Keeping Stories About Russia In Perspective

As I noted last week, there has been a lack of understanding of past relationships between world powers, and a lack of perspective, in recent discussions regarding Russia. Some act as if meddling in foreign elections is something new, such as a conspiracy between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency some thought she deserved, as opposed to a continuation of long standing practices (even if updated for modern technology) between world powers.

Some see signs of dirty financial dealings as meaning that the Republicans, and therefore much of our government, is under Russian control. It really is possible for Trump and other Republicans to be corrupt idiots without it being related to a Russian plot. Our politicians, from both parties, have shown plenty of ability to act both corruptly and idiotically without Russia for many years. Some people even seem surprised to hear that an alleged Russian spy used sex to promote her goals. Have they never seen an episode of The Americans? 

Lyle Jeremy Rubin , a former Marine signals intelligence officer who has worked at the NSA, has written about the need for perspective in Commentary. He points out how, “U.S. cyber operations in Russia, across Russia’s periphery, and around the world already dwarfed Russian operations in size, capability, and frequency.”

Furthermore, covert American operations are deeply invested in interrupting democratic processes not only in Russia, but everywhere else. This includes the heart of Europe, where corporate media is now pretending the United States has always respected happy norms and decorum. It is as if the Snowden leaks never happened. The Defense Department’s tapping of Angela Merkel’s phone never happened. The Obama administration’s spying on the German press, including Der Spiegel, never happened. The same administration’s outing of German government whistle-blowers never happened.

Electoral meddling in particular happens all the time, both to us and by us. The U.S. government rigged the Russian election for Yeltsin in 1996, and then they bragged about it in a cover story for Time. (You can still find the cover online.) This followed the disastrous capitalist “shock therapy” of the early nineties and preceded the rise of the Russian oligarchs. Putin’s brand of nationalist resentment grew out of this moment of extreme collective humiliation. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is happily on record pushing for the tampering of Palestinian elections in 2006.

As the political scientist Dov H. Levin has shown, between 1946 and 2000, the United States government conducted at least 81 electoral interventions in other countries, while Russia conducted at least 36. This does not include the U.S. government’s violent overthrow of dozens of governments during this same period, including democratic governments in places like Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973). As recent as 2009, Hillary Clinton’s State Department played a complicit role in the brutal deposition of democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya’s government in Honduras. No other country, including Russia, even approaches this level of wanton disregard for the norms of sovereignty. Around the world, organizations that the U.S. “fund[s], support[s] and direct[s] are openly dedicated to manipulating foreign elections, creating U.S.-friendly opposition movements and even overthrowing governments that impede U.S. interests worldwide.” In 1999, President Clinton sent three advisers to Israel to try to swing the country’s elections for Ehud Barak. The New York Times reported that they were “writing advertisements, plotting strategy and taking polls” for the candidate. Imagine what the reaction would be if Putin had literally dispatched three top deputies to join the Trump campaign.

Of course, a few dozen wrongs don’t make a right, and the fact that U.S. outrage over Russian interference is comically hypocritical doesn’t make tampering with our elections unobjectionable. But anyone who sees the Russian activity as an antidemocratic outrage should be condemning the United States just as loudly, and treating the Russia story as some kind of unprecedented act of covert control is laughable.

That said, just because the United States leads the world in meddling of all kinds, that doesn’t mean we are immune to it. In fact, meddling from abroad comes in many forms. Prominent think tanks in Washington are funded by the Gulf states. The United Arab Emirates contributes generously to the coffers of the Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Center for American Progress (CAP). The Brookings Institute graciously accepts millions from Qatar. The Atlantic Council and Center for Strategic and International Studies enjoy similar arrangements with other oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia. The same can be said for numerous other repressive governments beyond the Gulf. And then there are the defense contractorsWall Street banks, and Silicon Valley behemoths, all of which have joined such governments in capturing intellectual real estate in academia as well.

Our politicians, of course, are being flooded with cash from foreign-related interests. Pro-Israel billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban have bought themselves outsized influence in both parties, with Adelson successfully financing Trump’s rise to power and Saban effectively blocking Keith Ellison’s bid for Democratic National Committee chair. The Turkish lobby, likewise, continues to prove itself another bipartisan force, with everyone from former House leader Dick Gephardt to disgraced national security advisor Michael Flynn being enlisted to secure Ankara prerogatives while whitewashing various crimes against the Armenians and Kurds. As for explicit electoral interference, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been implicated in foul play in the 2016 election. Same goes for Ukraine. Same goes for Israel in 2012. And these are just the instances so brazen that they have made their way into Wikipedia.

Peter Beinart also looked at the history of US meddling in other countries. He introduced the article with this argument as to why it is important:

Discussing America’s history of electoral interference has never been more necessary. It’s necessary not so Americans can downplay the severity of Russia’s election attack. It’s necessary so Americans can determine how—and how not—to respond. The less Americans know about America’s history of electoral interference, the more likely they are to acquiesce to—or even cheer—its return. That’s dangerous because, historically, American meddling has done far more to harm democracy than promote it.

After discussing this history, he concluded, “Washington’s current burst of nationalist indignation, like the one that followed 9/11, is both vital and dangerous if not tempered by an awareness of America’s own capacity for misdeeds. When liberals start calling people ‘traitors’ for acknowledging that capacity, they’ve gone badly astray.”

Beinart is right. If you think the greatest threat to our democracy comes from Russia you are totally missing what the Democrats and Republicans are doing (which is exactly what they want). Republican voter suppression is a far bigger threat to democracy than anything Russia has done. The Democratic rigging of the 2016 nomination is a far bigger threat to democracy than anything Russia has done. The actions by both parties to keep out third parties is a far bigger threat to democracy than anything Russia has done.

While Russia might have meddled in our elections, just as the US meddles all over the world, their impact has been minimal. The overreaction and hysteria over this is also far more damaging than anything Russia has actually done.

Perhaps we need a New Rule: American politicians who are upset about Russian meddling in US politics should make it a priority to make the US stop meddling in the affairs of other countries.

Fearmongering like this is commonplace:

Remember when they told us we were in grave danger because of the missile gap?
Remember when they told us that the whole world would go Communist after the first dominoes fell in Southeast Asia?
Remember when they told us that Saddam could hit us in minutes with his WMD?
Now they tell  us that Russian hackers are taking control of our government. As Douglas Adams would say, Don’t Panic.

We need enhanced cybersecurity, and a paper trail, regardless of whether future threats to the voting system come from Russia or elsewhere. While there is zero evidence that any votes were changed in 2016, we cannot take that chance in the future. Republican opposition to enhanced voting security makes no more sense than the Democratic claims that Russia altered the 2016 election results. However, we do not need to panic. We do not need to claim that those who question unverified claims are pro-Putin. We do not need to continue to restrict American speech on social media. We do not need to promote a further deterioration in the relations between nuclear powers.

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    KP says:

    "We do not need to promote a further deterioration in the relations between nuclear powers."

     

    Agree 100%.

     

     

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