Veteran New York Times international reporter Stephen Kinzer, author of Overthrow, worries that Americans again harbor good intentions about Iran.
If Stephen Kinzer could, he would stand outside the White House and hand his book to everyone going in. As tensions escalate over Iran's nuclear program, Kinzer, a former bureau chief for the New York Times in Turkey, Germany, and Nicaragua, worries that America's history of devastating foreign interventions is repeating itself.
The United States replaced a functioning democracy in Iran with a dictatorial Shah in 1953, inadvertently creating the conditions that led to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Kinzer said. The anti-Americanism of Iran's religious leaders is coming back to haunt the United States now.
"Had we not carried out that operation in 1953," Kinzer said, "the religious regime in Iran probably would never have come into existence. The nuclear crisis that we're facing right now would never have happened." A U.S. attack on Iran, he said, "is only going to make the most militantly anti-American faction in Iran much stronger."
Kinzer spoke about his new book, Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, at an April 17 event at UCLA sponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations and the Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Overthrow contains fourteen chapters about fourteen instances in which the United States "was the decisive factor in the overthrow of a particular government," starting with the 1893 overthrow of the independent Kingdom of Hawaii and ending with the 2003 uprooting of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
Though he is at times glib ("I had to hurry up and finish [Overthrow] so there wouldn't have to be a 15th chapter—Iran or some other place"), Kinzer is serious about the long-term, unforeseeable consequences of American interventions abroad. He covered Central America through the 1980s for the New York Times and saw the effects of American foreign policies firsthand.
When the United States invaded Cuba in 1898, they had promised to give Cuba independence. Instead, the U.S. government installed a series of puppet dictators; 60 years later, Fidel Castro won his revolution. "We might not have had to face the entire phenomenon of Castro Communism all over the world if we had only kept our promise to Cuba in 1898," said Kinzer.
In 1954, the young Argentinean doctor Che Guevara witnessed the United States overthrow of the Guatemalan government. During the coup, Guevara fled to Mexico where he met Castro, also in exile. The two talked about what happened in Guatemala: Guevara told Castro that democracy as a means to transform a society is too vulnerable to U.S. interventions. Instead, he said, independent newspapers and opposition parties need to be banned for survival. "This is the lesson that we taught rising leaders of the Americas by our interventions there," Kinzer said.
The book continues into the CIA-sponsored coup in Iran and through the most recent interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kinzer sees a remarkable sameness in these operations. Most, he said, began with complaints from American businesses. In Nicaragua in 1909, the president was restricting American mining, banking, and lumber companies. Iran in 1953, then the lead by the "elected democratic parliamentary government of Iran," Kinzer stressed, nationalized its oil resources. Kinzer's last book was All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. The 1973 overthrow in Chile was preceded by its president's effort to nationalize copper companies.
These overthrows are sold to the public, however, as benevolent acts. "They take these complaints and they rephrase them and reshape them so that the threat posed by that foreign country is seen not as economic, as geostrategic and political," Kinzer said. Political leaders then explain to their compassionate constituents that invasions and interventions are meant to help oppressed people and give them democracy "even if they don't realize how much they want it," he said.
The American press portrayed the Cuba's Spanish rulers as "cruelly oppressive." ("Sound familiar?" Kinzer asked in a tongue-in-cheek reference to press coverage of the Iraq war.)
"Americans really are, I think, a very compassionate people," said Kinzer, "and when you combine that with our general ignorance of the world, you can see how successful this argument is."
A streaming video of Kinzer's UCLA talk is available via UCLA Magazine.
Published: Wednesday, May 03, 2006