The punditry is having such a good time blaming Putin for war-like moves against his neighbors, one hesitates to interrupt their fun with a few hard facts. But our desktop warriors seem to be lost in nostalgic amnesia. David Brooks laments that Putin has destroyed the so-called post-Cold War peace. The guy from National Review says Putin has taken the world back to the great power wars of the 19th century. Even President Obama indulged in a bit of self-righteous forgetfulness—he found a way to say something good about our unilateral “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq.
Let’s review the bidding here. No one in the world can match our bloody record for unprovoked assaults on other nations to remove their governments (unless you count Hitler). Sometimes we invaded with armies, sometimes we sent in the CIA to topple governments we didn’t like. Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953; Arbenz in Guatamala in 1954; Allende in Chile in 1973; Hussein in Iraq in 2003.
Stephen Kinzer, former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and author of Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, counted fourteen governments that were brought down by American forces. He did not count a lot of countries like Indonesia, Brazil and Congo where US agents were involved but only played subsidiary roles. Sometimes, they assassinated the leader. Sometimes, they exiled him.
Of all the commentaries I’ve seen, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius was perhaps closest to acknowledging the hypocrisy of Americans who beat up on Putin for doing what American presidents have done repeatedly for years. Putin grabbed Crimea. The US bombed the crap out of Serbia to make Serbians give Kosovo its independence. The Soviets imposed cruel oppression on eastern Europe. Ronald Reagan launched a semi-secret army, the Contras, against the leftwing government of Nicaragua. The US had invaded Nicaragua fifty years earlier and killed their leader Sandino. Washington did not ask for permission. Nobody apologized afterwards. The US claimed this power for reasons not very different from Putin’s.
What’s alarming to me is American hypocrisy and facile forgetfulness. A bipartisan “war party” has dominated the US government since the dawn of the Cold War but its hawks do not seem to understand that things have changed for the US, too. Like Russia, the United States is not as powerful as it used to be. Yet it still has secret agents and soldiers spread around the world in scores of countries, looking for bad guys to take out, ready to start a fight. The amnesia and arrogance are perhaps our gravest danger.