Last week’s capture of American mercenaries by the Venezuelan Army is going to make a good television movie someday but the whole sorry episode begs the question: Given the problems with our own election system, why do we keep messing around with other people’s leaders? Unfortunately, attempts at regime change are as American as apple pie and baseball but, given the history of consequences that have occurred, you’d think we would have learned a few lessons by now.
America’s fledgling attempt at this occurred during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency in a little skirmish with a group we referred to as “The Barbary Pirates.” This was a group of warlords, for want of a better term, who dominated the northern African shoreline and charged tribute to any nation who wanted to engage in local commerce. America was too broke to pay tribute so we shot up the place. Ultimately, however, by installing “new” warlords we brought a successful conclusion to that conflict and the nation-states of North Africa still stand today as shining examples of freedom and democracy.
Actually, human life in some of those countries comes cheaper than a bowl of soggy breakfast cereal.
Regime change can get pretty complicated. Take, for example, the foreign policy ménage-a-trois we had with Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic going on during the ’50s and ’60s. Here, we had backed military dictatorship in Cuba (Batista) but had a problem in Haiti (Papa Doc Duvalier) with a democratically elected leader who turned out to be the kind of guy who cut the heads off of his enemies and had spiritual conversations with them (sort of a voodoo version of Facebook). Papa Doc also had issues with his next-door neighbor in Haiti, Juan Bosch, who was giving sanctuary to Haitian exiles.
When Fidel Castro flipped the tables in Cuba, Papa Doc became our buddy by default. The United States backed off aid to the Dominican Republic as a token of good will and the whole thing turned into a hot mess with the Bay of Pigs episode as a finale and the Cuban Missile Crisis as a sequel.
Naturally the thing to do, as the powers that be decided, was to repeat this plan of action in Southeast Asia in a little country that no one had ever heard of in the early 1960s — Vietnam. Here, we supported a guy named Ngo Dinh Diem and then supported the Vietnamese generals who overthrew him. The United States seemed fixated on supporting whoever was the least popular with the actual people of Vietnam.
While that whole thing was heating up we started messing around next door in Cambodia. In an effort to contain the North Vietnamese we teamed up with a loser named Lon Nol. Before we knew it, Laos was dragged into the mix and the whole thing turned into a Southeast Asian version of Six Flags. And there was a lot of blood on those flags.
In our own backyard we supported Jose Duarte (El Salvador), Anastasio Somoza (Nicaragua), Augusto Pinochet (Chile), and Manuel Noriega (Panama). As an aside, the history of Panama begins with our own Teddy Roosevelt supporting the country’s break from Venezuela for the purposes of canal building.
Back to the Middle East we supported the Shah of Iran and helped to put Saddam Hussein in power along the way. In the end those guys got put down like rabid dogs and the United States will continue to be involved in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
One consistent theme in these failed attempts to make these countries “more like us” is the fact that our diplomatic efforts are frequently at odds with our military efforts. With the Barbary Pirates, for example, the diplomatic approach that Jefferson took with Algeria was different than that with Morocco. At the same time, we didn’t have much of a Navy at that point and private contractors were employed to advance our military efforts.
Another example is the Mexican War of the 1840s. At one point the United States had an agreement with General Santa Anna (the guy from the Alamo) to resolve the conflict if we supported his return to Mexico from exile. Santa Anna had other ideas once he got home. Our president Polk then had Winfield Scott running a military campaign while Nicholas Trist was pursuing a diplomatic conclusion to the conflict. Polk actually “fired” Trist while the war was going on but Trist pretended like he didn’t see the letter and negotiated the treaty of Hidalgo.
Another lesson we ought to learn from this is more direct. These types of conflicts usually end very badly for the people we are trying to “help.” And they always end up even worse for us.