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Issue No. 101 (December 1, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Coming to grips
with our badness

One of the dangers in trying to create a balanced, creative-centrist approach to seeing and changing the world is that you’re constantly tempted to downplay America’s inexcusable behavior.

Sometimes it feels like the only alternative to dissembling is buying into far-left screeds like Noam Chomsky’s popular book Hegemony or Survival (expanded 2004), which preaches that a vague “elite sector” is twisting our consciousness and forcing us to do the devil’s bidding.

Fortunately, a corrective to both strategies is at hand.

Author and former New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer’s new book, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (2006), doesn’t flinch from calling an invasion an invasion.

At the same time, though, Kinzer makes it clear that we can change course without adopting the Chomsky / Korten line that our leaders and institutions are evil.

For his troubles, Kinzer has been attacked by Chomsky himself -- in Manufacturing Consent (2002, orig. 1988) -- as well as by Chomskyite radicals and Council on Foreign Relations moderates alike (see RE:SOURCES section below).

But I suspect his work will outlast that of his critics. It tells the truth about our Badness and points the way to practical alternatives. At this point in our history, we need both.

Exquisite and horrific detail

The book describes 14 overt or covert invasions we’ve carried out in the world, from Hawaii (1893) to Iran (1953) to Iraq (2003), in exquisite and horrific detail.

Kinzer is a marvelous writer and storyteller (his book about the U.S. coup in Guatemala, Bitter Fruit, was a campus bestseller in the 1980s), and I defy you to get through this book without wincing -- or without a sense of shame for what’s been done in our name.

What lifts this book above (well above) the steady stream of anti-imperialist potboilers is that amidst the horrific detail there is a certain amount of nuance. The bad guys aren’t all bad -- some are said to have acted with “high motives” and “extreme courage” -- and even the victims of U.S. imperialism are portrayed in ways you’ll rarely find in the radical press. Here, for example, is Kinzer’s description of Salvador Allende, the Chilean leader who was killed in large part as a result of American machinations:

He was a sophisticate and something of a dandy, a connoisseur of art, wine, and female beauty. . . . He was also a third-generation Mason -- not common for Marxists -- and mixed easily with the Chilean elite. In private he could be world-weary, cynical, and even depressive.

In the end, though, no reader who makes it through this book intact will ever again allow themselves to soft-pedal Kinzer’s main point: For over 100 years now we’ve been deposing foreign leaders. “No nation in modern history has done this so often, in so many places so far from its own shores.” Is this the sort of gift that Ben Franklin and George Washington thought they were giving the world?

Beyond moral condemnation

One of the strengths of Kinzer’s book is that he doesn’t stop with moral condemnation. Chapters at the end of each section focus largely on the terrible unintended long-term consequences of our actions -- for example, “It is clear that most of these operations actually weakened American security. They cast whole regions of the world into upheaval, creating whirlpools of instability from which undreamed-of threats arose years later.”

And even when we overthrew governments that were massively unpopular, as in Grenada, we rather quickly walked away. We’ve never shown the world that “at least sometimes, the U.S. stays positively engaged” with the countries whose hearts it ripped out.

Sources of our badness

If you read Chomsky, you can’t help concluding that our Badness is rational, driven by the “lunatic doctrinal framework” of capitalist imperialism, and preserved by the nefariousness of the men of “power and privilege” who strive to ensure that popular opinions and attitudes are kept in check.

If you read Kinzer, you can’t help concluding that our Badness is madness -- is fundamentally irrational. It is in nobody’s long-term interest, not even that of the politicians and corporate and media moguls that Chomsky fumes against. And it has many, many sources. Among those described by Kinzer in some detail and in historical context:

  • greed
  • idealism
  • racism
  • compassion
  • arrogance
  • “messianic desire to combat evil forces in the world”
  • ignorance of policymakers
  • short-sightedness of policymakers
  • intellectual laziness of all concerned
  • desire to find humane alternative to old-style colonialism
  • desire to increase U.S. prestige
  • loss of bureaucratic battles (on this point Kinzer’s book will remind you of Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, 2002)
  • corporate power (but, n.b., Kinzer repeatedly shows that corporate greed was rarely sufficient to drive U.S. behavior. It was usually when economic, political, and ideological interests coincided that our most terrible deeds were done)

The way out

According to Chomsky, our Badness will continue until there’s some sort of revolution. It is a very romantic way to see the world. You can have a lot of fun with it, as I did from 1963-92.

According to Kinzer, our Badness will continue until more good people dedicate themselves to (a) learning about the issues, (b) participating in our democratic processes, and (c) achieving power in our institutions -- as elected officials, high-level bureaucrats, university professors, K-12 superintendents, corporate executives, mainstream journalists, etc.

For our institutions are malleable. They just need to be in the right hands, and be constantly vetted by an informed and responsible public. Given the will, here's how Kinzer would have us proceed:

In most cases, diplomatic and political approaches would have worked far more effectively [than “regime change” operations]. They are subtler, more difficult to design, and take longer to bear fruit, but they do not plunge nations into violence and do not drive millions of people to resent the U.S.

Modern history makes eminently clear that when the U.S. engages with oppressive and threatening regimes, using combinations of incentives, threats, punishments, and rewards, those regimes slowly become less dangerous. . . .

Deft combinations of measures to build civil society, strengthen free enterprise, promote trade, and encourage diplomatic solutions to international problems have worked wonders in many countries. These measures require patience, willingness to compromise, and recognition that all nations have legitimate interests, including security interests.

That is not so romantic a vision as Chomsky’s. Getting there sounds like work -- for everyone from policymakers to engaged citizens to raisers of the next generation. But as our first imperialists liked to say (in a different context), it is God’s work.


For a passionate attack on Kinzer’s book by a radical of the Chomsky / Parenti / Petras persuasion, see Stephen Gowans, A Pious Wish,” What’s Left blog (May 13, 2006). For laughably faint praise by a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, see Richard Betts, A Century Of Intervention, Regarded With a Cold Eye,” New York Times (May 2, 2006).

Samantha Power’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell (2002), briefly noted in the article above, examines U.S. failure to stop -- or even try to stop -- most genocides over the last 100 years. Because Power’s book highlights the sins we ignored, and Kinzer’s book the sins we committed, and because both books insist on looking at reality outside the knee-jerk radical lens, they should ideally be read in tandem. But only when you’re in good health.


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