Overthrow, Over and Over

BY Laura S. Washington

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Hawaii was the first domino to fall. There have been 13 more and we're still counting: Guatemala, Iran, Chile, Honduras, Grenada, Panama, Iraq ...

The old saw goes, “the trend is your friend.” 

Let’s try that one again.

Stephen Kinzer’s new book, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (Times Books) puts the kibosh on that notion. Kinzer, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, deconstructs America’s disturbingly counterproductive foreign policy through competing critiques of the country’s imperialism and its incompetence. His chronicle of America’s role in interventions into 14 sovereign nations posits failure and avarice as our lasting progeny.

It is a history lesson we can’t afford to forget. 

Surfers, slackers, grass skirts and sunsets–that’s what Hawaii is all about, right? Think again. Think regime change. The 1893 overthrow of Hawaii’s monarch, Queen Liluokalani, launched 110 years of American-led regime changes around the globe. Hawaii’s monarch was overthrown by a group of haole (the Hawaiian term for white Americans). These wealthy sugar planters teamed up with John L. Stevens, the American ambassador to Hawaii. 

The “convenient” presence of the American gunboat Boston and 200 marines in Honolulu Harbor allowed the haole to lay Queen Liluokalani low. Minister Stevens, in classic American diplomatese, offered a “request” to Boston Captain Gilbert Wiltse: “In view of the existing critical circumstances in Honolulu, indicating an inadequate legal force, I request you to land marines and sailors from the ship under your command for the protection of the United States legation and the United States Consulate and to secure the safety of American life and property.”

Hawaii was the first domino to fall. There have been 13 more, and we’re still counting: Cuba, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guatemala, Honduras, Vietnam, Chile, Iran, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq. The circumstances are familiar, the parallels eerie.

Kinzer writes that both George W. Bush, who invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and President William McKinley, who intervened in the Philippines, “were motivated by a deep belief that the Unites States has a sacred mission to spread its form of government to faraway countries. Neither doubted that the people who lived in these countries would welcome America as liberators.” 

Talk to Rummy about it.

In a recent interview, Kinzer noted that Bush’s predilection for a “faith-based” approach has nothing to do with The Lord. Instead, Bush relies on a myopic “faith-based foreign policy based on what ‘we’ believe to be true, not what the facts argue.”

His book also mentions that “four CIA station chiefs in Tehran, Guatemala City, Saigon and Santiago explicitly warned against staging coups” in their respective nations.  

What’s the point of spending billions for intelligence if the top dogs in the administration doggedly ignore it, or worse, send it back for rewrite? The CIA is surely misnamed: It’s really the Compromised Intelligence Agency.

The level of incompetence and venality is mind-boggling. Coups, insurrections, revolts and assassinations–our government has done it all. This trend is indeed not our friend. In fact, as Kinzer notes, America’s century of regime change demonstrates that the United States is singularly unsuited to ruling foreign lands.

Americans lack a fundamental understanding of the string of failures that our country has used to feather our own nest. It’s what Studs Terkel, America’s historian, calls our “National Alzheimer’s Disease.” We have no memory of history or its abiding lessons. What can we learn? What policy can we expect when contestants on American Idol capture more votes than any American presidential candidate in history? We have wrestled with this conundrum for more than a century. We have repeatedly been pinned to the mat.

Our dubious and flawed foreign policy is evident to everyone in the world but us. It’s a FUBU foreign policy: For Us, By Us. Americans are anesthetized by rampant consumerism and ideological nonsense jacked up with a healthy dollop of jingoism.

As a result, the checks and balances provided by an educated electorate have all but disappeared from American governance. The fact that public opinion cannot counter America’s affection for regime change is a fatal flaw.

After Vietnam, our shell-shocked policymakers and military apparatchiks keenly felt the sting of the grassroots protests movements. The protests mitigated the government’s aggression. No one wanted “another Vietnam.” The cost was too high. But shelving the draft, moving toward Rumsfeld’s smaller, deadlier military and fighting a global terrorist threat have ushered in a scary new world.

Here’s hoping Kinzer’s book can reach an ahistorical America and alert us to the perils of our interventionist ways.

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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