Regime change, both the term and the strategy it describes, has become all too familiar to those who follow the machinations of U.S. foreign policy. Enshrined in the lexicon of our 24 hour media I would not hesitate, however, to say that most people do not dwell on the historic implications associated with its applications. As the current administration proclaims nations such as Venezuela, Syria and Iran to be targets for regime change it would be worthwhile to examine how this weapon of American hegemony has been deployed by previous administrations in previous centuries. While 21st century politicians still offer an exalted claim to the promotion of freedom and democracy an honest examination of this policy readily points to a more base inspiration.
In 1953 the democratically elected secular government of Iran, under the leadership of Mohammed Mossadegh, sought to nationalize the oil reserves of their country. This brought them into conflict with the interest of the British and American fossil industry which in turn influenced their respective governments to actively instigate a coup. The Mossadegh government was overthrown and a repressive government under the Shah was installed preserving western access to Iranian oil.
The following year, 1954, the leftist Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz instituted an agrarian reform law which gave peasant and indigenous farmers access to land being horded by foreign interest such as the United Fruit Company. Refusing to lose access to their ill-gotten gains the United Fruit Company petitioned their contacts in the U.S. intelligence community and within months a CIA directed effort produced a coup that violently deposed Arbenz.
The pattern is easily discernable, regime change was the tool readily made available to the interest of western capital to insure access to foreign resources. In these cases any attempt to nationalize those resources for the needs and desires of the people who rightfully owned them was met by the considerable abilities of agencies such as the American CIA or British MI6 which easily overwhelmed those governments and installed more capitalist friendly replacements.
Looking at these two examples there are many who will admit to the moral short comings of these policies but will at the same time excuse them on the grounds that this was a time when the world was engulfed by the Cold War. The struggles between the western powers and the communist east produced, they would say, many regrettable but necessary sacrifices. But was regime change a Cold War tactic or does its roots lie deeper in the American historic reality than they care to admit? Is it an essential weapon for the promotion of freedom and democracy as America continues to argue or is it, as it appears in 1953 Iran or 1954 Guatemala, a key component in the engine of global capitalism? To find our answer let us look beyond the ideological conflicts of the 20th century to the earliest expansions of the American republic.
In the latter years of the eighteenth century the Creek leader Alexander McGillivray played the interest of the American, British, and Spanish colonial powers against each other to further the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Creek Nation. His successful maintenance of Creek autonomy was severely threatened soon after his death in 1793 by a series of treaties between the Creeks and the Americans that encroached on Creek territory.
Creek society also began to unravel as opposing factions divided over the growing political, cultural, and economic influence of the United States. The Lower Creek towns, enamored with the perceived advantages of white society, sought to restructure Creek society to the Euro-American model allowing an increase of American settlers and traders into their territory. The Upper Creek towns, led by the Red Stick movement, sought to preserve what they considered the virtue of traditional Creek existence.
From an American position the Red Stick movement was a hindrance to their expansionist ambitions. The Federal Road first established in 1805 as a route through Creek lands between Washington D.C. and New Orleans and its expansion in 1811 allowed for an increase of settlers and commerce. The adoption of white farming practices and land owning customs amongst the Lower Creeks gave the Americans a greater degree of access and control to the Creek economy.
When the conflict between the Upper and Lower Creeks expanded into a full-fledged civil war it was of no surprise where the sympathies of the Americans lay. The culturally conservative Upper Creek towns and the traditionalist Red Sticks were determined to hold the line against the increased incursions into their homeland and sought to suppress the growing influence of the United States expressed through the Lower towns. To this point the Americans sought to use merchants, agents and traders to leverage their power in favor of the Lower towns but the escalation of hostilities offered a more direct route to what we would come to call regime change.
In July of 1813 a band of Red Sticks travelled to Pensacola to obtain weapons, ammunition, and powder from the Spanish Governor. On their return trip the band was intercepted by an American militia unit initiating what would come to be called the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek (relating to the location of the skirmish, Burnt Corn Creek in modern-day Washington County Alabama). The short-lived minor battle resulted in few casualties on both sides but precipitated an expansion of the conflict that quickly became the Creek War (1813-1814).
When it ended on March 27th 1814 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend the Red Sticks were decimated and the United States was in a position to dictate the future of the Creek Nation and the Creek people. The compliant Lower Creeks and the defeated Upper Creeks were signatures to the Treaty of Fort Jackson which ceded over 21 million acres of Creek land to the United States.
Overshadowed by the greater conflict of the War of 1812 between the United States and England the Creek War was relegated to the status of minor engagement. Lost in the midst of the historical narrative are not just the details of the battles but more so the repercussions of its outcome. The millions of acres of prime southern agricultural land taken from the Creeks as well as millions more taken from the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminoles, and other southeastern peoples would be essential to the establishment of the American capitalism system.
Southern agriculture, King Cotton, was built in the decades following Horseshoe Bend, the Seminole Wars, and the Trail of Tears on stolen land by the forced labor of enslaved Africans. This was the endgame of the American support for the Lower Creeks and every other political manipulation that produced compliant “Medal Chiefs” that supported the assimilative policies of U.S. leaders from George Washington to Andrew Jackson.
