Review of The Color Revolutions by Lincoln A. Mitchell
The Color Revolutions. Lincoln A. Mitchell. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. 2012.
by Jim Miles
July 22, 2012
This proved an interesting book to review for two main reasons. First it discusses a region that I do not have a strong background with: the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. Balancing that however is the second factor of looking at the arguments presented in The Color Revolutions, and seeing how they fit in with the more global context of U.S. foreign policy.
About the Revolutions
For the first and what is supposed to be the primary aspect of the work, it is a well presented and well argued thesis. Mitchell’s main thesis has two facets.
The first is that in reality, the revolutions were never really revolutions, but progressions in the development of governance in the countries involved. He argues that the societies were generally open to begin with, were not overly repressive - allowing a relatively free press and free speech, as well as allowing the peaceful demonstrations to proceed without violent intervention. Along with this, the political system was somewhat developed, but not overly strong enough to resist the pressures of public protests for reform.
The second facet follows on the first: the non-revolutions were mostly not effective in promoting democracy and creating freer societies. Particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, the post ‘revolution’ period showed a decline in freedoms as the new governments consolidated their power in more repressive ways. In the Ukraine, he argues that the republic achieved an equilibrium as the opposing parties, representing separate regions of the country, were essentially forced into a more balanced position, as well as having to deal with a larger, more geopolitically important environment.
As part of the second idea, Mitchell argues that the main change was in governing elites, that regime change was more of old elites putting a new face on the political landscape. The new leaders had been part of the governing elites previously, and were now put into power. As well, the old leaders who were removed were not dictators nor authoritarian, but were moving forward from the Soviet era.
For this narrowly focussed discussion on the internal politics of the Colour Revolution countries, Mitchell succeeds in convincing the reader. Where he is not so convincing is on his examination of the larger geopolitical context, that of the U.S. relationship with Russia, and with its ongoing interests in the Middle East.
About the Author
Lincoln Mitchell is a political science research scholar at Columbia University. His CV indicates that he was at one time “Chief of Party for the National Democratic Institute.” A search of the NDI provides no definition for Chief of Party, but it appears to be a person who leads one of their research teams in a foreign country. The NDI is the Democrats equivalent to the International Republican Institute, the IRI. The NDI, on further reading, is headed by Madeleine K. Albright, not known for her democratic and peaceful tendencies. She is the one, if the readers need reminding, who thought that the deaths of an estimated five hundred thousand Iraqi children was worth the price for U.S. success in Iraq.
Both the NDI and IRI are involved with democracy promotion in countries where there are concerns about democratic development.
Democracy and the U.S. empire.
Unfortunately, that last statement, while believed by many, is not true. Yes, it is true that those working in the institutes may well believe that they are acting for democracy, but it is the ‘what they do’ part where the failures and contradictions occur. Further, democracy is mostly conflated with capitalism and free markets, and anyone who has followed U.S. foreign policy will know that any democratic socialist government, or any government that opposes U.S. intentions for its empire, will be in political and military trouble. Conversely, those that support the U.S., no matter how authoritarian (sometimes for the better as they will process U.S. renditions) or militarily repressive, will only receive minimal attention from those concerned with democracy. The oil must flow and the corporations must gain wealth.
Mitchell spends a great deal of time informing the reader that the U.S. did not play that large a part in the Colour Revolutions, and that they did not foment them. The latter I would believe, as U.S. history indicates that it is very opportunistic and will take advantage of foreign discontents to steer a country in its direction. The republics in question as indicated were already somewhat open to civil society and not repressive - the U.S. was free to intervene.
How much did they intervene? Not much according to Mitchell, but ‘not much’ here might seem like a big deal somewhere else. Along the way, his arguments present hints as to the broader reality of U.S. intentions.
Language and intentions
I sometimes wonder if authors read their words correctly and reflect them back on their own situations. It is implicit throughout the work that the U.S. is a free democratic state and that it is operating with the “best intentions” in its democracy promotion. Frequently the words do not match the context, and also highlight the double standards of U.S. foreign policy.
Kyrgyzstan is described as having a strong president willing to commit election fraud and other illegalities, if not widespread human rights abuses,” leading to a “decreased confidence in the country’s democracy both domestically and overseas.”
And the U.S.? Certainly Obama is not a strong president, but the institutions that surround him are strong and essentially represent only elitist interests. Election fraud? Always alleged in the U.S., from the problems with electronic elections, to the gerrymandering of electoral districts, and the ongoing disenfranchisement of various citizens through a web of voting rules and regulations. Human rights abuses? For certain, maybe not too much at home (the largest prison system in the world, ongoing racial tensions, immigrant problems, a little bit of torture here and there), but certainly historically and currently abroad.
Yes there most certainly is a decrease in confidence in the country’s democracy.
The U.S. interest in Kyrgyzstan is described as being “because of the American security concerns that grew out of the attacks on New York and Washington.” Mitchell does label U.S. interest in this colour revolution correctly as being mainly geopolitical - an air base for the Afghanistan and Middle East wars.
Two areas where I cannot agree with Mitchell’s arguments are when it comes to NATO and Russia. Here again, language reveals double standards, and the reality of another countries perspectives are downplayed.
