In a post here 11 days ago, Neil Buchanan looked forward to the Obama Inauguration as an opportunity for the U.S. to "become the good guys again." There and in a follow-up, Neil explained how the Bush Administration policies on detention and treatment of prisoners at Gitmo and in Iraq have been counter-productive, providing motivation and recruits for radical Islamists. I don't disagree with the assessment but I do want to raise a question about the notion that we used to be the good guys.

I've just finished reading Stephen Kinzer's book Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. The book makes clear that George W. Bush hardly invented the idea of using force to displace foreign regimes deemed insufficiently friendly to American interests. Here are a few of Kinzer's key points:

1) Prior to the 1890s, the expansion of the U.S. was a process that occurred within the North American continent and many Americans thought that as a democracy, the U.S. should not collect overseas colonies. That attitude changed rapidly in the period surrounding the Spanish-American War. Today--in the post-WW II post-colonial era--Americans again don't believe we should have colonies (with an asterisk for Puerto Rico), but the idea that the U.S. can and should use force to defend its interests abroad is widely accepted by Americans.

2) Even so, and even during the period during which the U.S. was acquiring colonies or installing friendly dictators in place of regimes seen as hostile, Americans do not like to hear that we are acting out of less-than-altruistic motives. Thus, interventions that were ultimately about protecting British access to oil or American fruit companies were justified as protecting the populations of the countries in question from communists--even when the displaced leaders were either not communists or, if left-leaning, not in the orbit of Moscow.

3) Blowback from regime change has a long tail. The best example is probably the American-engineered coup that displaced Iran's democratically elected and generally liberal PM Mohammed Mosaddeq with the dicatorship of the Shah. As Kinzer tells the story, the Shah's repression meant that the only outlet for opponents of the regime was via the mosques, so that when the Iranian Revolution came, it created a lethal combination of anti-Americanism and Islamic fundamentalism. It's entirely plausible that but for the 1953 coup, we would not now be in Iraq, because there would have been no Iranian Revolution in 1979 and no Iran-Iraq War. From there, who knows how Middle Eastern events would have unfolded, but there is a very good chance that Iran today would be an ally rather than a foe. (I'll leave for another day discussion of the blowback from our support for the Islamists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the same period.)

Kinzer makes other points as well, but here I'll add one of my own. The problem of empire we now face is nearly two and a half millenia old, and it is this: Can a democracy still uphold its values when it becomes an empire? Thucydides thought not. He saw that Athens treated its subject states no better than its rivals treated theirs.

But Thucydides was probably unduly pessimistic. Neil is not entirely wrong in characterizing the U.S. as the good guys. Nations that acquire empires abroad must do some nasty things but democracies that value rights at home may do fewer and less severe nasty things than regimes that are out-and-out tyrannies. The empire built by George W. Bush was and is corrupt, incompetent and brutal, but it was not and is not genocidal.

Even if we can assume that President Obama will not embark on any new regime changing adventures, we will still be left with the question that Thucydides asked with respect to our ongoing projects, including Afghanistan, where we are about to increase our troop strength. A more honest, more competent, and less brutal approach to empire is welcome. The abandonment of imperial aspirations (even benign ones) would be better still.

Posted by Mike Dorf