There is an old joke about why there are never coups d’état in the United States of America: because there is no US embassy there.
Granted, the joke’s foundations have been somewhat shaken now that former President Donald Trump stands accused of inciting an “attempted coup” in January 2021. Not everyone is on board with the “coup” designation, however – even among Trump’s critics.
In a recent interview with CNN about the congressional investigation into the matter, longtime US diplomat and former Trump national security adviser John Bolton – whose moustache “Trump never liked”, as the Associated Press reported – declared it a “mistake” to see the insurrection as a “carefully planned coup d’état”. In short, according to Bolton, Trump was simply too incompetent to pull off something of that magnitude: “As somebody who has helped plan coups d’état – not here, but, you know, other places – it takes a lot of work.”
Of course, US involvement in foreign coups is not exactly a news flash, and plenty has been written on the subject. See, for starters, former New York Times bureau chief Stephen Kinzer’s book Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq – or the Washington Post’s finding in 2016 that “the US tried to change other countries’ governments 72 times during the Cold War”.
But the nonchalance with which Bolton delivered his admission just serves to underscore the United States’ rather casual approach to upending nations and wrecking lives en masse. This institutionalised lack of empathy is, to be sure, also on display in regular international episodes of sustained US military slaughter.
And yet given the apoplexy into which the US establishment enters whenever other countries are perceived to be meddling in affairs that are not their own, the blasé imperial attitude becomes all the more mind-numbingly hypocritical. Nor is perennial US bleating about “democracy” easily reconcilable with, you know, coups d’état.
In the CNN interview, the only specific point Bolton cared to highlight on his own coup-planning curriculum vitae was that of Venezuela in 2019, which “turned out not to be successful”. Not to be confused with the 2002 US-backed coup in Venezuela that briefly ousted Hugo Chávez, the 2019 operation entailed efforts to replace elected president Nicolás Maduro with a right-wing character named Juan Guaidó, who had spontaneously auto-proclaimed himself interim president of the country.
Venezuela has long been a thorn in the side of contemporary American empire on account of its refusal to submit to Washington’s hemispheric designs, but it’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to coup-happy US interference in Latin America and beyond.
Back in 1954, for example, the CIA orchestrated a coup against Jacobo Árbenz, the democratically elected leader of Guatemala, who had proven himself to be irritatingly attentive to the needs of the country’s peasantry and unwilling to permit the predatory US-based United Fruit Company to continue exploiting Guatemalan land as though it was a God-given right.
The coup against Árbenz paved the way for a brutal civil war in which more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared over 36 years. The majority of wartime atrocities were committed by US-supported government forces.
As it so happened, at the time of the coup, key members of the Dwight D Eisenhower administration harboured close personal ties to the United Fruit Company. To hell, then, with the separation of corporation and state.
The previous year, in August of 1953, the CIA “overthrew Iran’s democracy in four days” – as NPR puts it. Like Árbenz, elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh had been insufficiently subservient to the economic preferences of the powers that be. There ensued a long-term reign of torture by the shah of Iran, an avid consumer of US weaponry. As Ervand Abrahamian recalls in his History of Modern Iran, “arms dealers joked that the shah devoured their manuals in much the same way as other men read Playboy”.
The list goes on. There was the 1964 US-backed coup against Brazilian President João Goulart, the 1991 US-backed coup against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the 2004 US-backed coup against again President Aristide, and the 2009 US-backed coup against Honduras’s Manuel Zelaya – which plunged the country into more or less apocalyptic violence.
Rewind again to 1960 and the US-supported coup against Patrice Lumumba – hero of Congolese independence and the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo – whose assassination the following year was significantly facilitated by the CIA. Then there was the US-supported November 1, 1963 coup against South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, who was assassinated the next day.
And there was US support for tyrannical Cuban dictator and coup-monger Fulgencio Batista, who was himself deposed by the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959 – after which the CIA busied itself devising a dizzying variety of plots to kill revolutionary leader and scuba diving aficionado Fidel Castro, including one scheme involving brilliantly painted explosives-laden molluscs.
Obviously, none of these plots panned out, and – what do you know? – Cuba continues to occupy a special place on the appointed nemeses list of none other than John Bolton. In 2002, in his capacity as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security under “war on terror” chief George W Bush, Bolton had the honour of officially adding the diminutive Caribbean island to the “axis of evil”.
Fast forward to 2019, and Bolton warned that the Cuban government would “be next” in line after the demise of Maduro.
And while US malevolence clearly does not always go according to plan, this has not stopped the global hegemon from making life a nightmare for people across the world via military bombs, death squads, crippling embargoes, and other measures that are far less creative but far more destructive than exploding seashells.
As per the aforementioned 2016 Washington Post report on the United States’ 72 attempts at regime change during the Cold War, “meddling in foreign elections is the most successful covert tactic”. Furthermore, the report’s author notes, “covert regime change can devastate the target countries”, rendering them “more likely to suffer civil war, domestic instability and mass killing”. You don’t say.
Now, in the aftermath of Bolton’s would-be revelation, the Post’s Philip Bump takes on the question: “So what coups might John Bolton have been involved in, exactly?” Utilising data from the Cline Center at the University of Illinois, Bump observes that, since Bolton joined the Ronald Reagan administration in 1982, more than 350 coup attempts have transpired internationally – including events “that one might not think of as a coup attempt – like the US-led toppling of the government in Afghanistan” after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Out of the more than 350 attempts, Bump writes, 191 took place while Bolton occupied a position in the US government. Bump has, however, taken the liberty of removing from the equation all attempts that “occurred while Bolton was with [the] Justice [Department] or USAID, assuming that his involvement in any government-led nefariousness would have been limited”. Never mind that USAID, the US Agency for International Development, has been soundly exposed as an intermittent front for CIA operations.
Ultimately, Bump has determined, a mere 131 instances remain in the pool of coup attempts that are potentially eligible for some sort of link to Bolton. And yet, at the end of the day, it’s not really about Bolton at all; it’s about the casual, morally deranged imperialism that he happens to represent.
And as “America’s Century of Regime Change” turns into centuries, it is quite the coup indeed.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.