Foreign Interventions Part One

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on January 19, 2022

Recent events in Kazakhstan have stimulated discussion about whether or how liberal democracies should deal with foreign tyrants.

Controlling Dictators

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has described the recent deadly violence in his country as an attempted coup d’état.

Vladimir Putin said Kazakhstan had been targeted by international terrorism but provided no evidence. In Belarus, another tyrant, Aleksandr Lukashenko, brutally suppressed widespread protests against his disputed victory in the country’s 2020 presidential election. There are credible allegations of the torture and sexual abuse of opponents. Lukashenko has made several controversial statements during his presidency which have been regarded as antisemitic, homophobic and misogynistic. On 23 May 2021, Lukashenko personally ordered Ryanair Flight 4978 en route from Athens to Vilnius, carrying the opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, to land in Belarus. Lukashenko is not a nice man – better if he were not there.

Well-meaning liberals in western democracies are naturally horrified at such brutalities and feel that something ought to be done. Exactly what to do and by whom is hard to decide. Armed intervention has not gone well in Afghanistan and Iraq. Economic sanctions rarely cause dictators much discomfort as they have their riches safely stowed abroad. Economic sanctions usually cause more suffering to ordinary citizens, although previously accepted claims about child mortality in Iraq have been challenged. Surveys undertaken since 2003 find no evidence of unusually high levels of child mortality during 1991-2003.

US Interventions

There are still people who hope the US might do something about human rights abuses in other countries as the optimists still, in spite of all the evidence, have more trust in the US than they do in Russia or in China. They are more like our kind of people.

The US has gone through periods of isolationism but has done a lot of interfering over the years, starting with the Barbary Wars in the 19th Century, and later sticking its nose into Chile in 1811 as well as 1973. Also, in the 19th century, there were interventions in Mexico, Japan, China, Korea, Cuba. Spain ceded control over its colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. From 1898 to 1935, the US intervened in and had a military presence in Cuba, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.

Throughout the Cold War, the US frequently used the CIA against governments and groups considered unfriendly to US interests, especially in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. In Egypt, the US helped overthrow King Farouk in a military coup in 1952. In 1953, the CIA helped the Shah of Iran remove the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh.

In 1954, the US deposed the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz and ended the Guatemalan Revolution.

The coup installed the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas, the first in a series of US-backed dictators who ruled Guatemala. Guatemala subsequently plunged into a civil war that cost thousands of lives and ended all democratic expression for decades.

In 1961, the CIA attempted to depose Cuban president Fidel Castro through the Bay of Pigs Invasion and made many attempts to assassinate Castro. The CIA also considered assassinating Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba with poisoned toothpaste (although this plan was aborted). The Belgians got him instead. In 1961, the CIA sponsored the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, former dictator of the Dominican Republic.

US troops intervened in the Dominican Civil War in April 1965 to prevent a takeover by supporters of deposed left wing president Juan Bosch. At the end of the Eisenhower administration, a campaign was initiated to deny the democratically elected Cheddi Jagan power in an independent Guyana. This campaign was intensified and became something of an obsession of John F Kennedy.

The Ugly American

The Ugly American is a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer that depicts the failures of the US diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. The title of the novel is a play on Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American and was sometimes confused with it. The book describes the United States losing its struggle against Communism because of the ineptitude and the bungling of the US diplomatic corps stemming from innate arrogance and their failure to understand the local culture. The novel depicted a stereotype of the American abroad who was universally disliked. The novel also made clear that the few Americans who were knowledgeable about and interested in foreign countries were systematically weeded out of the foreign service.

Violent Pursuit of Happiness

I have been reading an interesting book by Elizabeth D Samet called Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness. Samet teaches English at the military academy at West Point. Long stretches of the book are devoted to film and book summaries. Some might find this bombardment of cultural references a drawback but it does demonstrate that Samet has no difficulty in finding validation for her argument everywhere.

I still have some battered old paperbacks from the early sixties of the novels of John Horne Burns (October 7, 1916 – August 11, 1953). Burns was the author of three novels. His first novel, The Gallery (1947), his best known work, was a best seller, very well received by critics when published, and has been reissued several times. It is currently in print from New York Review of Books Classics. In 2011, William Zinsser described it as “the proto-Vietnam novel, anticipating by a generation the hubris that ‘the ugly American’ would bring to another foreign land” by asking “who was more degraded: the Italians hustling to feed their families, or the GIs selling their cheaply bought PX goods at a huge profit?”

Samet quotes from The Gallery: “The gentle die in battle. Your crude extrovert comes out of his ordeal more brutal and crass and cocky than he went in. That’s the way civilizations die, gradually. A premium is put on physical courage in wartime which kills off the gentle, because they are too noble to admit of cowardice…Death to them is terrible.”

Samet quotes retired rear admiral Gene La Roque on the poisonous legacy of Vietnam. “…the twisted memory of it encourages the men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force anywhere in the world.” In his 1988 book, A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan referred to this mindset as “the disease of victory.” Sheehan expanded on this: “the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the American armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity.” Sheehan argued that this “institutional illness” had spread to civilian bureaucracies and to “the greater part of the political academic, and business leadership of the United States.” This meant that “American society had become a victim of its own achievement.”

More on this subject next week.