A senior member of a Washington research group once told me that he "could not believe" that the United States would ever help the Pakistani military overthrow a democratically elected government in Pakistan if that government refused to help in the war on terror. Now there's a man who really needs to read the latest book by the former New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer. "Overthrow" is the history of forcible regime changes by the United States and its local allies over the past 110 years, starting with the undermining of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, passing through Cuba (1898), the Philippines (1898), Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954) and elsewhere, and ending with present-day Iraq.
Kinzer has written a detailed, passionate and convincing book, several chapters of which have the pace and grip of a good thriller. It should be essential reading for any Americans who wish to understand both their country's historical record in international affairs, and why that record has provoked anger and distrust in much of the world. Most important, it helps explain why, outside of Eastern Europe, American pronouncements about spreading democracy and freedom, as repeatedly employed by the Bush administration, are met with widespread incredulity.
What's most depressing about Kinzer's book, however, is not the drastic clash it describes between professed American morality and actual American behavior. For, after all, the historical record of other democratic imperial powers, like Britain and France, has been even worse than that of the United States. Operating in the real world as a great power is not a business for the overly fastidious.
But if you are going to use the argument that making a successful geopolitical omelet requires breaking eggs, you'd better have something edible to show for all the shattered shells lying around. As Kinzer makes clear, the problem is that all too many of the interventions he recounts were not just utterly ruthless; they were...