As a student of history, I suspect Dick Cheney may be regarded by historians in years to come as an enemy of self-determination, human rights, and long-term political stability internationally on a comparable scale to John Foster Dulles. I say “long-term political stability” because while short-term political stability can (at times) be realized by political repression and economic subjugation of the majority of a nation’s citizens, long-term political stability cannot be forged by such means. Although it would be unfair to entirely attribute the “excesses” (to put it mildly) of Blackwater, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, Abu Ghraib and the protracted wars the United States continues to wage in both Afghanistan and Iraq on Cheney’s shoulders, his roles in our nation’s foreign policy decisions have been significant during the administration of GW Bush. Historians will help us judge the degree to which Cheney’s influence has been beneficial. Although the Presidents which Dulles and Cheney each served (Eisenhower and GW Bush) should reasonably bear more responsibility for the foreign policy successes as well as mis-steps of their administrations, the importance and influence of their closest foreign policy advisors should not be underestimated.
I am reminded of Cheney and Dulles after reading Stephen Kinzer’s excellent article “Inside Iran’s Fury” in the October 2008 issue of Smithsonian magazine.
I learned about John Foster Dulles for the first time in college, when I researched and wrote a history paper about the CIA’s overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954. That U.S. sponsored coup d’état in support of the financial interests of the United Fruit Company had close parallels to the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953. Both of these coups were strongly supported by Dulles, and both resulted in crippling blows to the causes of self-determination and peaceful transfers of power among members of competing political groups in both nations. The destructive legacies of those “successful” coups are still felt today in both Guatemala and Iran, as well as many other nations.
For many U.S. citizens, these events may seem like distant memories unrelated to our present international relations challenges. This misperception is a key reason Kinzer’s article should be regarded as mandatory reading for anyone wanting to better understand the complex dynamics and histories which have created today’s “modern” Middle East.
Does the name William Knox D’Arcy ring any bells for you? Before reading this article it did not for me. It was D’Arcy who negotiated the “concession” in 1901 for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) which further sowed the seeds of Iranian hatred for foreign control and intervention in national affairs still vibrant today. According to Kinzer:
In 1872, a British company bought a “concession” from the decadent Qajar dynasty that gave it the exclusive right to run Persia’s industries, irrigate its farmland, exploit its mineral resources, develop its railway and streetcar lines, establish its national bank and print its currency. The British statesman Lord Curzon would call this “the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has ever been dreamed of, much less accomplished, in history.”
According to today’s English WikiPedia, “APOC was renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1935 and eventually became the British Petroleum Company (BP) in 1954.” Before BP was formed, however, events would transpire in Iran thanks to covert paramilitary operations supported by the United States which would help form an Iranian perception of our nation as a colonial, imperial power feared and hated to this day by many.
On May 1, 1951, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq “nationalized the AIOC, cancelling its oil concession due to expire in 1993 and expropriating its assets.” Great Britain, which enjoyed tremendous financial rewards from its control of the Iranian oil industry and economy, was outraged. According to Kinzer:
After trying every conceivable way to pressure Mossadegh to abandon his nationalization plan, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered British agents to organize a coup and overthrow him. When Mossadegh learned of the plot, he closed the British Embassy in Tehran and expelled all British diplomats, including the agents who were plotting his overthrow. In desperation, Churchill asked President Harry S. Truman to order the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency to depose Mossadegh. Truman refused.
President Truman was RIGHT to refuse Churchill’s plea. Unfortunately, his successor Dwight Eisenhower was not interested in supporting the cause of self-determination abroad and as a result met Churchill’s request affirmatively. Again according to Kinzner:
After President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953, however, U.S. policy changed. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was eager to strike back against growing Communist influence worldwide, and when the British told him that Mossadegh was leading Iran toward Communism—a wild distortion, since Mossadegh despised Marxist ideas—Dulles and Eisenhower agreed to send the CIA into action.
