Regime Change: Promise and Peril

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This article
is a transcript of Stephen Kinzer’s speech given on June
6, 2008, at The Future of Freedom Foundation’s conference
Restoring the Republic
2008: Foreign Policy and Civil Liberties
.”

Thomas Jefferson
is the author of the phrase that I take as my guiding principle,
and it’s the principle that has pushed me through all the
books I’ve written. I actually had this up on my wall 20
years ago when I was a correspondent in Nicaragua, and I’ve
followed it ever since. It’s a line from the Declaration
of Independence and it reflects my view. I don’t consider
myself a polemicist or an ideologue or a Bush basher, but I am
reality-based. I’m fact-based. I like to deal with what’s
real, not with visionary fantasies of utopia, and in the Declaration
of Independence it says, “Let facts be submitted to a candid
world.” That is all we are trying to do.

This is not
a radical departure, the foreign policy that we are trying to
promote. What we are trying to promote is actually the foreign
policy that George Bush promised us in his first debate. If we’re
strong but humble they’ll respect us. That’s true, but
what happened to that? It’s the political process that Ron
Paul talked about that sucks people into this Republican-Democratic
combine, and that is the real difference on Capitol Hill. It’s
those in the large majority who are part of this Republican-Democratic
group, and then there are the few outsiders. That’s the real
division, and I think the challenge for us is to make sure that
those few outsiders don’t remain a few.

We need to
keep building up that group, and one of the ways I think we can
do that is to show America that we now have an example going on
every day in the Middle East of what our interventionist foreign
policy brings. You don’t have to look in the history books
anymore. You don’t even have to buy my books anymore. You
can read it every day in the newspaper, and the tragic toll of
this war is just the latest in a long series of episodes that
have put us into a position so different from the America that
our Founding Fathers imagined. When John Winthrop wrote, “We
shall be as a city upon a hill and the eyes of all people are
upon us,” what he meant, as he explained in his other writings,
was, We’re going to create a great system and a great country
here. And then if other countries like some things that we’re
doing they can copy us.

That was
what he meant, but at some point, somewhere in the nineteenth
century, we abandoned that position and we decided that we’re
not just going to set an example. We’re going to go out in
the world and make everyone be like us. We decided that we’d
found the magic key to prosperity and democracy and we were going
to share that with everyone else. And not coincidentally, that
kind of democracy that we envisioned meant the access of American
corporations to the resources of the whole world on the terms
that we decided were just for us. And a policy that used to be
called the Open Door Policy, which I like to call the Kick in
the Door Policy, was forcing ourselves on every country.

Now we’ve
gone so far, to the point where in our last quadrennial defense
review we have declared as the official policy of the United States
that we are not going to tolerate even the beginnings of the rise
of any country that could one day become a “peer” power,
they call it. In other words, what we’ve told the world is
we’ve decided that no other countries are allowed to try
to increase their power.

Now if all
the leaders of all the countries in the world read that and say,
“Oh, I guess America doesn’t want us to increase our
power so we’ll do it; we’ll just do what they say,”
that would be wonderful. This is an example of the magic-wand
theory of government, I like to call it, but that can’t happen.
In fact, countries logically want to increase their power, and
that means they’re automatically going to come in conflict
with the United States. This doctrine is a recipe for constant
conflict, constant war, constant intervention.

And a couple
of weeks ago in Chicago I had a debate with a prominent neoconservative
columnist and theorist who was a great promoter of the Iraq war
and now wants to bomb Iran yesterday. During my opening statement,
I thoughtlessly used a phrase that really got him going. I said,
“The policy you guys are trying to follow is really the modern
version of Trotskyism. It’s constant revolution.” And
he took great umbrage at this. I hadn’t really thought it
through, but actually a lot of these neocons are ex-Trotskyites
from their college days, so he got very nervous about that. So
I said to him, “Okay, okay, excuse me please. I didn’t
mean to insult you. If you don’t consider yourself a Trotskyite,
what do you consider yourself? What historical tradition would
you place yourself in?” And he said, “Well, how about
a Wilsonian?” And I want to ask, “What’s the difference?”

