The title of Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq leaves little to the imagination. It is an ambitious book about aggressive United States foreign policy whose equally ambitious structure does it a disservice. This is not least because the smooth way the structure works for the first few sections makes the breakdown of the last few harder to accept. I can’t complain much, though; it was juicy and informative. And for some audiences, it should probably be required reading.
Kinzer hit peaks of fame with All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, which was unqualifiedly good. The body only covered the few years during which Iran’s democracy under Mossadegh was stifled by the United States in favour of the repressive reign of Shah Reza Mohammed.
Its central argument was also clear – when a seemingly inconvenient ruler has a popular mandate, in the long run regime changes are more moral, physical, and economic trouble than they’re worth for a dominant nation. Whether the reader chooses to believe Kinzer’s conclusion that modern Islamic terrorism was born from this U.S.-sponsored coup is up to the reader. But All the Shah’s Men is a clear enough effort that one should read it before rejecting the conclusion.
Overthrow has the same sorts of arguments and conclusions in it. But while All the Shah’s Men focused on a few years, Overthrow is a 322-page survey of a dozen regime changes over more than a century. The only way such ambitious arguments and conclusions could be successfully combined with such an ambitious subject in a fairly short book would have been surgical precision.
Surgical precision is in short supply here. Kinzer spends too much time speculating on the mental states of the men in his book; we know who to clap for, who to hiss at, and who to peek at through our fingers almost as soon as they hit the page. Kinzer is a journalist by trade and his style doesn’t let us forget it. Nonetheless, he juggles journalistic colour, ambitious argumentation, and large swathes of history for more than half the book with some success.
The first part, titled “The Imperial Era”, and the second, “Covert Action”, are perfectly coherent. "The Imperial Era" focuses on Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Nicaragua. It concludes by drawing together the facts and commonalities between these military and commercial ventures as it outlines the fates of the regions and of their relations with the United States.
The second section goes in the same direction. Chapters on Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile examine covert activities the United States engaged in to instigate violent regime change in each country. Once more, Kinzer explores consequences for each country and the United States in the final chapter of the section. Kinzer also speculates the Cold War United States confounded the nationalist sentiments of old colonies with international Communism in a way that aided American commercial interests – a speculation well-supported enough by his evidence to be gadfly to some sacred cows.
It’s in the final part, which deals with Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq, that Kinzer drops his balls. Each regime change in the book is touched on in chronological order, and yet each chapter has a separate theme: the first part being about a willingness to use the military for territorial gain, the second to use covert operations to over-react to nationalism (or fight international Communism, depending on your perspective), and the third to use the military and covert operations to invade.
The problem is there isn't a great deal tying the invasions of Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq together. Or if there is, we don't learn about it in this book. While Kinzer does a great job of convincing the reader of ideological parallels between the invasion of Hawaii and the annexation of Puerto Rico, for example, he can't do the same for the invasion of Grenada and Iraq. His final ‘follow-up’ chapter provides staggeringly little detail about the fate of Grenada or Panama. In fact, there is so little detail about those countries one feels his rush to start laying into the Bush administration's war mongering. Fair enough, but this reader felt cheated.
Because of this late sloppiness and structural confusion, it feels as though Kinzer wastes space by talking about the abused moral qualities of American citizens as much as he does. But this ‘waste’ is useful for the book in the end. Chronicling how violent regime changes in other countries were presented to the American public helps the rest of us understand how that public can allow such things and still be good people with optimistic and laudable ideals.
Even more important, however, is that Overthrow would be a good primer for Americans who wonder why so many people in the world hate them so much. Much of their education has led them to believe that they are hated out of jealousy; this book may be gentle enough to inform them that they are hated for a perceived hypocrisy and for a series of governmental policies that have borne horribly bitter fruit in dozens of countries.Powered by Sidelines