Cotton would grow to become over sixty percent of American exports prior to the Civil War and was crucial to every aspect of the American economy from New England textile mills to New York City financial institutions. The power of the southern slave states grew expediently prior to 1860, to say that slavery was the cause of the Civil War would limit our understanding of the nuances of American politics in the mid-19th century. It would be more accurate to say that the threat of disruption to the Union, more specifically the economy of the Union, was the casus belli for northern politicians while in the south it was the threat of losing the economic advantage that came with the institution of slavery.
Lincoln himself would state in a letter to Horace Greeley in 1862 that, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it”. While he had issues with slavery, advocating at one point the expulsion of freed slaves back to Africa, his loyalty was to the United States and its economic empire. The system that dispossessed Indigenous Peoples from the land and brought Africans here to cultivate and exploit it was, in the end, the system both sides sought to perpetuate in one form or another.
Regime change is simply one of the many tools used, whether two centuries or two weeks ago, to perpetuate the supremacy of capitalism. Despite all claims that it is the only path to a democratic utopia history shows us that it has an insatiable appetite to consume and destroy. There are times when it would seem to bring a level of prosperity to the marginalized but those usually short periods are the exception and not the rule. The nature of the system is predatory. Like the faiths of the ancients it requires a blood sacrifice.
Slavery ended in 1865 but within a few years the southern planter aristocracy was allowed to regain political power and the former slaves and their descendants were made to endure a century of “Jim Crow” oppression to keep them available as cheap labor for the southern economic recovery. Any just reparations such as “40 acres and a mule” were lost with the death of Reconstruction in 1877.
For poor whites the post-World War II boom years gave rise to an economically stable middle class because of the labor needs of industrial capitalism. To fuel the expansion of growing businesses such as the automotive and fossil fuel industries the economic elite was forced to pay higher salaries and submit to higher taxes on themselves. This transitional period lasted over three decades till the pendulum swing was manipulated to catapult in the opposite direction.
Offshoring and outsourcing are the mantras of global capitalism as it stretches beyond any nationalistic restrictions. The sweatshop worker of the 21st century has replaced the 19th century slaves until they themselves are able to be replaced by the ultimate labor force, automation. While political factions fight over the crumbs that fall from the tables of the economic elite the gap between the top and the bottom grows at an accelerating rate. Regime change still rears its head from time to time to keep selected regions politically unstable and unable to protect their resources from the avarice of the financial predators.
It is no accident that countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo remain unstable while multi-national corporations continue to reap massive amounts of profits from the exploitation of its mineral wealth. The threat to the economic monopoly France enjoys over its former colonies in West Africa by the pan-African efforts of Muammar Gaddafi was the chief impetus for the 2011 regime change in Libya that cost him his life. In places such as Syria and Venezuela it is always prudent to remember the mantra “follow the money” and not be distracted by any patriotic rhetoric.
Since 2016 the American left has sought to recast itself as the resistance, fighting the fascist, imperialistic, pro-industry policies of the Trump administration. While there is no white-washing (excuse the pun) the repugnant nature of the 45th President of the United States we must not lose sight of the reality that Mr. Trump is not the cause, rather he is the end result of rot that lies at the heart of American politics. While a President Barak Obama was much more palatable to the senses it was the Obama administration that gave us the regime change in Libya in 2011 that made it a failed state and is still flooding Europe with refugees. It was the Obama administration that allowed regime change in Honduras bringing to power a government more compliant to global capital but oppressive to its own population. Now a haven for criminality its population, fleeing violence, adds to the asylum seekers at the southern border.
The economic system that allows multi-national giants such as Apple or Westinghouse to pay little or no taxes but has no money or political will to feed its hungry children or fix its failing infrastructure will not change with the next election or any that will follow. Both political parties in America are beholden to the dictates of global capital; the system is biased and corrupted. If there is a silver lining to the Trump administration it is that the insidious nature of capitalism is finally laid bare for all to see. The quid pro quo of Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israeli billionaire, opening up his checkbook to Trump and the Republican Party just prior to the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem leaves little doubt of the true nature of the post-Citizens United political reality.
While the mechanics of regime change has become much more sophisticated and complicated since that hot July day on Burnt Corn Creek in 1813 the overall goal has remained the same, make the world safe and profitable for the needs of capital. As the reach of industry has become global then so has communication enabling poor and indigenous people around the world find allies amidst there struggles. The same fossil fuel corporations that pushed Houma People off their lands in coastal Louisiana in the 1930s are the same corporations that are polluting the homelands of Cofan and other tribes in Ecuador in the 21st century. The tactics used against pipeline protesters in South Dakota were perfected by the Israelis against Palestinian protestors in the West Bank and Gaza. Hope may lie in the common interest amongst the Wretched of the Earth in true resistance and in their ability to frame the conflict as the anti-imperialistic struggle that it truly is.