Now as you
heard earlier, I’ve written a series of books about the history
of American intervention. I wrote a book about how the U.S. overthrew
the government of Guatemala in the ’50s, and another book
about how the U.S. overthrew the government of Iran. I’ve
also written a book about Nicaragua that talks a lot about American
intervention there. After each of those books, I’ve really
felt satisfied that I had told the whole truth. People didn’t
know what had really happened in Guatemala, but I went out there
and I ripped the veil of lies off and I told the whole truth and
showed everyone what really happened; and I felt very satisfied
with myself, but that emotion never lasts long.

After a while
I began to realize that I really hadn’t told the whole story.
There was one thing that was missing. I came to realize that if
you want to understand American intervention abroad and all of
these coups and overthrows and interventions that we’ve carried
out, you cannot consider them as a series of distinct, unrelated
episodes. You have to look at them as a continuum that stretches
out over more than a hundred years, and that’s what I did
in my Overthrow book. During that process, writing that book,
I began to see that there are certain patterns that reemerge over
and over again.

The process
of intervention

They have
to do with, for example, why we do it. Why do we do it? Well,
usually there is a three-part process. The first part is that
some big corporation finds that the government in a country where
it’s operating is giving it problems. The government of Country
X is giving our big corporation problems – they’re taxing
us, they’re restricting us, they’re nationalizing us,
they’re forcing us to obey labor laws – and then the
head of that corporation will go to Washington and complain. That’s
phase one.

Then while
the intervention planning is working its way through the foreign-policy
process, the motivation suddenly changes; it morphs. We decide
that we’re actually intervening not for economic reasons,
even though those are the only reasons why we’re ever even
talking about this country, but we’re doing it for political
or geostrategic reasons. We’re doing it because the government
of Country X is a threat. Now how do we know it’s a threat?
For one reason, because it’s bothering this big American
corporation. What more proof do you want? That means it’s
got to be anti-American, anti-capitalist, probably a tool of all
of our enemies. But these countries in most cases are only trying
to build the capitalist economies that they admire so much from
us. What we want is to have a free capitalist system here but
not allow anyone else in other countries to develop that. So there
is the second phase, where the motivation morphs suddenly from
an explicitly economic one to a so-called political one.

And then
there is a third phase that happens after the intervention when
it’s time for our leaders to explain to us and to the world
why we did it. And then you usually get a third reason that didn’t
even come up during the planning and execution of the operation,
and that is we only did it to help them. Not only did we not seek
anything for ourselves, but we actually sacrificed ourselves in
order to bring something good to other people.

I think that
the American people are slowly, perhaps because of the events
of the last few years, beginning to cast some doubt on this, and
we’re beginning to see the real reasons for these, the real
motivations, the fact that these interventions only serve a tiny
piece of the American public. They don’t serve the interests
of America. They serve the interests of a small clique of people
who are making huge amounts of money from the outside world and
see that the American military is prepared to serve as their private
enforcing police force. That is the deal that has been made over
generations between the private and public sector in Washington.

Now as we
look around the world and see the forces that have shaped American
interventionism and American foreign policy over the last half-century,
I see three countries that have turned into obsessions for us.
These obsessions have completely distorted our foreign policy
and deeply shaped the errors that we’ve continued to make.
They have totally shaken our psyche. The first of course is Cuba.
It’s kind of a laugh to look back now and see how pathetically
meaningless Cuba is, but there was a time when we were told Cuba
was this huge threat and Cuba was undermining American power all
over the world. Cuba was inspiring the leftist revolutionaries
all over Latin America; Castro communism was a great anti-American
force in the world. So Cuba was one country that America became
obsessed with and that caused America great damage.

The Vietnam
intervention

Second, the
huge overhang of the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War’s impact
on American life cannot be overstated. Most of us are old enough
to remember what a huge trauma that was for the United States,
and it set in motion forces that are still shaping us today. The
so-called Vietnam syndrome is very much a part of the American
political psyche. What it means is we got beaten by a bunch of
peasants wearing B.F. Goodrich sandals and we have to show the
world that that can never happen again, so we’re going to
go out and fight more wars and win more wars. That Vietnam overhang
has pushed us into one intervention after another.