The result of this U.S. instigated coup in Iran, as in Guatemala, was long-term U.S. support for a repressive regime which actively persecuted and destroyed opposing political opponents. The same course was pursued in Vietnam, to similar effect. The Statue of Liberty may have still stood in New York harbor beckoning the downtrodden of the world to come to our shores for protection from suffering and political persecution, but the foreign policy of the United States in the early 1950s communicated a very different message.
Under the leadership of Eisenhower and Dulles, the United States was not interested in supporting democratic movements in nations like Iran or Guatemala. Rather, the United States was most interested in subjugating foreign policy objectives to the desires of powerful multi-national corporations. Human rights? Democracy? Those were just flowery words bantered about in speeches to deceive the public into thinking our nation stood internationally for these ideals, rather than merely the economic, realpolitik needs of wealthy corporations and the men who controlled them.
When I studied for a year in Mexico City and wrote “Defining and Refocusing US Policy Toward Latin America” in 1993, I concluded by noting:
At the end of the cold war, the United States was most likely at the pinnacle of its global power. Shifts in international power balances are presently underway, and the relative influence of economically powerful nations like Japan and Germany is certain to increase. Despite this predictable “decline” in U.S. power, citizens of the United States have the good fortune of having their economic and political systems copied by virtually all the nations of the Western hemisphere. Nations of the Americas appear to be integrating into a universal culture, defined by capitalism and democracy.
The role of policymakers during this transitional era is extremely critical, as momentous changes in economic and political policies are attempted. Mistakes, like the rejection of NAFTA by the U.S. Congress, a unilateral U.S. military intervention in the hemisphere, or a Latin American government’s resort to violence to restore order in a nation destabilized by democratic protest could have dramatic, long term effects for the collective future of the Americas.
I wouldn’t conclude that paper in the same way today. The strong influence of Francis Fukuyama on my thinking about economics and democracy at that point in my life is very evident. Despite my current misgivings about some of the opinions I offered in that paper (most notably the idea of “a universal culture”) I think my point about the dangers of unilateral military interventions is still apropos to this discussion.
Just as the unilateral paramilitary and military interventions in Iran and Guatemala in the early 1950s under the Eisenhower administration had dramatic implications for the people of each nation and their political development, so too have the near-unilataral wars promulgated by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan had tremendous negative effects. Neo-colonialism and imperialism must CEASE to be operational objectives of U.S. foreign policy, and we must embark upon explicit policies which seek to repair international perceptions of our nation as the enemy of freedom and self-determination abroad.
The continued viability of the current repressive, theocratic government in Iran is based to a large degree on a predominant perception of the United States as “the Great Satan:” a country bent on meddling in Iranian national politics and exporting a set of immoral, unacceptable cultural values. This current perception of the United States in Iran has its roots in Eisenhower and Dulles’ decision to militarily support the AIOC with a coup d’état. Kinzer notes:
“Iranians traditionally believed that the United States was not a colonial power, and older people remembered [President] Woodrow Wilson’s anti-colonial views,” says Mansour Farhang, who was the revolutionary government’s first ambassador to the United Nations and now teaches history at Bennington College. “Even Mossadegh initially had great goodwill toward the United States. But during the 1950s and ’60s, largely as a result of the 1953 coup and concessions the Shah made to the Americans, a new generation emerged that saw the United States as imperialist and neo-colonialist. As time went by, this perspective became completely dominant.”
As a citizen of the United States, I reject the proposition that our nation should act in ways which are construed as either “imperialist and neo-colonialist.” I reject the contention that the people of Iran are the enemies of the people of the United States. While I certainly do not support the repressive policies of the current government in Teheran, I also do not support the United States’ policy to unilaterally militarize the “war on terror.” (See my article “Time to Weed the Garden” from 9-14-2001 for more on this.) I deeply regret the terrible decision of President Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to support the violent overthrow of Mohammed Mosaddeq in Iran in 1953, as well as their decision to violently overthrow Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala one year later. There is not much I can do about those past decisions, but there ARE important things we can do as a nation NOW to repair and restore our relationship with the people and government of Iran as well as other nations around the world.
