Overthrowing Governments

Posted on September 3, 2013


Recently some papers from the CIA were released providing details on the overthrow of a communist-leaning prime minister in Iran in 1953 in favor the friendlier Shah.

The Shah was himself overthrown in 1979. Governing can be a dangerous profession.

For old Iran-watchers, the new papers on the 1953 coup were not news, just another confirmation what we already knew. We overthrow governments occasionally when it is in our best interest.

In the following year, the CIA sponsored the overthrow of a socialist-leaning president of Guatemala and replaced him with someone friendlier to the U. S.

Some routinely profess shock that we would overthrow governments when to do so is of course a violation of the basic sovereignty of all countries.

In 1959 we welcomed Fidel Castro who came to power in a revolution in Cuba. A little over two years later, in the spring of 1961, we attempted to overthrow the very same Castro, who by then was marching to a communist drummer.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of April, 1961, also orchestrated by the CIA, was a dismal failure for the U. S., a great triumph for revolutionary Cuba.

So not all attempts by the U. S. to overthrow and install friendly governments have been successful.

BTW, the old Soviet Union’s record is not so great in this category either, so let’s remember that great powers have similar tendencies, no matter what their politics.

We usually put out a lot of brave talk about democracy, rights, liberties, and constitutions when overthrowing governments, and some of it may in fact be a valid expression of our interests.

 But more often than not, it is pretty crude politics that determines how we act on foreign stages. During the Cold War it was the communist threat to our “way of life,” largely capitalist and very thoroughly grounded in a Constitution and the rule of law.

Today radical Islam threatens us and we respond very similarly to the way we defended our values and interests during the Cold War: replace the old regimes with friendly regimes.

However, today we do not seem to have a very steady keel to our ship of state. Peoples around the world thumb their noses at us because we seem to be—or are in fact—weak, and vulnerable.

Running through this entire scenario is in fact a basic ambiguity in who exactly we are. Or, put another way, who are we?

There have been no military coups or revolutions in Washington or London for a few hundred years.

In fact, we don’t even have a name in English for a coup d’état (French) or a golpe de estado in Spanish, or a putsch in German. So we incorporated coup into English, which literally means blow to the state. That’s kind of awkward so coup it is.

But we were not born into political stability. This nation came into being through a violent revolution that overthrew the government.

Maybe, just maybe, it is in our political and historical genes, long buried and dormant, but still there.

When King and Parliament taxed us unfairly, what did we do?

Did we call for a vote? Did we turn it over to the United Nations or ask the Pope to arbitrate?

We, in fact, did appeal to Parliament to reduce or eliminate what were considered illegal and unconstitutional taxes. Remember, “No taxation without representation!” But Parliament did not back down.

They told the colonists that they were represented “virtually” in Parliament and Parliament governed the Empire—the King helped too—and so pay your taxes and be good citizens.

The colonists claimed the high ground of having certain natural rights, guaranteed by common law and the unwritten English constitution. When the constitution was violated and/or the rulers (king and parliament) took steps beyond the constitution and acted as tyrants, then the “people” had a right to remove the tyrant.

In this instance, instead of assassinating the tyrant, like Julius Caesar’s enemies dispatched him, the colonists opted out of the empire to create their own government. Presto, the Declaration of Independence came into being.

Since King and Parliament didn’t buy into that option, the American Revolution erupted. By George (III), we’ll make them conform!

From then to today–with one violent exception, the Civil War–we have found a way to reconcile and mediate our internal political differences through the rule of law and a peaceful political process.

But what works at home doesn’t always work in a global society where many disagree violently with our way of life and culture or religion. There is no “world constitution” to which we all adhere to. So each nation still looks after its own interests.

Transcending national boundaries are radical movements like Islamic fundamentalism, which does not brook or accept contrary or contradictory beliefs, like orthodox Christianity or Judaism for example.

Radical Islam is worsened by ruling elites who have kept millions impoverished and on the margins of society in those countries. This fuels discontent, and gives even more volatility to a “radical” solution, like revolutions which have marked the Arab spring.

And today there is the possibility of very unfriendly governments developing (Iran) or already possessing (Pakistan) nuclear options. This makes futurific scenarios even scarier since some of the radical leaders in these countries are willing to sacrifice their people and countries for their cause.

If you don’t believe that, consider the following.

Fidel Castro told the Soviets in the fall of 1962 to go ahead and put missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States. If the U. S. responded with a nuclear attack on Cuba or the Soviet Union, so be it. This was in a “Doomsday” letter he sent Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Fidel was ready for Armageddon. The Soviets weren’t, and they blinked first in the confrontation that became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962.

How we navigate the dangerous shoals in troubled waters today is very real. Overthrowing and replacing governments was an old standby to get things done. It seems to be less and less of an option today in a world that sees our shaking fist and “red lines” in the sand, and is contemptuous of what we can do.