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The American Political Tradition | The Nation

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The American Political Tradition

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Beinart is by no means alone in believing otherwise. Generations of American statesmen have pushed and prodded history this way and that. Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow surveys some of the results of their handiwork.

This essay was originally published on TomDispatch.

About the Author

Andrew J. Bacevich
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the editor of the...

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Unlike Beinart, Kinzer does not buy into the myth of an American Century in which the forces of freedom fought those of totalitarianism. His alternative version of that century, running from the 1890s to the present day, recounts the generally sorry record of US efforts to subvert and overthrow foreign governments that failed to meet with American approval. His new book catalogues fourteen such episodes, beginning with the "revolution" concocted by wealthy American planters in 1893 to depose Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani and culminating with George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq 110 years later.

A longtime foreign correspondent with the New York Times, Kinzer does not provide a lot that's new. Relying on secondary sources, Overthrow recycles and repackages material that will be familiar to the historically literate. But by collecting these stories in a single volume, Kinzer performs a useful service. Overthrow makes it abundantly clear that far from being some innovation devised in the aftermath of 9/11, "regime change" has long been a mainstay of American statecraft.

When targeting some offending potentate for retirement, Kinzer notes, Washington has seldom if ever acted for altruistic reasons. "Every time the United States has set out to overthrow a foreign government, its leaders have insisted that they are acting not to expand American power but to help people who are suffering." In reality, however, the suffering of the oppressed has never figured as more than an afterthought. "What distinguishes Americans from citizens of past empires," writes Kinzer, "is their eagerness to persuade themselves that they are acting out of humanitarian motives." But Kinzer recognizes this as poppycock; like any great power, the United States has set its policy according to self-interest. Whether in Latin America, the Asia-Pacific or the Persian Gulf, the United States has seen regime change as a means for improving economic access, shoring up political stability and enhancing American control.

Kinzer is especially good at tallying up what he calls the "terrible unintended consequences" that frequently ensue when the United States overthrows a government that has fallen out of Washington's favor. Bush's removal of Saddam Hussein is by no means the first such enterprise to produce something other than the tidy outcome envisioned by its architects. A couple of decades of mucking around in Nicaragua yielded the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. US promotion of the 1953 coup to remove Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's nationalist prime minister, fueled anti-American resentment that eventually found expression in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The pursuit of Fidel Castro in 1961 paved the way for the missile crisis a year later. The toppling of South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 gave rise to chaos. And so it has gone.

Most instructive of all, however, are the ironic consequences stemming from America's success in ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan. In retrospect, the results of regime change there serve as a sort of cosmic affirmation of Niebuhr's entire worldview. Of Afghanistan in the years following the Soviet withdrawal, truly it can be said, as Niebuhr wrote, "The paths of progress...proved to be more devious and unpredictable than the putative managers of history could understand."

Those, like Peter Beinart, who are gung-ho to wage their war against jihadist terror dare not contemplate present-day Afghanistan too deeply. Their depiction of the war as a contest that pits freedom against totalitarianism becomes plausible only if they ignore the actual history giving rise to the conflict. Much of that history occurred in the period enshrined as the American Century, but precious little of it had anything to do with promoting freedom. As experienced by Muslims, the American Century was marked by imperialism and intervention, manipulation and betrayal, Israel and oil. It goes without saying that in Beinart's account none of these matters qualify as relevant.

The Good Fight began life as an essay that appeared in The New Republic when Beinart edited that magazine. According to press reports, he received a handsome $600,000 advance to expand his essay into a book. The result can only be called a major disappointment: The Good Fight is insipid, pretentious and poorly written. At points it verges on incoherence. As history, it is meretricious. As policy prescription, it is wrongheaded. Beinart has perpetrated his fraud twice over.

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