The third
is our current obsession, and that is Iran. We are now using Iran
as the great demon of the world and the next place where we can
demonstrate how much money we can spend on bombs and planes to
destroy a country, and then how much more money we can give to
Halliburton to rebuild all the stuff we just destroyed.

Now what
do these three countries have in common: Cuba, Vietnam, Iran?
They were all decisively set on the course that they went off
on by American intervention. All the trouble that we suffered
at the hands of those three countries is the result of our own
intervention in their internal affairs. In 1954, the governments
of Indochina and the governments of Britain, China, and the United
States met at the Geneva Conference to decide what to do about
Vietnam. An agreement was reached under which Vietnam would be
divided for two years between 1954 and 1956, and at the end of
1956 there would be an election in the whole country; the winner
of that election would then take over as the leader of a united
Vietnam.

Just before
that election was to be held, President Eisenhower made a statement
in which he said that probably 80 percent of the people of Vietnam
would vote for Ho Chi Minh as their president. That was the beginning
of our decision to abandon and override the Geneva Accords. We
decided to ignore that, and that was the beginning of our involvement
in Vietnam. There was a treaty that was going to produce a calm,
peaceful result, but we decided not to obey that because we thought
we could get a better result. Let’s have America go in. We’ll
fix everything.

Now why did
we decide we couldn’t tolerate Ho Chi Minh as president of
the united Vietnam? It’s because we thought if we allow this
election to go forward you’re going to have a united Vietnam
under a communist leadership. Instead of accepting that, we went
to war, we lost 58,000 American lives, something like a million
Vietnamese were killed, a country was ravaged, and our country
was psychologically disoriented forever. And what was the end
result? A united Vietnam under a communist leadership, the same
result that we could have had in 1956 without any bloodshed.

And the saddest
or most pathetic aspect of this is that having a united communist
Vietnam actually isn’t so bad for us. We’re getting
along with them. Now, we don’t particularly like them, but
we’re trading with them; we have an embassy. It’s not
so bad. The world didn’t end, but we had a sense that communist
rule over this one country was going to be devastating for us.
And I remember – I’m old enough to remember, as most
of you are – the reason why we were told we had to stay in
Vietnam, and that’s because it’s not just about Vietnam.
China is behind all this. China’s the big expansionist power,
and Vietnam is just their little cat’s paw.

Like most
other Americans, I didn’t know anything about East Asia and
that sounded like a reasonable theory. I still remember my shock
when just two years after the end of the Vietnam War, China and
Vietnam went to war. I thought, wait a minute; I thought they
were – one was the cat’s paw of the other. Then I started
reading and found out they’d been bitter enemies for a thousand
years, but facts were never presented to a candid public because
our leaders were not candid with us.

Let’s
look at the case of Cuba. It’s another case of American intervention
gone terribly wrong. When the United States decided in 1898 to
send soldiers to Cuba to help Cuban revolutionaries overthrow
Spanish colonial rule, the Cuban patriots were not so sure they
really liked this idea. They didn’t know if they wanted some
thousands of American soldiers in Cuba, and they were very close
to victory on their own. The Americans were shocked at the cynicism
of the Cuban patriots and responded by passing a law that was
called the Teller Amendment. So with the force of law we promised
Cuba that our troops were going to withdraw immediately after
we defeated the Spanish and we were going to allow Cuba to become
independent.

Once that
was promised with the force of law, the Cuban revolutionaries
embraced the idea of Americans’ coming. At the end of 1898,
Cuba, after winning the war against Spain, was in a state of ecstatic
preparation for what was going to be the biggest day in Cuban
history, January 1, 1899. That’s Cuban Independence Day.
For the first time Cuba was going to become an independent country,
but the United States changed its mind. We violated the promise
that we had made with the force of law and decided no, we didn’t
want Cuba to become independent. In fact, we were going to turn
it into a protectorate and we were going to rule it directly by
American military officers, and later on we ruled it through a
series of pliant dictators. Why did we do that? It’s because
after the Spanish were chased out of Cuba and the Cuban revolutionaries
were planning their new government, for the first time we looked
at their political program, and we found out that throwing the
Spaniards out of Cuba was not all they wanted to do. They actually
wanted to do something for their country, and what did they want
to do? The first thing they wanted to do was give land to starving
peasants. Where was the land? It was all owned by half a dozen
American sugar companies.

