“The U.S. has been practicing the craft of regime change for a long time”

Iran: Fifty years later

August 18, 2003

by George Will

Tehran, Iran, Aug. 19 — Iranians loyal to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, including Tehran civilians, soldiers and rural tribesmen, swept Premier Mohammed Mossadegh out of power today in a revolution and apparently had seized at least temporary control of the country. —New York Times, Aug. 20, 1953

WASHINGTON — This anniversary reminds us that America is not new to the business of regime change. Fifty years ago U.S. and British intelligence services — the principal U.S. operative was Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy’s grandson — had a remarkably easy time overthrowing Iran’s government.

It took just two months and $200,000, mobs being cheap to rent back then. It was so easy that, according to the late CIA Director Richard Helms in his just-published memoir, “A Look Over My Shoulder,” Roosevelt felt the need to sound a warning that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles did not want to hear.

Roosevelt said the coup succeeded because the CIA had accurately concluded that the Iranians, including most of the military, “wanted exactly” the result we were seeking. “If we,” said Roosevelt, referring to the CIA, “are ever going to try something like this again, we must be absolutely sure that (the) people and army want what we want. If not, you had better give the job to the Marines!”

The shah’s “at least temporary control of the country” lasted just a bit more than half of these 50 years. The fact that his control crumbled in 1979 under the assault of Islamic fundamentalists responsive to the Ayatollah Khomeini does not mean the coup was misguided or unavailing.

History teaches that everything is temporary. Besides, the coup’s purpose was to confound Soviet designs, not settle Iran’s future in perpetuity. The fact that the coup in some sense set in train events that led to today’s highly unsatisfactory situation in Iran does not mean that the coup was not successful, any more than Soviet control of Eastern Europe for almost half a century after 1945 meant that the Second World War was not worth winning. Rather, the point to be pondered on this anniversary is that U.S. involvement in regime change deeply implicates the United States in the future of the affected country.

Much ink has been spilled in arguing about when the U.S. commitment in South Vietnam became large and irreversible. It is at least arguable that the day can be pinpointed: Nov. 2, 1963. That was when the United States was involved in regime change — in the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Again, the reason for remembering such U.S. undertakings at this moment is not to reopen arguments about their wisdom, but to underscore the point that the United States has been practicing the craft of regime change for a long time. And that such changes inevitably are the beginnings of long and sometimes melancholy entanglements.

We are in the process of acquiring yet another in Liberia. That one arises from historic ties, supplemented by President Bush’s post-9/11 conclusion that “weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states.”

The Economist of London, which was founded in 1843, when British imperialism was flourishing, is neither squeamish about the fact of empire nor tainted by anti-Americanism. But as an anxious friend The Economist notes:

In less than two years the United States has occupied two Muslim countries with a combined population of more than 50 million. Afghanistan “remains a failed or nonexistent state” where “the government’s writ does not extend much beyond Kabul” and “local warlords, deep into the heroin trade, wield the real power.” In Iraq, where a U.S. general says the current condition is “war, however you describe it,” there are 161,000 occupying troops, of which 148,000 are American. The largest contingent of the other 13,000 are British and the other 18 participating nations have sent on average a few hundred.

It might be time to pause in pushing the American project that was implicit in Woodrow Wilson’s assertion that America’s flag is “the flag not only of America but of humanity.” Wilson was echoing Lincoln’s belief that our nation is “dedicated to a proposition” that is “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” But the belief that the American model of civic life could be a blessing to everyone is as old as Benjamin Franklin’s proclamation that America’s “cause is esteemed the cause of all mankind.”

Franklin did not say, but probably was wise enough to think: “Eventually. Maybe.”

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