First of all, as citizens of the United States we need to find ways to pro-actively communicate to the world that the values of Hollywood movies and our syndicated television programs do NOT accurately represent the moral perspectives of our entire nation. Two publications which address these issues well are Frank Viviano’s article “Saudi Arabia: Kingdom on Edge” for National Geographic in October 2003, and Robert Bork’s 2003 book “Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline.” Brittany Spears, Madonna, and other popular (at least at one time) divas of U.S. culture do NOT represent the pinnacle of cultural exports and inheritance for which I want our nation to be noted. Fear and distaste for perceived Western cultural values as communicated through popular music and movies are not the only center of gravity for Iranian political leaders’ support base, however. Threats from the United States are as well. Kinzer explains:
“The [current Iranian] regime feeds off American hostility,” says Robert Tait, who spent nearly three years in Iran as a correspondent for the Guardian until he was forced to leave last December when the government refused to renew his visa. “Every time there’s another threat from Washington, that gives them more oxygen. They won’t be able to use this threat indefinitely. There’s a widespread feeling in Iran that the way things are isn’t the way they should be. People believe that too much isolation has not been good for them. But as long as there seems to be a clear and present danger, the government has what it sees as a justification to do whatever it wants.”
We need to strive to cut off this “flow of oxygen” to the repressive leaders in Iran and those who would replace them with more theocratic, repressive rule in the following two ways:
- We need to pull out all the stops, NOW, to end our dependency on foreign oil. We need to implement the Pickens Plan. A diverse constituency of organizations and individuals are coming to recognize the geo-strategic, environmental, as well as economic benefits of ending foreign oil dependence, and eventually ALL dependence on fossil fuels for our commercial as well as consumer energy needs. This change will not happen without strong leadership, however, and thankfully we have a new President steering our ship of state with this change agenda.
- We need to support proactive programs of international cultural exchange with Iran and other nations of the Middle East, to communicate person-to-person that our nation is NOT “the Great Satan.” While a side effect of freedom IS the opportunity people have to engage in and support the base desires of humankind reflected in industries like prostitution and pornography, it is NOT the national agenda of the U.S. government or our people to drag the predominantly Muslim peoples of the Middle East down into a “race to the bottom” of cultural mores and standards. Prostitution and porn are not U.S. inventions, of course, but our nation and the “values of the West” are inaccurately associated with societal ills such as these. These misconceptions should be proactively redressed.
On day 4 of the Democratic National Convention this past summer, now-President Barack Obama said:
For the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as President: in ten years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.
I look forward to our new President making good on this promise.
Breaking our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels more generally will be a formidable task in the years ahead, but so will be restoring international perceptions of the United States as the champion of the ideals of freedom, human rights, and self-determination. President Obama addressed these ideas and this need with the following words in his first inaugural address last week:
The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.
Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediences sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
I am THRILLED that the new, highest elected leader of my nation is “ready to lead once more.” More than any other words in his speech last week, these inspired a cheerful wave of joy throughout my body. My heart tingled with excitement.
Yes, the leaders of my nation have made regrettable mistakes. We cannot rewrite the pages of history. Yet we cannot and should not relegate ourselves to merely accept the mixed inheritance of our forebearers. Our task is to write the future. We, the citizens of the United States, ARE the friends of all who seek “a future of peace and dignity.” We are that light on a hill, shining out into a dark world still filled with fear, corruption, hate, and discord. The economic and military power with which we are now blessed confers great responsibilities, and from those we should not retreat.
iran, unitedstates, colonialism, imperialism, obama, inauguration, guatemala, realpolitik, mohammed, mosaddeq, islam, christian, muslim, politics, leadership, pickens, plan, oil, dependency, economics
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- Digital Citizenship Video Q&A: Round 1 - 2008
- Talking about educational blogging with wider audiences - 2007