And then
the other thing we noticed was Cuba wanted to build up a manufacturing
industry, and the way they wanted to do that was the way we had
done it: erect a tariff wall so that they couldn’t be flooded
by goods from other countries and they could stimulate domestic
manufacturing. Well, 90 percent of all the manufactured goods
that were on sale in Cuba at that time came from the United States,
so suddenly we saw, wait a minute, this revolutionary government
was not going to be good for our corporations in the U.S., so
we decided to abandon our promise to Cuba.

Now fast-forward
to 1959, 60 years later. That was the year, of course, that Fidel
Castro came to power. During the time I was researching my book
Overthrow, I went back and researched that period, and I found
a very interesting document. It was Castro’s first speech
as a leader of the victorious revolution in January 1959. He made
it out in Santiago, the eastern city in Cuba where his troops
first arrived from the hills, and it was a very vague speech full
of kind of patriotic platitudes, but Castro made one promise.
He said, “I promise you that this time it’s not going
to be like 1898 again, when the Americans came in and took over
our country.”

That speech
wasn’t very widely reported in the United States, but if
it had been I think Americans would have had two responses. The
first would have been: What happened in 1898? We forget these
interventions, and we like to believe that the people in the countries
where we intervene are going to forget them also, but these interventions
have long-term effects. And the fact is that if we had kept our
word to Cuba and not insisted on dominating Cuba for half a century,
we would never have had to face the entire phenomenon of Castro
communism and all the negative effects that had for America over
so many decades. That is another blowback effect of our own intervention.
We had created that phenomenon. It’s just that it was a delayed
response, so we don’t automatically make the connection.

British
intervention in Iran

I want to
take a little more time to talk about Iran because that is such
a very intense debate now in the United States. It’s intruding
even a little bit into the presidential campaign. Just a bit.
Here is perhaps the single greatest pattern that I notice after
studying so many of these interventions. It is the inevitability
of unpredicted consequences. We Americans have what some people
call this “can-do” mentality, this great optimism, and
it’s a wonderful quality. It’s what helped build America
into what it is now. It can be very helpful when you’re trying
to confront obstacles that are posed by nature or by other people
or by technology; but a can-do mentality can also be dangerous
because it leads us to think that we can do anything. I think
that was the idea that brought us into Iraq. Don’t worry.
There won’t be any problems afterwards because we’re
America. We’re going to be able to deal with whatever comes
up.

This is a
very dangerous approach to the world, and in Iran you see very
vividly this law of unintended consequences coming back to haunt
us, and we see that you cannot control the consequences of intervention.
They ultimately wind up hurting not only the country where we
intervene, but also us. So let me talk a little bit about what
happened in Iran and how we got to the position we’re in
now.

For the whole
first half of the 20th century, the dominant fact of life in Iran
was foreign intervention, principally by Britain and Russia, to
a lesser extent by France and some other European powers, and
bitter resentment grew up in Iran against these intervening powers.
Now during that period, the first half of the 20th century, the
only Americans in Iran were missionaries and others who came to
help, people who built hospitals, and the American hospital in
Tehran was the only place for decades where a poor person could
get good medical care for free. There were educators. The statue
of Samuel Jordan, the founder of Alborz College, which trained
generations of the Iranian elite, is still a place that people
in Iran go on pilgrimages to. They still remember the great American
schoolteacher who was killed during the constitutional revolution
in 1906. He was called the American Lafayette.

So America
was seen in Iran as the great country, the perfect country, the
idealized country. We were not intervening and trying to suck
their resources out like the British and the French and the Russians.
America was idealized even beyond perhaps what we deserved at
that time, so America really was in the ideal position because
we were only helping, and that help was coming from private initiative.
It was not a government-to-government relationship at all.

