Evil Empire of Everything: The Loathsome Practice of Regime Change

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.

A Cursory History of The School of the Americas and their involvement in Latin America. Enhanced Image here. Credit: School of the Americas Watch

Collective Amnesia 

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

Supreme Clientele: Washington’s Cultish Benefactors

The recent demise of the JCPOA has been met with a concentrated but vocal chorus of applause from the deal’s fiercest critics, many of whom now occupy positions in the White House. Among them is the short-lived Ambassador to the United Nations under the Bush Administration, John Bolton, who was recently appointed Trump’s National Security Advisor. Bolton’s history in the State Department is marred with intimidation, manipulation of intelligence, and an overall contempt for the institutions he was chosen to represent. All of these Bolton-esque traits manifested in his pursuit of pushing the United States towards war in Iraq under a false premise and slandering any critics of the Bush-era policy. His rhetoric in the Trump administration has remained unsurprisingly consistent. Bolton’s comments now fan the flames of regime change in Iran, comments which have made him the strange bedfellow of a dissident, Marxist/Islamist faction; the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK). It is worth examining how such a group, seemingly antithetical to the ways of the self-styled “Pro-America” adviser, became pariahs for which Democrats and Republicans praise: how they transtioned from Anti-American terrorists to democratic freedom fighters.

“The Khmer Rouge of Iran”

The Mujahideen e-Khalq have their roots in the early 1960s, as a militant faction in opposition to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, conducting largely violent resistance campaigns. Much of their activity throughout the 1970s involved the bombing of the U.S. embassies and businesses, as well as the assassination of U.S. military and civilian personnel alike. Ultimately they would take part in the 1979 Iranian revolution, having participated in the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and expressed scorn at the “surrender” of the hostages to the United States in the aftermath of the crisis. The MEK’s schism with the newly minted Islamic Republic formed shortly after the revolution, with assassination campaigns and executions being traded between the two factions, finally resulting in the exile of the MEK from Iran and into France.

Their role in the French hostage crisis in Lebanon would prompt a swift exit, before landing at the doorstep of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, embroiled in a conflict with Iran in 1986. They became a de-facto militia to the client state of Iraq, crossing over into Iran towards the end of the war to raze towns and murder civilians. Their complicity with Saddam’s atrocities, coupled with their participation in the brutal repression of the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions of 1991, forever cemented their role as traitors in the eyes of Iranians. Iranian activists say that given the chance, the MEK could become the “Khmer Rouge of Iran”. A string of attacks on Iranian Embassies and the UN consulates in the years that followed earned them a spot on the United States’ Foreign Terrorist list. However, in the midst of the invasion of Iraq, and following the group’s disarmament at Camp Asharaf near Baghdad, they quickly pivoted to distance themselves from Saddam, and re-branded as “In opposition to the Islamic government in Tehran…and long suffering supporters of freedom and democracy”. An extensive PR campaign was underway, as they set out to become the most powerful, and only, Iranian lobby in the United States.

“How cheaply (politicians) value their own integrity to sell out to the MEK cult”

The main driver behind the MEK’s America-loving image is its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) based in France. Their leader, Maryam Rajavi, is the wife of co-leader Massoud Rajavi, who has been missing since the invasion of Iraq and was wanted for crimes against humanity. Many analysts conclude their is little to no degree of separation between the militant MEK and the NCRI, and as such were included together on U.S. and European terrorist watch-lists. Rajavi and her group’s lobbying efforts have been able to bring the topic of Iranian regime change to the forefront like no other, thanks to a determined effort to court western parliamentarians and an aggressive media campaign, according to a State Department report in 2007.

Indeed, the NCRI’s efforts have largely focused on targeting former heavyweights within Washington to speak on the organization’s behalf, extolling the virtues of their charismatic leader, and the sincerity of their mission to bring peace and democracy to a nation ruled by theocratic tyrants. The support is bipartisan, having courted the attention of former civilian and military leaders alike, who until recently were pressuring the State Department from the outside. A 2014 speaking event shows former Vermont Governor Howard Dean supporting the MEK while blasting the Iran Deal. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich scolding President Obama for appeasing Saudi Arabia while in a separate video bowing solemnly for Rajavi at a rally. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has also had his fair share of speaking events, most recently at the MEK-affiliate OIAC several weeks ago, where he thanked President Trump in tacitly supporting the cause of Iranian freedom by pushing to end the JCPOA.

All of these politicians turned lobbyists have two things in common; namely a stunning lack of awareness of the group’s history, and sizable speaking fees to help placate their cognitive dissonance. Many of their supporters openly admit they knew little about the organization prior to being asked to speak on their behalf. The speaking fees are handsome, according to anonymous State Department officials, who stated that appearances at public events and rallies can range up to $100,000. Their campaign seems to have prevailed, as the State Department felt pressured enough to remove them from the terrorist watch-list, primarily on the basis of their status as a threatened group by the recently elected Shiite-majority government in Iraq. But despite this victory, many who have a more familiar knowledge of the group’s past believe this does little to dismiss their scrupulous activities. As one former State Department official lamented ““How cheaply (they) value their own integrity to sell out to MEK cult.”

“A reviled cult group with a direct line to the president.”

The organization’s separation of men and women, the members’ sworn fealty to the co-leaders of the MEK, and Rajavi’s willingness to sacrifice lives in martyr-like operations suggests their core beliefs have hardly changed. A 2009 report delivered by the RAND corporation found that following the alliance between Saddam and the MEK, the group faced a sharp decrease in volunteers. The Rajavi’s thus began “A campaign of disingenuous recruiting”, approaching not only Iranian dissidents, but economic migrants and asylum seekers, promising employment and asylum in exchange for fealty. The report estimates that up to 70% of the group’s members might have been forced to join in these “recruitment traps”.

None of these troubling qualities seem to dissuade American supporters, who are adamant the now-former terrorist faction shares the same values of freedom and human rights as the West. They defer to the oft-used quote “the enemy of the enemy is my friend”. But advocates of regime-change should be wary about the group’s legitimacy beyond its lobbyist circles. Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council points out how little support the MEK have among activists in Iran, noting “Many Iranians are eager for change, but they don’t want to go from the frying pan of an Islamic government to the fire of the MEK”.

To be sure, the fact that the group is so despised within the country could only serve to strengthen the Islamic regime’s rule and jeopardize a legitimate democratic movement in Iran. The lack of historical awareness on the part of these lobbyists, one in particular who is Trump’s National Security Advisor, brings these concerns immediately to the forefront. We cannot afford to support another misguided rebel faction in a foreign intervention. And yet today, we have a reviled cult group with a direct line to the president.


A Bold Slap to the Face of Reality

With a freshly minted Bachelor’s Degree in tow and a tidal wave of new challenges ahead of me, I start this blog an exercise in catharsis. I come into this experiment with an attentiveness for a breadth of policy and cultural phenomena, but also with a respect to historical context, and a diverse set of narratives. My writing won’t take any particular form, but I’ll be sure to have a few reoccurring segments centered around making sense of contemporary issues, busting myths, making a counterpoint to common arguments, and some occasional time travel segments to perhaps understand our modern dilemmas. All of this and more, sprinkling in a helping of hip-hop culture references to cater to my 20-something demographic. Come for the snarky pop culture references, stay for thought provoking writing.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

R. Buckminster Fuller