What are your thoughts on U.S. military interventions around the world?
Which world governments do you view as repressive, guilty of human rights abuses and in need of a regime change?
Which world crises do you see as in need of immediate U.S. intervention?
Now where did these opinions come from? Are they the fruit of research in the contemporary and historical political and cultural forces in a foreign country that have led you to that belief, or are they the result of a handful of new stories from mainstream Western media coalescing into a vague opinion about another nation?
I ask these questions to get your mind stirring on something I feel we need to have a national conversation about: U.S. interventionism.
An Brief and Uncensored Look at Our Efforts at Regime Change
When it comes to discussing if, why and how the U.S. should intervene in the affairs of another sovereign country, I think some of the recent work of Steven Kinzer might be good start. Kinzer is an investigative journalist, formerly of the New York Times. After the War in Iraq, Kinzer pursued extensive research into the most extreme form of U.S. intervention: forced regime change in another country. Kinzer’s research, covering a time period from from Hawai’i to Iraq, illustrated a three fold pattern regarding the true motivations of these regime changes, why politicians became involved and how they were sold to the public.
First, a U.S. based company would be operating in a foreign country and they would in some way be regulated or bothered by the government of another nation. That government would nationalize their industry, levy taxes, force them to pay workers a minimum wage or in some way interfere with their business operations and ultimately their bottom line.
Second, the leaders of that business would go to the political leadership of the U.S. and complain about the foreign government. While the political leaders mulled over this subject the motivation for intervention would shift from overtly invading to help a U.S. company’s bottom line to some political or geo-strategic one that had broader traction in the political realm. Often the assumption was made that the only nation that would interfere with a U.S. business would be a dictatorship guilty of human rights abuses and oppression, or a proxy for another world power opposed to US interests.
Third, the political leaders of the U.S. then take the issue to the public to galvanize support for an intervention. They do not mention the economic motivations for the intervention, but portray these interventions as liberation operations, and as a chance to free oppressed people from a brutal anti-US regime.
While Kinzer states makes it clear that not every instance of U.S. intervention or regime change fits this pattern it is alarming how many do. I am currently in the middle of reading his book and so far his research is solid. This is not the cry of some crazy liberal looking to criticize the United States whenever possible and however possible, this is someone with reason and a conscience studying our history, a history never talked about and certainly not a history ever taught.
The Thin Line Between Media and Propaganda
In his book Kinzer also teases out precisely how interventions are “sold” to the American public and any sort of pangs of conscience about invading and interfering in another nation are assuaged.
The primary tool is the media. Whether it was the newspapers of the 19th century changing attitudes towards expansionism or the major outlets of the 21st century making a case for the invasion of Iraq, the media is a powerful force to change and ultimately control public perception and public support. Media has always had the power to wield such incredibly influence, and the fact that media is consolidating into fewer and fewer hands makes it even more of a threat to truly democratic discussion and debate.
In the buildup to a regime change the media consistently distorted the truth to play on the compassion of U.S. citizens who often genuinely want to help. The media misrepresents the actual situation on the ground in the country through outright lies or a selective presentation of opinions and accounts. The media also often trades in racism and stereotypes as the people of the country to be invaded were portrayed as savage and backwards to the point of needing an outside stabilizing force. The media often highlighted a person or small group of people in power in the other country, and suggested that if such persons were removed, the nation would naturally express pro-American and pro-Democratic values.
Who wins and who loses?
The result of this pattern unfolding an a U.S. intervention and regime change happening were also all too consistent. The businesses that called for an intervention reaped the profits of the intervention itself and later a regime more pliable to their interests. From the missionaries-turned-sugar-barons who wanted to avoid paying tariffs in Hawai’i, to the contemporary oil companies who wanted Iraq’s oil industry privatized, and to military contractors like KBR (that made $40 bil in Iraq) these companies made out like bandits.
The cost of these interventions, often including massive suffering, loss of life, and a loss of sovereignty as independent countries are reduced to proxy governments of the United States, is paid for in the most part by the civilians of the foreign country we are intervening in. The very people US citizens want to “help” those who suffer for our intervention. The very people U.S. citizens want to “free” are put under the thumb of a foreign regime.
The importance of stopping to talk about U.S. Interventionism
Today the United States has the largest military in the world with a global reach. We are have the ability to invade and bomb countries around the world, and the Global War on Terror has served as a rationale to intervene with lethal consequences anywhere at anytime. Whatever the merits of the Global War on Terror, any serious examination of U.S. history and a history of our foreign policy and interventions will show a very checkered past. We have often supported very undemocratic dictators guilty of human rights abuses simply because they were compliant to our interests. And as Kinzer’s work shows, we have intervened in many countries, with disastrous results, for very immoral reasons that have nothing to do with the will of the masses in those countries, freedom, democracy, or ending human rights abuses.
Consequently, if we, the citizens of the U.S., are to support any intervention undertaken on our behalf with any sort of moral integrity intact, we must be absolutely sure that military intervention is necessary and proportionate to the threat responded to. Currently our media and politicians seem to be weighing their options for intervention and exploitation in Venezuela, Ukraine, Nigeria and elsewhere, so if we are to be more than compassionate dupes, rather blinding signing off on more wars and regime changes after buying misinformation from our politicians and media, this is probably something we should think about now.