After World
War II the winds of nationalism were blowing through Asia and
Africa, Latin America, and in Iran nationalism meant one thing:
“We’ve got to take back control of our oil.” At
the beginning of the 20th century, through a corrupt deal with
the declining Kajar dynasty, the British grabbed control of the
entire Iranian oil industry, and even Winston Churchill, who was
then first lord of the admiralty, said very accurately that this
was a prize from fairyland beyond the UK’s wildest dreams.
“Mastery itself is the prize of the venture,” is what
he said. So all during the first half of the 20th century the
whole British economy was fueled by oil from Iran. Every factory
in Britain was powered by oil from Iran. Every car and every jeep
was powered by Iranian oil. The Royal Navy, which projected British
power all over the world, was fueled by oil from Iran. Britain
has no oil and has no colonies that have oil. Everything was coming
from Iran. By the period leading up to World War II, 90 percent
of the oil being sold in Europe was coming from Iran, and all
the profits were going to this one British company.

So you had
this situation where a poor country whose miserable people were
living in some of the worst conditions of any people in the world
had an enormously valuable resource which was going to prop up
the economy of a European country. So it was natural that when
Iran emerged from World War II and became a real functioning democracy,
the leaders of Iran would reflect this great public clamor. “We’ve
got to take back control of our oil so we can use the profits
to develop our own country.”

Well, naturally
the British were in a panic when they heard this, and of course
they didn’t believe it. One of their first orders was to
ask their ambassador in Britain to approach Prime Minister Mossadegh
or one of his aides and find out how much money did he really
want them to put in his Swiss bank account so he could forget
all this foolishness. But it turned out it wasn’t just Mossadegh;
it was the entire Iranian people. It wouldn’t have worked
even if you could have bribed the prime minister because the entire
people of Iran had grasped onto this cause. The British tried
everything. They blockaded the port where the oil was exported
from. They forced all their experts who could run the refinery
to go back to Britain, and of course they had been very careful
not to train any Iranians in how to run that refinery. They prevented
agricultural and manufactured goods from getting into Iran. They
took Iran to the United Nations. They took Iran to the World Court.
None of this worked, so the British finally decided, “We’re
going to have to overthrow the government of Iran; we’re
going to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh.” They began
to plan this, but Mossadegh found out what they were doing and
he did the only thing that he could have done to protect himself,
which was, he closed the British embassy and he sent home all
of the British diplomats, including, of course, all of the secret
agents who were planning the coup.

Regime
change in Iran

So now the
British were really in a panic. They were losing their most valuable,
richest, most lucrative property anywhere in the world to whom?
Iranians? It was a huge shock. And then what happened was Prime
Minister Churchill decided the only hope for them was to turn
to the Americans and see if they could get the Americans to do
this for them. So he approached President Truman and Truman said,
“No. The CIA does not overthrow governments.” And that
was true at the time, and the CIA had never overthrown a government
up to that time. It was Truman’s idea that it could be used
for intelligence gathering but not for that kind of operation.

In fact,
while I was researching this book in the Truman Library in Missouri,
I found a fantastic phrase in one of Truman’s letters when
he was writing about the CIA. He was very worried about giving
too much power to the CIA, and here’s the phrase that he
used to describe what he was afraid that the CIA might become.
He said, “American Gestapo.” So Truman was very unwilling
to use the CIA this way.

Now the British
were really in trouble. They had nothing. But then at the end
of 1952 the British foreign office and the secret service were
electrified by the news that there had been an election in the
United States and a new group was coming into power. The new president
would be Dwight Eisenhower, and the new secretary of State would
be John Foster Dulles, who had spent his entire life as the number-one
international corporate lawyer for big American companies. The
roster of the clients that John Foster Dulles served is essentially
just a list of all the giant multinational corporations of that
era. So the idea that a country somewhere out there in the world
was bothering a big, giant multinational corporation or a big
British or American corporation was something that Dulles took
very seriously. He didn’t want that example to spread.

So finally
the Americans decided, “We will do this.” They –
President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles – reversed the
Truman policy and they told the British, “Okay. We’re
going to do it for you. We’re going to go over to Iran and
we’re going to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh.”
And in the beginning of August 1953 a very intrepid CIA agent
crossed over into Iran with the assignment: Organize the overthrow
of the government. And it’s one of those wonderful quirks
of history that the agent who was sent to Iran was Kermit Roosevelt,
the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, who had brought America into
the regime-change era back in the time of the Spanish-American
War.

