September 11th has become a day synonymous with collective anguish and shattered morale. It brought a country to its knees, the blow delivered from the phantom knife of a foreign power. The fatal wound was the last, but not the first strike against this nation. When a popularly elected leader began to assert the sovereignty of their peoples, their right to create a society that fulfilled the Jeffersonian Trinity, forces in the shadows began to conspire against them. Economic bludgeoning, assassinations, and ultimately a coup violently ended 41 years of peaceful democratic rule. As the dictator Augusto Pinochet strode amidst the rubble to rule with an iron fist, he welcomed with open arms the dutiful advice of these foreign whisperers; the architects of political and economic chaos: the United States. On September 11, 1973, Chile would forever change, another pawn in America’s ever-expanding network of regime change.
By Any Means Necessary
This visceral anecdote is a painful demonstration of the cost that the United States has extracted upon the many nations who refuse to acknowledge its preeminence in global affairs. Never mind hostile adversaries to the country; the words of George W. Bush, on the eve of the invasion of Afghanistan, make the US’s position abundantly clear: “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.” No matter the enemy, America’s exceptionalism demands loyalty. These words echo the foundation of regime change, the tactic of reshaping a foreign government to match the preferences of one’s own, which crept out of the shroud of the Cold War. The bipolar world that Harry Truman’s administration had helped shape was further mired by a noxious cloud of anti-Soviet paranoia.
There was no doubt that the Soviet Union in of itself was a repressive regime; not only to its own people but to its many proxies and satellites, which were swiftly toppled and replaced with loyal leadership should they fall out of line. But there is a fundamental misunderstanding that the United States entered the Cold War because of the widespread aggression of their communist adversary. Initially, the reverse was true; The Soviets made clear their willingness to accept governments friendly to western powers until the west began to use its resources to jeopardize the security of these countries. The burden of responsibility falls into the hands of the sole superpower with not only the economic capacity to bend nations to their will, but with the unholy might to turn civilizations into nuclear wastelands. The terms of the Cold War, it is safe to say, were written by the United States, and consecrated into scripture by the Truman Doctrine. According to these texts, It need not be that a country is merely aligned with the Soviet Union to be considered a threat to US National Security. The nationalization of private industries, the empowerment of the disenfranchised, or the commitment to nonalignment were acts of defiance the United States could not tolerate.
In Theory and In Practice
While the desire for hegemonic dominance or the projection of military might motivate the US, there are other strategic reasons states pursue regime change. Lindsey O Rourke’s insights from her book Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War offers a perspective on the considerations made when wishing to mold foreign governments in one’s favor. O’Rourke identifies that 1) The dispute between two countries must be based on irreconcilable, chronic divergences on matters of national security and 2) That the intervening state must have an alternative regime in mind when attempting to overthrow a government. Furthermore, the modes of intervention often diverge between overt and covert action. The nature of covert operations often proved less costly, and should a mission go awry the intervening government could declare plausible deniability. The US was hardly successful in hiding its role in foreign interventions but nevertheless preferred this strategy when pursuing regime change. Beyond O’Rourke’s theory is the implication that the United States resorted to overthrowing democratically elected governments whose interests did not align with the American status quo. As time would demonstrate, this hardly unsettled the dual nature of US foreign policy, espousing freedom while delivering despotism.
This tone is set in the early years of the Cold War, where the phrase “democratically elected, militarily overthrown” becomes the anthem of U.S intervention. To take a few examples:
Iran, 1953: Democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh attempts to reign in British control of Iran’s oil reserves. The British enlisted the help of America’s Central Intelligence Agency, toppling Mossadegh and installing the authoritarian Shah of Iran. He ruled until 1979, when the Iranian revolution saw the overthrow of the Shah and a regime hostile to American interests.
Guatemala, 1954: Democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz, engaging in a land reform program to expropriate (with compensation) unused acres held by the American United Fruit Company to provide new economic opportunities for the country’s impoverished. The CIA removes Árbenz and props up authoritarian leader Carlos Castillo Armas, inciting a generation of repression and violence under Guatemala’s military junta.
