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America's Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq
An exclusive interview with
Stephen KINZER

"It cannot be one country that decides alone which governments may live and which governments must die. That always harms, not just the victim country, but also the country that is making this decision." Stephen Kinzer, April 25, 2006, NYC.

Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer, published by Times Book in April 2006 in NY Stephen Kinzer - Author, Former Foreign Correspondent of New York Times & Professor in Journalism @Northwestern University in Illinois.

by Bircan ÜNVER
For the Light Millennium

For Preface>

This is Page: 1
For Page II>
Profile of Stephen Kinzer

- What made you move from journalism to teaching?

I spent more than twenty years as a correspondent for the New York Times. It was a fascinating experience, but after a while, it's frustrating to cover only daily news. I began to ask myself what's lying behind the daily news, what ties all this together, why is this happening. And by leaving the New York Times and setting out in a world where I'm teaching and writing books, I'm hoping I'll be able to answer some of those questions.

- How do you compare the satisfaction of teaching and direct connection with your students to that of journalism?

One of the odd factors of being a newspaper reporter, especially if you're working abroad, is that you send in your stories and that's the end of it. You usually don't see the paper maybe until many days later you don't know anyone else who sees the paper. So you feel like you're sending your stories often to a kind of a black hole. In a classroom, of course, you're getting instant response and it's great to be around young people that are curious and interested and questioning. So the combination of that experience with the ability to write long articles and books is what I hope will allow me to keep exploring some of the more interesting questions and the issues that are shaping the world today.

- How many students do you have and which classes do you teach?

- I'm teaching a class in journalism but the other course I'm teaching is about American intervention. In that class they allowed only 30 students but we had more than 100 who applied. So I'll be offering it again at the next semester.

- I always thought that you also have a great TV personality. When are you moving to that direction?

- Actually being in front of this camera right now for Light Millennium is one of the preparations for my big TV career; so let's see how I do on this one and then maybe from there I go to the "Today Show." (This interview is also video-recorded for the LMTV Series @QPTV.)

- You are very modest. Thank you.

A Summary of the OVERTHROW: From Hawaii to Iraq

"A fast-paced narrative history of the coups, revolutions, and invasions by which the United States has toppled fourteen foreign governments—not always to its own benefit "Regime change" did not begin with the administration of George W. Bush, but has been an integral part of U.S. foreign policy for more than one hundred years. Starting with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and continuing through the Spanish-American War and the Cold War and into our own time, the United States has not hesitated to overthrow governments that stood in the way of its political and economic goals. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the latest, though perhaps not the last, example of the dangers inherent in these operations. In Overthrow, Stephen Kinzer tells the stories of the audacious politicians, spies, military commanders, and business executives who took it upon themselves to depose monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers. He also shows that the U.S. government has often pursued these operations without understanding the countries involved; as a result, many of them have had disastrous long-term consequences.

In a compelling and provocative history that takes readers to fourteen countries, including Cuba, Iran, South Vietnam, Chile, and Iraq, Kinzer surveys modern American history from a new and often surprising perspective."

- Overthrow is really a stunning book. It has really helped me, I'm sure it'll help whoever reads it too; understand how this world has been structured! How did your concept of "regime change" evolve for your book?

- I've studied the situations in various countries in the world over a period in many years and I came to ask myself after a while: Why are certain countries so poor, so torn by violence? In many countries when I began to research their histories, I saw that there was a motive when the United States intervened to interrupt that country's political development. Now in my new book, I put together the stories of fourteen different times when the US overthrew a foreign government. Most of these episodes have been described in various books before, including some books that I have written, but what's new about this book is that it sees these overthrows of foreign governments, not as a series of independent, unrelated incidents, but as part of a long continuum that stretched over more than a hundred years. So what I'm doing is telling the story of each of these fourteen cases in which the US overthrow a foreign government, and then asking three questions. The first question is: What happened, how did we overthrow the government of a particular country? The second question is: Why did we do it? And the third question is: From the perspective of today, from the perspective of history, what have been the long-term effects of that operation? By studying all fourteen of these overthrows of foreign governments together, I begin to see certain patterns that don't become clear if you're just studying the different episodes individually.

- When I read the introduction, and the book itself, I asked: Why does the US feel that it has a right, an obligation to intervene? And, what about the rights of others?

Americans have always believed that we are an especially fortunate people. We have been given a tremendous gift. We live in a very large and powerful country; we enjoy freedom and prosperity. That has led many Americans to believe that we have found the magic formula that will make people and countries happy. Because of our messianic view of the world, we believe that we have, not just the right, but perhaps even the divine responsibility to share the benefits of our society and our experience with other people. In many parts of the world, people don't want to have governments and cultures and political systems like ours, but we want them to because we think our system is best for everybody. In many cases, we have insisted on trying to impose our system even when people in other countries didn't want to accept it. I think that there is a sense in American spirit that only bad people would want to resist American influence. There is a sense that any government, which would disagree with the US, which would bother or harass or nationalize an American or other foreign corporation, must be repressive, evil, anti-American, brutal, and unlawful and probably the tool of some obscure foreign force that is seeking to undermine American power all over the world. We believe that people in every country would like to embrace the US and would like to live the way we do. We feel that in countries that don’t embrace the US and don’t live like we do, the reason is just that there is a tiny group of dictators or brutes at the top of society that’s preventing the society from becoming naturally pro-American. And if we would just remove those few tyrants, those few evil people, the countries would return to their natural state of loving America. Only a people as naïve and compassionate as the US is and as Americans are would be able to believe this. It’s this combination of a compassionate, genuine desire to help other people and a tremendous naiveté about the outside world that allows the US to carry out these operations time after time.

