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The ‘Cost-Effective’ Coup and Other Myths

Engineering the overthrow of a foreign government that poses absolutely no threat to the U.S. is the definition of gratuitous.

Fresh off of his defense of the foreign policy “Blob,” Hal Brands suggests that the U.S. might get back into the business of covertly overthrowing foreign governments:

Just as the U.S. sought to undermine or topple unfriendly regimes during the Cold War, it may look to such methods again in its increasingly heated rivalry with China. Caution will be necessary: History tells us that while covert intervention can sometimes be a cost-effective tool of competition, it is fraught with risks and profound moral trade-offs.

It is difficult to think of examples where sponsoring coups in other countries has ever really been “cost-effective,” unless one is comparing those coups to full-blown invasions and occupations. The up-front costs to the U.S. may seem low, but the U.S. usually ends up losing much more than it bargained for. The cost to the people in the affected country is quite high, and that ought to be part of any calculation. Brands’ own examples of what he counts as successes are telling for how horrible they were:

But is covert intervention a good idea? Some analysts argue that it rarely works and should be avoided, yet this is probably the wrong standard. Countries usually resort to covert action when other options have either failed or are deemed undesirable, so the likelihood of success is low to begin with. That built-in handicap notwithstanding, the U.S. did, in some cases, get serious strategic mileage out of its meddling.

In the late 1940s, covert support for democratic politicians in Italy played a modest but probably important role in shoring up that country against communist challenges at the polls. For the cost of a few hired mobs, the U.S. facilitated the toppling of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran in 1953, securing its strategic flank in the Persian Gulf for 25 years. CIA support helped the Indonesian military consolidate power after it toppled an increasingly anti-American Sukarno in 1965, thus avoiding the prospect of Southeast Asia’s most important country turning hostile.

Overthrowing Mossadegh ended up being one of the most short-sighted instances of U.S. interference of the entire Cold War. It may have bought the U.S. a semi-reliable client for a couple decades, but it came at the cost of alienating the Iranian people and fostering generations of hostility towards the U.S. For the sake of having an oppressive dictator on “our” side for a short time, the U.S. earned enmity that has lasted almost twice as long. The U.S. is still paying the price for that coup almost seventy years later as Washington’s obsession with Iran distorts our policies in the region. Continued interest in pursuing regime change in Iran shows that many in Washington have still learned nothing from the last time. Backing Suharto was not driven by any real necessity. It was driven by the same bankrupt domino theory that poisoned our foreign policy thinking throughout that period. It did make the U.S. complicit in a horrific campaign of mass murder:

It was an anti-Communist blood bath of at least half a million Indonesians. And American officials watched it happen without raising any public objections, at times even applauding the forces behind the killing, according to newly declassified State Department files that show diplomats meticulously documenting the purge in 1965-66.

Brands acknowledges these things later in the column, so what is the point of this exercise in entertaining such a terrible option as potentially “useful”? Useful to whom? To do what? His argument gets even shakier when he says this:

The U.S. didn’t do this gratuitously, or to protect American investments overseas.

Engineering the overthrow of a foreign government that poses absolutely no threat to the U.S. is the definition of gratuitous. Every Cold War-era coup that the U.S. sponsored was gratuitous. If U.S. officials claimed that they were compelled to take these actions, they were offering up strained rationalizations for what they already wanted to do.

Whatever apparent short-term gains the U.S. might think it is getting by acquiring a despotic client somewhere are usually quite limited and they are always fleeting. The U.S. is usually saddled with an increasingly unpopular ruler whose people come to resent the U.S. for our part in supporting that ruler. Like other kinds of regime change, covert regime change is never really necessary. Brands asserts that governments resort to these tactics when “other options have failed,” but this misses the point completely. Believing that the U.S. has the right to remove another country’s government is a profound error that has inspired many of our worst policies. Invoking rivalry with China is just another excuse to consider doing things that the U.S. should reject on principle. Brands writes:

A few years from now, Washington might find itself desperately seeking covert options to prevent some important country in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East or Southeast Asia from aligning with Beijing.

If we start hearing more arguments like this in a few years, we can be fairly sure that the importance of the country in question will be greatly exaggerated and the danger of “losing” it to China will be much smaller than the alarmists claim. A Cold War-like rivalry with China is undesirable for many other reasons, and the possibility of reviving the worst tactics of the Cold War to engage in that rivalry is one more reason to reject it.

Covert regime change is an intervention that the U.S. has chosen in the past out of excessive fear that a rival might gain a foothold in some far-off country, and in almost every case the alignment of that country didn’t matter to the larger rivalry anyway. Going down that road again means fueling more civil wars, abetting more authoritarianism and atrocities, and ultimately “losing” the country forever when the people have finally had enough of the repression and corruption that are typical of these client governments.

Brands strives mightily to make these covert operations seem more valuable than they were. He even goes so far as to say this:

Without covert action, America might not have won the Cold War.

It is impossible to know for sure how things would have turned out if the U.S. had not done these things, but this doesn’t make much sense. Toppling minor governments and stoking civil wars in far-flung countries had no appreciable effect on the USSR, and they are not why the Soviet Union collapsed. The tragedy of the Cold War is that the USSR was going to implode because of the failings of its own system, but U.S. policies were based on the false assumption that it was a juggernaut that had to be combated everywhere. The U.S. backed a lot of ugly armed groups over the decades in the belief that engaging in these proxy wars mattered greatly to the outcome of the rivalry with Moscow, but in the end they proved to be strategically irrelevant. Whatever form U.S.-China rivalry takes in the years to come, we should not repeat those mistakes.



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