It only took
Kermit Roosevelt three weeks to organize the overthrow of the
democratic government of Iran. It didn’t just mean the end
of Prime Minister Mossadegh’s rule. It meant the end of democracy
in Iran, and I think many people today don’t even understand
that Iran ever was a democracy. But in fact this is a country
that’s had a constitution for more than a hundred years,
and in the early ’50s it really was consolidating its democracy.
If we had managed to keep our hands off Iran, we might have had
a thriving democracy in the heart of the Muslim Middle East all
these 50 years, and I can hardly wrap my mind around how different
the world would look if we had only managed to keep our hands
off.

I
talked about unintended consequences. In the period immediately
following the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh (see
Freedom Daily, January 2009), Americans were very happy. Kermit
Roosevelt was welcomed into the Oval Office of the White House
and given a secret medal in a private ceremony, and he briefed
President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles on how it had been
done. Oh, it was so successful Dulles immediately went out and
started doing this again. Within a year, we went off and overthrew
another government down in Guatemala, so the Iran operation seemed
like a great success. We got rid of a guy we didn’t like,
Mossadegh, and we replaced him with a guy, the shah, who would
do everything we wanted, so it was a perfect outcome.

It doesn’t
look quite so perfect now. Let’s try to trace very briefly
what happened. The shah ruled with increasing repression for 25
years. His repression produced the explosion of the late 1970s,
what we call the Islamic Revolution. That revolution brought to
power a clique of fanatically anti-American mullahs who have spent
the last 25 years bitterly and sometimes very violently working
to undermine the American influence all over the world. That revolution
in Iran also weakened Iran enough so that Iran’s biggest
enemy next door, Saddam Hussein, decided to invade Iran. We were
so angry at Iran that we became military allies of Saddam Hussein.
President Reagan sent a high-level special envoy to meet twice
with Saddam Hussein, and of course that envoy was none other than
Donald Rumsfeld. I love that photo of Rumsfeld shaking Saddam’s
hand. It says it all.

We provided
helicopters to Iraq to drop poison gas inside Iran. We provided
Iraq with bombing coordinates so they could strike at targets
inside Iran; so that not only shook that region but it also brought
the United States into its death embrace with Saddam. That was
the beginning of the spiral down in Iraq that led us to this present
debacle.

The turmoil
of the Islamic Revolution also led the Soviets to be terrified
that there would be copycat revolutions all along their southern
front. That’s what led them to invade Afghanistan, and their
invasion of Afghanistan is what led us to go over to Pakistan
and spend hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars to
train huge armies of jihadis to go off and kill the infidel. We
didn’t realize that those jihadis we trained were going to
become the Taliban, and the infidels that they wanted to kill
would be us.

All of that
stemmed from three weeks in history in 1953 in Iran. Now to this
day I think we’re still living under the emotional overhang
of the hostage crisis of 1979, and we just met a member of Congress
today who said that he approached someone on the floor of the
House and asked him if he’d support a resolution for negotiating
with Iran, and he looked at him and said, “No. They took
over our embassy and seized our diplomats.” We are still
caught in this emotional prison.

Blowback
in Iran

I want to
tell you a fascinating story that happened to me during a visit
to Washington last autumn. I was on a panel discussion about Iran
with several other people. One of them was one of the American
hostages, one of those diplomats. Actually, it was the chief diplomat,
Bruce Laingen. He had been the chief of the U.S. mission in Tehran
at the time the hostages were taken. I had never met him but I
knew that he’d become an advocate of reconciliation with
Iran, and so I was eager to talk to him. I wanted to chat with
him a little, and later we exchanged some emails and he told me
a fascinating story, which to my knowledge has never appeared
in print. He said, “I was sitting in my cell in that embassy
in Iran. I had been in a solitary cell for about one year, and
one day unexpectedly the door opened and there is one of the hostage
takers. One of my jailers is standing there and I looked up at
him and one year of rage and anger and fury exploded out of me
and I started screaming at him. I told him, ‘You have no
right to do this. This is totally cruel. This violates every law
of God and man. You cannot take innocent people hostage and treat
them like this.’” He said, “I went on for several
minutes screaming at him and he just looked, waited very patiently,
and when I finally ran out of breath he leaned into my cell and
pointed a finger at me and in very good English said, ‘You
have no right to complain because you took our whole country hostage
in 1953.’”