The leaders of Serbia were said to have “brought their country into conflict with the U.S.” Yes, I am sure they wished upon themselves a three month bombardment of NATO and (mostly) U.S. ordinance.
In Georgia, the U.S. offered “support” to counter Russia’s “interference.” Russia’s actions are “nefarious” while the U.S. simply “sways” the country. The U.S. had a “need” to “weaken Russia’s influence,” …as an oil trans-shipment corridor…to get NATO onto Russia’s doorstep…to have another quisling government supporting their global imperial actions?
Russia has “perceptions” with the implication that they are not valid as these perceptions were based on “politically motivated, and created fears, as on concrete strategic concerns.” Sounds pretty much like the whole U.S. war on terror, or its war on drugs, or its war on crime…
One of Mitchell’s largest mistakes is his downplaying of the NATO influence, which I guess goes along with Russian “perceptions” on such matters. He says, NATO in no way threatened Russia. Indeed! The whole concept behind NATO was a threat to counter the Soviet Union and when it dissolved, so too should have NATO. Rather it was used to broach the former occupied East European countries, and bring the western military threat up against Russia’s borders. It has been used to help destroy the remnant Serb portion of the former Yugoslavia, carved an independent and decidedly non-democratic state out of Kosovo, occupied much of Afghanistan, killed civilians and destroyed much infrastructure with its dubious ‘no fly zone’ in Libya (where oil and authoritarian anti-U.S. pronouncements were more important than democracy), and are now waiting anxiously to get into Syria and probably Iran.
Mitchell sees NATO in Georgia as a “symbolic” of Russia’s decline. Perhaps Russia sees it as the U.S. saw Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. He also sees NATO as an independent power, fully contradicted by the very structure of NATO with the U.S. heading its two main divisions and its supplying much of the NATO equipment and ordinance. The role of NATO is essentially that of a U.S. mercenary, hired out by the elites of the Euro-zone who operate well within the sphere of U.S. corporate/military interests.
Mitchell’s description of a possible Ukrainian NATO role is simply wrong. Well, yes, it would “contribute a great deal to NATO…and could conceivably play a major role in NATO projects around the world.” One of which is to contain Russia and have it targeted with front line nuclear weapons. He then goes on to say that the Ukraine “has no unresolved territorial disputes into which NATO would be quickly pulled.” Not the Crimea, which Stalin donated to the Ukraine in 1954; nor say the large Russian ethnic population in eastern Ukraine which Mitchell describes as being fairly solidly supportive of a Russian rather than western orientation?
Moments later he says NATO would “raise some major concerns.” Of course, it would then be Russian “intervention” in the Ukraine that would be the problem, not NATO.
More - or less
There are other outstanding errors. Following on the above is his description of NATO as a “democratizing force”, simply not true, it is a full on military organization with military engagement as its raison d’etre. He calls the Iraq elections of 2005 a “bright spot” without putting it into the context that the Shi’ite mullahs essentially forced the U.S to hold elections it did not want as the Shia were a majority in Iraq and potentially Iranian allies.
There are errors of omission as he broadens his scope on democracy. He does not mention the Palestinian elections (2006) that were fully democratic yet denied by the U.S. and its allies. He does question whether the U.S. would accept foreign NGOs operating in U.S. elections cycles - without stating that there are laws against this, something he should well know. He mentions briefly the Arab uprisings in North Africa, but (partly because of the time of writing) does not delve into them, perhaps unwilling to admit that the U.S. partners in the Middle East are not very democratic. Saudi Arabia is a full on authoritarian tribal regime, which helped quell the uprisings in Bahrain, another full on authoritarian regime, and which is now trying to get rid of the Assad regime. Egypt is under the control of the military, mainly financed with U.S. funds. Israel, a self-proclaimed democracy, is more truly an ethnocracy that denies human rights to its Arab citizens, and militarily occupies and suppresses the rest of Palestine (in reality it occupies all of Palestine and is creating a single state out of the two peoples.)
Then there is the overall widespread “intentions” of U.S. global foreign policy. It has invaded, corrupted, assassinated, deposed, overthrown in one manner or another many other countries in the world. Violence and the military is the real U.S. means to bring “democracy” to the world.
In reality, the U.S. does not care about democracy, and only supports it when it has the opportunity to turn a government towards itself. Otherwise it will turn that government with whatever other means available, from containment if it is a bit more powerful than Granada, or sanctions if it is a bit more powerful that Haiti, or covert actions and support of internal repression if it appears a client state is a possible outcome. Finally there is the old reliable direct military assault, which has been used as a very blunt and effective foreign policy action for the life of the U.S. empire.
Blunt and effective for corporate control, for eliminating a pesky regime that contradicts U.S. “intentions”, for controlling the natural and human resources of its empire.
That is an awful lot of input for a revolution which did not happen and for a democracy process that ultimately failed. While the presentation on the demonstrations are well argued, Lincoln Mitchell seems to have a common U.S. viewpoint that “our intentions were good, but we did some things wrong,” rather than as many others see it as being bad intentions surrounded by pretty good sounding rhetoric. And for the true believers in U.S. democracy exportation, it then becomes a contradiction between what is said and what is done, either domestically, in a localized area, or in the full global context, the many double standards that are a full part of U.S. policy.
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles' work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.