Iraq, 1959: Democratically elected Prime Minister Abd Al-Karim Qasim overthrows the monarchy and institutes agrarian land reform, pursues socially liberal policies, and lifts the ban on the Iraqi Communist Party. At the behest of the Egyptian government and Iraq’s Ba’ath party, the CIA sanctions an assassination attempt on Qasim. The attempt fails, but a young Ba’athist named Saddam Hussein garners widespread exposure for the attempt, and he uses his infamy to channel a strongman persona years later as President of Iraq.
Over seventy-two coups were undertaken in all. Whether for the overt purpose of crushing any popularly elected leftist government, or the more covert interests of American business, all become equal under the pretext for foreign intervention. The cruelty of the men who enter that power vacuum need not concern the United States, they assure themselves. The School of the Americas was in fact established to engender this cruelty, training thousands of Latin American military officers in the arts of torture and assassination. The School would become synonymous with paramilitary death squads in the years that followed; with every murder of a Jesuit priest or a political dissident, they would wash their hands of blood and responsibility.
The decades of animosity simmering amidst the Global South; The sustained blowback that has spawned new adversities in place of old ones; Surely this litany of consequences would throw cold water on US decision-makers – does the cost merit the risks they seem so eager to wager? The only reply is the tireless shuffle of faceless suits marching in and out of the rotating doors of the military-industry complex; the seamless transition from bureaucrat to business leader to contractor and back again. There must be a vital recognition that this is not a position reserved for merely one side of the political aisle. To be sure, the administrations of both parties, often with the bipartisan benediction of Congress, prove how regime change is an orthodoxy widely accepted in Washington. Republicans stir up jingoistic and nationalist rhetoric, while Democrats decry the human rights abuses of strongmen with oil reserves. Perhaps the collective apathy of not only our leaders but the broader public is a consequence of a culture that feels less connection to overseas adventures.
Those who would beat the drums of war the loudest often have little to lose should the mission go awry; the careers of men like Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld display an almost callous comfort with sending the sons and daughters of other Americans in harm’s way, but never their own. Beyond the elite circles, however, the apathy towards foreign policy could be a consequence of 1974. Former West Point Major Danny Sjursen opined in an interview that with the dissolution of the compulsory military service, American’s capacity to care about the consequences of disastrous foreign interventions declined. Save for stalwart voices in the halls of Congress, or sporadic conclaves of anti-war dissent, the public’s apathy is counted on by the architects of regime change, as the mechanisms of policy and military operations continue to fall behind a veil of secrecy. So long as transparency and accountability become synonymous with weakness and vulnerability, the engines of national security will be obfuscated.
When any nation goes to an extreme degree to protect itself, it is inevitable that that protection will never be seen, psychologically, to be enough. It is also often true that the image of the enemy will grow proportionate to the size of the defense, resulting in an overreaction and over-expending of energies to liquidate that fear that never seems to erode. Fear, whether fear of weakness or even fear of death, is a cultural nerve that is too raw to touch; Reinforced with weapons of war abroad and barbed wire fences at home, it is a reflection of our inability to engage with the finality of our lives, perhaps to escape the recognition of our fragility; that we are a nation that extols virtues of freedom, liberty, and equality, yet we cannot bear the thought of another nation declaring their own sovereignty. That a nation may challenge, let alone question America’s unique and indispensable status in the world might shatter our image at home and abroad, the architects of war would say. Foreign intervention and the tools used to enact it, however, can only be dismantled from within. We owe it to ourselves and to the victims we have left in our wake that intervention becomes not only a sin of our past but the point from which we start a new chapter. This discussion sparks a wider critique of the formation of foreign policy that merits its own inquiry. Such an endeavor requires a whole of society approach, requiring nothing less than a fundamental restructuring on how we educate the public, how elites consult the opinions of the public in the decision-making process, and ultimately how to hold elites more accountable when decisions prove disastrous. Then and only then will the United States come to terms with the facsimile we have presented to the world: the mask of freedom and democracy, worn only to shield ourselves from the horror we have left in our wake.
Editor’s note: For mobile users, the full infographic on the School of the Americas may not show up. Click here for a high-res version of it.