What that
story tells me is that the hostage taking, deplorable as it was,
did not come out of nowhere. It was not just an act of blind hatred
and nihilism. People who participated in that episode have now
written about it and said it was all about 1953.

What happened
in 1953? The U.S. forced the shah out of the country but CIA agents
working in the basement of the U.S. embassy arranged a coup and
brought him back.

Now it’s
25 years later, 1979. The shah fled again, same shah. So what’s
going to happen? “We’re [Iran] afraid the same thing
is going to happen again: CIA agents working in the basement of
the U.S. embassy will organize a coup and bring the shah back.
We had to prevent that.”

If the U.S.
had never done that in 1953, there never would have been a hostage
takeover.

The lesson
of all this is that when you violently intervene in the political
development of another country, you’re doing something like
releasing a wheel at the top of a hill. You can let it go, but
once you let it go you have no control over how it’s going
to bounce or where it’s going to end up. American foreign
policy has gotten off onto a tangent that I think our own Founding
Fathers never envisioned and would be horrified to see. We’ve
decided there is only one way everyone in the world should live,
and it’s the way we tell them they should live. This is the
essence of the policy and the face that the United States is presenting
to the outside world. We’ve decided that we’ve discovered
something that other people can never discover and we’re
going to force them to do it. This creates a kind of resentment
that deeply undermines our security.

Changing
ourselves

In the current
age, you cannot win wars just the way people used to win them
in the past, by having the biggest army and the best-trained army
and the most modern weapons. That doesn’t work anymore because
the enemy that we’re now facing in the world doesn’t
respond to that. We cannot pressure them that way.

What is the
weapon that we really need to revise our position in the world
and improve our security status? It’s information. We need
to know what people are thinking, what people are saying, what
people are planning, what people are doing. How do you get information?
You get it from people. You get it from ordinary people, you get
it from other intelligence agencies, but they don’t share
it with you unless they want to, unless they admire you, unless
they want to help you. You cannot tell me that Osama bin Laden
could be living all those years on the Afghan-Pakistan border
if the villagers who live there admired the United States, wanted
to help the United States. It’s because of their bitterness
and their anger at the way the U.S. behaves in the world that
they’re happy to give him sanctuary.

We complain
about that, but that is the situation that we ourselves have created.
Now, however, we seem incredibly resistant to learning this lesson.
It’s very difficult for Americans to assimilate the idea
that there are things not only that we can’t do, but that
we shouldn’t want to do even if we could. We developed a
system of government that fit our culture and our needs. Let’s
let other people do the same thing. Let’s not assume that
our experience is the same experience of all other people in the
world.

Some people
find the idea of individuals voting and having political parties
to be a great idea. Other people don’t like that. In some
cultures they rely on consensus rather than conflict or on the
wisdom of elders or on other ways of solving problems. Why is
that hostile to us? Why should we be concerned about that, and
why should the U.S. government be using its great military power
and sucking up huge amounts of tax dollars to support that enterprise
in order to go out and support the interests of a very small segment
of the wealthy American population in ways that are devastating
our own security posture? This is not about a giveaway to another
country. It’s only about thinking what is good for us. Let’s
just think about that.

I have no
problem with America acting in America’s interest, but let’s
think clearly about what is in America’s interest, and that’s
why I turn to our other hero here, George Washington, who also
had a line that I’d like to see us go back to understand,
cherish, and appreciate. He said, “No country can be trusted
further than it is bound by interests.” Let’s go back
to thinking about our own interest as a nation, not serving a
small group of corporations that need to suck up resources and
need markets, not using the excuse of trying to help people who
don’t want our help. Let us look inside our country, see
how much needs to be done here, and go back to the idea that John
Winthrop first pronounced. Let’s make ourselves a city on
a hill. Let’s make ourselves a truly great country that people
will want to emulate. That’s the way we can change the world,
not by force, not by intervention, not by military power.

May
7, 2009

Stephen
Kinzer is an author and newspaper reporter. He is a veteran New
York Times correspondent who has reported from more than 50 countries
on five continents. His books include Overthrow
and All
the Shah’s Men
.

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