidences that the Kremlin was manipulating Guatemala’s government, Dulles defended himself by claiming that the U.S. had to act anyway because of their “deep conviction” (Kinzer, 295). These justifications have been used throughout history because they are also easily taken by the public as a good thing. President McKinley used the same reasoning for going into war with Cuba, as the “oppression at our very doors” had to be stopped (Kinzer, 83). President Taft similarly tried to convince the public that deposing the Nicaraguan government was necessary to promote “real patriotism” – the real motivation rather than in expanding American power (Kinzer, 84). These are just some of many examples Kinzer employs to show how the North have relied on imposing their ideologies for military use in the South, often ignoring histories and cultural differences.

The United States is an ideal example of North-South relations, since the U.S. is the North today. Like other nations in the North of the past, the U.S. believes that it is uniquely “endowed with virtue”, and are the only ones in modern history convinced that by bringing their political and economic system to others, they are “doing God’s work” (Kinzer, 315). These are similar sentiments of past empires, especially with European colonialists in which their way of life was placed in a higher value than the civilizations they invaded. Americans, led by their ambitious presidents have learned to embrace this self-righteous belief because it reinforces this notion that they are indeed great people meant to civilize others. The ideological motive denies that cultures shape societies and that changing national identities take time and even the most powerful cannot do that. Still, carrying this ideology and imposition of it has continued whether in Cuba, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. The lack of change in these ideological trends has only made the conviction deeper among Americans, and today, Kinzer argues that Americans feel it has become an obligation for the great power. Kinzer brings into attention how so much of what the North does is out of the control of the South, often these influences being inevitable.

Kinzer may use a critical tone and unsympathetic diction, but I believe that he brings into focus something very important in contemporary American foreign policy. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was no break with history but a faithful reflection of the same forces and beliefs that has motivated previous presidents. Presidents like Dulles, McKinley, and Reagan to name a few sought economic and political advantages while carrying a strong belief that the U.S. has a mission to spread its ideologies. The current war in Iraq is a culmination of trends in the American history that is typical of North-South relations.  They were looking for a proxy in the Middle East to assert their power, drawing them to Iraq regardless of how much the Iraqi society differed or what they wanted.  In Iraq, while a pro-American government was sought after, it did not work. Ayad Allawi, a pro-American politician was chosen to lead Iraq, but he lost the elections in 2005 to Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, from the Shiite community who wanted to build closer relations to Iran (Kinzer, 313). The result symbolized the inherent contradiction in American plan for Iraq. Kinzer asserts that many Americans believe the country has “passed beyond reach of history” (Kinzer, 319). I believe that this is true, especially since very little change is seen when its foreign policy is analyzed as Kinzer has. Overthrow tells us that foreign policy must be made carefully, taking both history and present day situations into equal considerations, as patters do not just fade away. Kinzer’s honest tone in deciphering why today’s North is the way it is with the South is telling, and has much implications for how we can and cannot change these patters.

(Originally written: December 3, 2009)