By Stephen Kinzer's count, the US has toppled foreign governments 14 times in the 110 years between the 1893 coup in Hawaii and the occupation of Iraq, making regime change by force as American as apple pie. But Kinzer says the results are always damaging to the countries involved, and to American security as well.
Kinzer, formerly a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, has written on this subject before, in books on US intervention in Iran and Guatemala. In Overthrow he surveys all 14 cases in an admirably written page-turner.
Although the book does not add to historical knowledge of the individual cases, it may be the first to bring them together in a comparison over time. This makes the narrative more interesting than a single case study, but also more depressing.
In Kinzer's treatment there are no bright spots. In one instance after another, arrogant Americans are shown tossing out legitimate governments and installing corrupt brutes who turn out to cause more problems for foreign policy than did the ousted leaders.
Kinzer's main explanation for these recurrent misadventures is greed. The prime villains are United Fruit, ITT, Aramco, Halliburton and other corporations and plutocrats operating through like-minded officials. He proceeds from the classic theory first advanced by the British economist J.A. Hobson, and most prom-inently in Lenin's Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, that overproduction causes a scramble for new markets and "a policy of forcing foreign nations to buy American products." This may be convincing for the early cases, but Kinzer underestimates the relative force of geopolitical concerns during the Cold War, when, he claims, economic motives played just as strong a role as ever.
Actually Kinzer cannot quite make up his mind. At the beginning he contends that things like spreading democracy, Christianizing heathen nations, "establishing military bases around the world and bringing foreign governments under American control were never ends in themselves" but were "ways for the United States to assure itself access to the markets, resources and investment potential of distant lands." But later he says, "Americans overthrew governments only when economic interests coincided with ideological ones," and details cases in which intervention came not just from greed but from humanitarian hubris as well. At the outset he discounts moralism, but later he credits "the power of the noble idea of American exceptionalism."
The easy answer is that everything mattered, but without clarifying which causes are necessary or sufficient, the story does not tell us which levers we should look to first to change the pattern.
We should not ask good journalism to proceed like social science, but on especially contro-versial cases more fastidious analysis would help. Consider Chile. Kinzer emphasizes that his book covers only cases where the US role was decisive in deposing governments, not those where US agents played "subsidiary roles." On this basis he refuses to count the coup against the right-wing Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, even though the US supplied weapons to plotters at one point, direct action beyond what the US did in 1973 to help bring down the president of Chile, Salvador Allende, which is covered in the book.