When America ventures into regime change, she always becomes entangled in a three way relationship: there’s America and the regime she’s replacing, but there’s also the new regime she’s replacing it with. Sometimes this third force already exists, and, sometimes, it needs to be created by covert political action. When America brings down the regime and installs the third force in power, the installation is made to put in place a government that serves American interests, not the interests of the people of that country. As national security and intelligence historian John Prados has observed, “In the secret wars from 1947 to the present , no covert operation ever led to a vibrant democracy, and quite a few resulted in dictatorships”. The rap sheet of American third party replacements is lengthy and includes such shining examples as Pinochet, Suharto and the Shah of Iran.
Recent history is no different. America’s twenty-first century regime changes continue the historical pattern of replacing regimes with dangerous third forces that put America on the wrong side of the people. Information that has become available in the past few weeks shows that every American adventure into regime change that has been declared closed by the Obama administration has left another nation under a government that she would not have chosen, that is not aligned with the interests of the people and, often, looks a lot like—or even worse than—the regime it replaced.
The most recent regime change is Libya. Qaddafi is gone. But who is the third force with whom we allied and with whom the Libyan people are now governed? According to information provided by leading humanitarian organizations, they are being governed by a regime that looks a lot like the old one. Last week, Doctors Without Borders, who set up in Libya in August of 2011 to treat people who had been wounded in the war, pulled stakes in Libya because they found that they were treating victims of torture instead. Having refused, on ethical grounds, to treat people during interrogation, Doctors Without Borders found themselves treating people who were being brought to them after having been tortured only so that the detainees could be made “fit for further interrogation”. Doctors Without Borders says they have treated 115 people with torture inflicted injuries.
Amnesty International says that several of these torture victims—most of them suspected Qaddafi loyalists—have died. According to both organizations, the torture is being carried out, not only by rogue militias outside of the law, but by “officially recognized military and security entities”. Amnesty International says that detainees have been tortured in “officially recognized detention centres”, including “in an interrogation centre run by the National Military Security”.
Torture at the hands of the new Libyan regime has included such sadistic techniques as hanging by the wrists or being suspended in contorted positions while being beaten and kicked, being whipped by electric cables, metal chains, bars and sticks, being given electric shocks and being left with open wounds. Doctors Without Borders says that even though they reported each of the cases to the authorities, several of the victims were returned to them having been tortured again. They say that they informed and met with several official agencies, including the agency in charge of interrogation, the National Army Security Service. However “[n]o concrete action was taken,” instead new torture cases continued to arrive. Amnesty also says that they have repeatedly requested investigations into the torture and deaths, but that the Libyan transitional authorities have failed to carry out any.
So, in Libya, America seems to again be on the wrong side. The third force we backed to help the people out from under the brutal Qaddafi regime seems to have simply placed them under another brutal regime.
And the same seems true in Iraq. In that regime change, the regime we changed to has seemingly metamorphosized into the reflection of the one it replaced. What Saddam’s side did to their side, their side is doing to Saddam’s. At the close of last year, Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki charged Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashami with terrorism and issued an arrest warrant for him. Just a few days before, Maliki placed Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq on extended leave. Mutlaq said Malaki is “acting like a dictator”.
And now Human Rights Watch says that “Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism as its security forces abuse protesters, harass journalists, and torture detainees.” They call Iraq “a budding police state”. Iraqi security forces have imprisoned hundreds of people accused of being former Baath party members without charges. Freedom of assembly has been harshly repressed with peaceful demonstrators having been beaten, stabbed and even sexually molested. Iraqi ministers have approved a law and passed it on to parliament authorizing officials to restrict freedom of assembly.
Freedom of expression has been similarly silenced, according to Human Rights Watch, with Iraqi security forces threatening, beating and arresting journalists.
Again in echoes of Saddam, Human Rights Watch discovered a secret detention facility controlled by elite security forces who report to Malaki. These same elite security forces run another detention facility that is more of a torture chamber. There prisoners are hung upside down, given electrical shocks—including on the genitals—and asphyxiated with plastic bags over their heads. Human Rights Watch says that prison brutality and torture is a major problem in the new Iraq.
As in Libya, America has come down on the wrong side of the people of Iraq by using a third force regime whose interests align with the interests of the American government and not with those of the Iraqi people.
Perhaps worst of all is the third contemporary regime change: Honduras. This one is worse in that, whereas in Libya and Iraq both the regime changed and the regime changing it were brutal and undemocratic, in Honduras, regime change took out a popular and democratically elected government that was on the side of the people and replaced it with a U.S. backed coup government. Under the new regime, Honduras has collapsed into the most dangerous place to live in the world. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Crimes Global Study, Honduras leads the world in murders. In 2010, Honduras had an astonishing 82.1 murders for every 100,000 people. In Canada, where I live, there are 1.62 murders for every 100,000 people; in 2008 in the U.S. there were 5.4 per 100,000. Since the coup, the murder rate has gone up by 30%.
The coup regime has been accused of human rights violations and the suppression of any political opposition. Not only is Honduras the country where the average citizen has the greatest chance of being murdered, it has also become a horror chamber for reporters. Since the coup, Honduras has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and, according to Reporters Without Borders, in the first quarter of 2010, it became the world’s single most dangerous country for media professionals. Since 2010, thirteen journalists and T.V. station owners have been killed. But Reporters Without Borders says that “no one has been brought to justice for any of the murders or any of the physical attacks or acts of intimidation or censorship of journalists and human rights activists since . . . [the] coup”. Legislation denies legal status to community radio stations, attacks on opposition and community media go completely unpunished, and the coup government repeatedly shuts down independent media. If community media dare to report on human rights violations by the government, they are punished by the police and armed forces.
As Honduras collapses into the black hole of its own lawlessness, the coup government has granted the military extraordinary powers, giving it the power to detain and search anyone and to enter houses without warrants. One Honduran congressman says that “[t]he military has been occupying more and more space since the coup”. Demonstrators in the new Honduras march into batons and tear gas.
Modern history confirms what American history has taught since the U.S. adopted the policy of advancing her foreign policy interests by interfering in the affairs of other countries by overthrowing and replacing their governments. Though regime change wears the face of rescuing the interests of the people, the third force that America works with is secured into power to assure the advancement of America’s interests, not the interests of the people. John Prados says that “[w]here arrays of organized political movements exist, the choice is frequently limited . . . . Too often the United States lands on the wrong side of the choice”. The last month has demonstrated that, despite the promises of change, nothing in the U.S. has changed. In Iraq, Honduras and Libya, the U.S. sided with third force political parties that aligned with her political interests and landed on the wrong side of the people.