“The US who wants to intervene abroad for very ignoble reasons always wrap their interventions in this rhetoric of liberation, spreading freedom, and helping people in foreign countries.”

- It is hard to accept the way the US practices and presents these overthrows. I don’t see any relation, any concern, any faith for others’ rights, nothing... Politically, the US could make up reasons and at the end it gets what it wants. But as you underline perfectly, the US also overthrows democratic governments too. I don’t understand this!

- One of the patterns that I see in my book that happens time and time again is on the question of why we do it, why do we overthrow foreign governments, and here’s the pattern. There are usually three phases in each of these interventions. The first phase is that the leader of a foreign country gives some kind of a problem to an American or foreign company. He wants to restrict them, he wants to force them to obey labor laws, or they must pay taxes or they’re going to be expropriated or nationalized. That’s the beginning. There is a clash between the leader of a country and a foreign corporation. So then, the leaders of that company go to the US government and complain. That’s the first phase. So it’s this economic problem, this clash between what a nationalist government wants and what companies want. That starts the process in motion. Then, once the White House and the US foreign policy establishment become involved, they change the motivation a little bit. They claim that they are acting, not for business reasons, not to protect individual American companies, but that they are acting for a political or a geo-strategic reason. They conclude that no government would be giving trouble to an American company unless it was anti-American. And then it becomes a geo-strategic imperative to overthrow that government. Then there comes a third phase: How do we sell this intervention to the American people? Then American leaders do not talk about the business motivation. And usually they don’t talk about the political or strategic motivation. They have another one that they wrap this in. And that is, we are only doing this to liberate poor foreign victims of oppression. This is an argument that is very well tailored to the American spirit. Because first of all, we don’t know very much about the outside world, and secondly we feel like we want to help people because we actually are very compassionate. That’s why leaders of the US who want to intervene abroad for very ignoble reasons always wrap their interventions in this rhetoric of liberation, spreading freedom, and helping people in foreign countries.

- As in some cases in the book (Philippines, Guatemala…), what is really defined as genocide?

- I give one example. The US overthrew the government of Guatemala in 1954. That was an elected government; it was relatively popular at home; the president was going to finish his term and then be replaced by another president; everything was going according to law. But that country, that government had come into conflict with a big American company; that was United Fruit. So the US overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala. Soon thereafter, the repression that was imposed by the leader that we put in power led to an explosion of popular discontent that led to army reaction. And that set off a civil war that lasted for 30 years and resulted in the killings of hundreds of thousands of people. I actually covered part of that war in Guatemala and I realized that civil war is actually the wrong term for it. Essentially, it was just a series of massacres of unarmed mine villagers who happened to be living in the wrong part of Guatemala. Had this kind of a thirty year tyranny with so many tens and hundreds of thousands of deaths happened in some other part of the world, and been carried out by somebody else other than a client of the US, we would probably be calling it genocide.

- Right. Then who’s going to be compensated? Who’s going to be responsible for it?

- Well, the pattern that emerges from these interventions is that after the US overthrows a government, it essentially forgets about the country. It imposes some tyrant and then goes its own way. This is what happened in Guatemala and in so many other countries. We feel that our job is finished. Once we’ve overthrown the government, we never take the challenge of stabilizing society. And actually the people in those countries who we claimed we wanted to liberate actually wind up paying a terrible price for our intervention.

‘It cannot be one country that decides alone which governments may live and which governments must die. That always harms, not just the victim country, but also the country that is making this decision.’

- When do you think, what it was presented to the US people and the actual action will be matched?

- Do I think that will ever happen?

- Yes, and when?

- If there is one trend that runs through all American history, it is expansionism. The US has essentially been expanding ever since the pilgrims landed. And before my book even begins, the US fought a number of Indian wars in North America, also fought against Mexico and seized half of Mexican territory. And then the US, once North America was filled, began expanding overseas. So this is a long theme that runs through American history. Now I believe that, given the situation in the world, and the power of the US, the US is going to continue to intervene in countries in the future. What I hope to be able to show from my book is that there are some very bad ways to intervene. That is the way we have been doing in the past. In the future, interventions need to be carried out with legitimacy. It cannot be one country that decides alone which governments may live and which governments must die. That always harms, not just the victim country, but also the country that is making this decision. Now, if that's possible to think of something positive coming out of our trouble in Iraq, maybe it will be that Americans will be a little bit more reluctant in the future to embark on these kinds of interventions. Maybe Americans will begin to ask themselves what's going to happen after the intervention. We have no trouble overthrowing any government in the world. That only takes military power and we have great military power. But when you overthrow a government, you're doing something like releasing a wheel at the top of a hill. You have no idea how it's going to bounce or it's going to end up. These interventions always have terrible, unpredicted consequences. And I think it's important that Americans realize that they cannot predict and they cannot control the course of events after they overthrow a foreign government.

Interview continues - for page II>
For Preface>
This is Page: 1
Profile of Stephen Kinzer

Stephen Kinzer is during a book signing event for the OVERTHROW at the
Barnes & Nobles in NYC in April 2006. Photos:

Interview date: April 25, 2006, Page I, NYC, by Bircan Ünver, The Light Millennium, Inc., Summer 2006, New York.
Summer 2006
Issue# 18
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