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Century of American Folly

Bringing the World to Heel

The present debacle in Afghanistan is the culmination of more than a century of US failures in vain attempts to mold the rest of the world in our interests. Here is a partial list.

Before World War II, we were a regional power: we sought under the Monroe Doctrine to keep other powers out of Latin America and the Caribbean. The Spanish-American War of 1898 led to our occupation of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. We oversaw the secession of Panama from Colombia, then signed the Canal Treaty with a puppet Panamanian government. Our ambassador oversaw the overthrow of the first elected revolutionary president of Mexico. We sent troops into the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Nicaragua. General Pershing unsuccessfully chased Pancho Villa in Mexico. The upshot of most of these interventions was dictatorship, instability and poverty.

It must be admitted that the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan actually led to stable democracies and strong economies. They were the exception.

Our occupation of southern Korea was intended to block Soviet or Chinese expansion. We eventually set up a client state in South Korea; the Soviets did the same in North Korea. We were tolerant of dictators Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-Hee for 30 years. Finally in the 1980s we consented to democratization. It was not our idea.

This is, bluntly, a record of stunning, bipartisan incompetence at the task of shaping the world in our interests. Perhaps we are not cut out for imperialism.

The 1950s were the heyday of covert CIA interventions around the world to overthrow governments we didn’t like, and replace them with pliant clients. We did that in Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954, and unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs, in 1961. We orchestrated the overthrow of Prime Minister Lumumba, in Congo, in 1960. These are the cases we know about.

Well, there’s also the case of Vietnam, where we didn’t like President Ngo Dinh Diem, so had him overthrown and killed in 1963, in the early stages of the US buildup in that country. We know too well the course of our involvement there, ending ignominiously in 1975.

From the late 1960s through the 1980s, our policy in Latin America favored brutal authoritarian regimes and worked against democracies that did not please us, such as the Salvador Allende government in Chile, overthrown with CIA connivance in 1973. All over South and Central America, military governments were free to arrest, repress and disappear their citizens. At its worst, around 1980, there were only three more or less democratic regimes in the region: Costa Rica, Venezuela and Colombia.

1979 was a banner year for those opposing US hegemony: both Iran and Nicaragua saw successful revolutions that overthrew dictators who were clients of the United States. The two remained intertwined as Ronald Reagan sought to get around a congressional ban on aiding the Contras in Nicaragua by doing a secret deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran for a back channel to get arms to the Contras. Reagan was almost impeached over this issue.

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Throughout the postwar period, the US has sought without success to bring the Middle East to heel. Lebanon’s civil war of the late 1970s and 1980s shows that futility. US marines were part of a “peacekeeping force” whose tacit mission was to frustrate a takeover of that country by the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies. After multiple suicide truck bombings, including one that killed 241 marines, Ronald Reagan withdrew US forces in early 1984.

Bill Clinton had a similar experience in Somalia, where he inherited a “humanitarian” military mission ordered by his predecessor, George H.W. Bush. After a US helicopter was shot down and numerous US troops were killed in 1993, Clinton ordered the troops out.

George Bush I had one successful military adventure, when he sent in troops to overthrow and capture Panama’s ruler, General Manuel Noriega, a former client who had become too open about drug dealings.

Iraq, on the other hand, has proved to be a continuing headache since the the first Gulf War rolled back Saddam Hussein’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait, but left him in power. Hawks in the George Bush II administration successfully sold the false story that Saddam Hussein was hoarding weapons of mass destruction, an accusation that justified the second Iraq War that began in 2002 and continues to this day.

The collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 led to turmoil in the Balkans; the Clinton administration was drawn in. After considerable non-American bloodshed, a precarious truce was negotiated by special envoy Richard Holbrooke in 1995. Holbrooke would later die of a heart attack while trying unsuccessfully to pull off the same thing in Afghanistan.

The “Arab Spring” began with popular demonstrations in 2010 that brought down the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan governments, and challenged others, including Syria. The Obama administration was drawn into both Syria and Libya. The Syrian involvement led to troops on the ground to protect refugees, but did not bring down the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Libyan involvement came after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. The goal was to guide the transition to democracy. The result was the deaths of several US personnel, including the ambassador, in the Benghazi consulate, at the hands of a hostile militia.

What with all the hand-wringing about Taliban victory in Afghanistan, we are invited to forget that 20 years of US combat troops failed to pacify that country. We set up a puppet regime and hoped, like Pinocchio, it could stand on its own. Biden was right to get out. If we are to believe Trump, he would have done the same.

impeachment unavoidable

But we will have to bear the consequences of getting involved in the first place. Alexander the Great failed there, the British hung on for a century, but also failed. The Soviets failed. Now us.

This is, bluntly, a record of stunning, bipartisan incompetence at the task of shaping the world in our interests. The British, in their time, were a lot better at it. Perhaps we are not cut out for imperialism.

John Peeler