The news: Quick! You’ve just been elected president of the United States, and senior military officers and gray-suited men with clipper cuts stand around your desk, requesting immediate direction on a number of foreign crises. What do you decide? Luckily, this handy flow chart from from cartoonist Andy Singer can make those decisions for you.
This looks … strangely accurate. It’s just a joke, but it’s surprisingly correct. Just follow the arrows for our test case in Iraq: dictatorship > mineral and oil wealth > no nuclear weapons > invasion > puppet government > uprising > rinse and repeat.
While the past decade of American unilateralism has demonstrated the U.S.’s commitment to screwing around with sovereign governments, America’s track record of destabilizing or overthrowing foreign regimes goes back well before World War II.
But it’s been worse since then. Between the U.S. march on Berlin and the end of the Cold War, covert U.S. intelligence assets have been implicated in attempted or actual regime changes in Syria, Iran, Guatemala, Tibet, Indonesia, Cuba, the DR Congo, Iraq, the Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Brazil, Ghana, Chile, Argentina, Afghanistan, Turkey, Poland, Nicaragua, Cambodia and Angola.
Since the end of the Cold War, American assets were involved in overthrows of governments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezula, Haiti, the Gaza Strip, Somalia, Iran, Libya and Syria. And that doesn’t even count the U.S.-engineered military invasions in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Bosnia/Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention places where U.S. air power has been deployed to attack military and insurgent targets across the globe. (By the way, if you haven’t been counting, that’s 36 countries.)
It’s not all cloaks and daggers. To be clear, U.S. power has ousted horrible dictators. The Dominican Republic’s dictator Rafael Trujillo murdered as many as 50,000 of his own people before being assassinated with weapons provided by the CIA in 1961. Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega was in bed with drug cartels and murder gangs and had one of his most prominent opponents decapitated and stuffed into a United States Postal Service bag. And Saddam Hussein was certainly not the jolly character his rotund belly, mustache and friendly handshakes with Donald Rumsfeld might imply.
But humanitarian concerns have almost universally been secondary to the U.S.’s strategic logic dealing with real or imagined foreign threats, from the containment of communism to today’s brutal drone campaigns against jihadi terrorists across the Middle East and North Africa. At best, they’ve usually been secondary justifications for things hawkish elements of various U.S. administrations wanted to do anyways.
Finally, as shown in the graph above, America has always been willing to back authoritarian regimes that toe the Western party line. The U.S. has supportive relationships with Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Equatorial Guinea and Turkmenistan, demonstrating American hostility has always been selective and capricious. Regimes willing to support friendly commercial relationships with the U.S. always seem to have a suspicious advantage. New York Times journalist Stephen Kinser refers to successful actions the U.S. has engaged in as “catastrophic victories,” where American meddling has often caused serious problems down the line.
So, what’s the big deal? The U.S. is still considering the degree of support it’s willing to lend to the nascent Iraqi government, beleaguered by a raging insurgency by the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant in the northern half of the country. So far President Obama has accepted sending some 300 military advisers (high-ranking officers and special forces veterans) to help stabilize Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. While there’s nothing to suggest that the U.S. wouldn’t be picking sides in Iraq if we hadn’t overthrown Hussein in 2003, there’s also extraordinarily little evidence behind the idea that the U.S. invasion has improved either regional stability or the day-to-day lives of everyday Iraqis.