The U.S. Needs to Face Up to Its Long History of Election Meddling
Russian electoral interference has renewed the temptation for American leaders to do the same.
Last Sunday morning, CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed Kentucky Senator Rand Paul about Russian interference in the 2016 election. At 7:40 AM, a CNN analyst named Josh Campbell tweeted some of Paul’s comments. He quoted the senator as declaring that the Russians “are going to spy on us, they do spy on us, they’re going to interfere in our elections. We also do the same ... We all do it. What we need to do is make sure our electoral process is protected.” He also quoted Paul as labeling Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian interference with the 2016 election a “witch hunt.”
At 8:23 AM, the liberal author and journalist David Corn retweeted Paul’s quotes with a single word of commentary: “Traitor.” (When I asked Corn about his tweet, he argued that “Paul was excusing a foreign adversary’s attack on the United States. That’s a direct blow at U.S. national-security interests.”)
Corn’s tweet illustrates the danger of this moment. Donald Trump’s refusal in Helsinki to credit his intelligence agencies’ findings about Russian electoral interference has unleashed a nationalist fury in Washington unseen since September 11. In this moment—thick with accusations of “treason” and references to Pearl Harbor—discussing America’s own penchant for election meddling is like discussing America’s misdeeds in the Middle East in the wake of 9/11. It’s apt to get you labeled a traitor.
That’s a problem. 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.
What many Russians, but few Americans, know is that 20 years before Russia tried to swing an American presidential election, America tried to swing a presidential election in Russia. The year was 1996. Boris Yeltsin was seeking a second term, and Bill Clinton desperately wanted to help. “I want this guy to win so bad,” he told Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, “it hurts.”
Clinton liked Yeltsin personally. He considered him Russia’s best hope for embracing democracy and capitalism. And he appreciated Yeltsin’s acquiescence during NATO’s march eastward, into the former Soviet bloc.
Unfortunately for Clinton, ordinary Russians appreciated their leader far less. Yeltsin’s “shock-therapy” economic reforms had reduced the government’s safety net, and produced a spike in unemployment and inflation. Between 1990 and 1994, the average life expectancy among Russian men had dropped by an astonishing six years. When Yeltsin began his reelection campaign in January 1996, his approval rating stood at 6 percent, lower than Stalin’s.
So the Clinton administration sprang into action. It lobbied the International Monetary Fund to give Russia a $10 billion loan, some of which Yeltsin distributed to woo voters. Upon arriving in a given city, he often announced, “My pockets are full.”
Three American political consultants—including Richard Dresner, a veteran of Clinton’s campaigns in Arkansas—went to work on Yeltsin’s reelection bid. Every week, Dresner sent the White House the Yeltsin campaign’s internal polling. And before traveling to meet Yeltsin in April, Clinton asked Dresner what he should say in Moscow to boost his buddy’s campaign.
It worked. In a stunning turnaround, Yeltsin—who had begun the campaign in last place—defeated his communist rival in the election’s final round by 13 percentage points. Talbott declared that “a number of international observers have judged this to be a free and fair election.” But Michael Meadowcroft, a Brit who led the election-observer team of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, later claimed there had been widespread voter fraud, which he had been pressured not to expose. In Chechnya, which international observers believe contained fewer than 500,000 adults, one million people voted, and Yeltsin—despite prosecuting a brutal war in the region—won exactly 70 percent. “They’d been bombed out of existence, and there they were all supposedly voting for Yeltsin,” exclaimed Meadowcroft. “It’s like what happens in Cameroon.” Thomas Graham, who served as the chief political analyst at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the campaign, later conceded that Clinton officials knew the election wasn’t truly fair. “This was a classic case,” he admitted, “of the ends justifying the means.”
Why does this history matter now? Because acknowledging it begs a question that few American pundits and politicians have answered yet: Is the problem with Russia’s behavior in 2016 that it violated principles of noninterference in other countries’ elections that America should respect as well? Or is the problem simply that America’s ox was gored?
During the Cold War, America’s leaders saw nothing wrong with electoral interference, so long as the United States was conducting it. Dov Levin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, has identified 62 American interventions in foreign elections between 1946 and 1989. The large majority—like Russia’s in 2016—were conducted in secret. And, overall, America’s favored candidates were no more committed to liberal democracy than their opponents; they simply appeared friendlier to American interests. In 1968, for instance, Lyndon Johnson’s administration—fearful that the people of Guyana would choose a socialist, Cheddi Jagan—helped Jagan’s main opponent, Forbes Burnham, win an election marked by massive voter fraud. Burnham soon turned Guyana into a dictatorship, which he ruled until his death in 1985.
U.S. officials sometimes claimed that the left-leaning candidates America worked to defeat were more authoritarian than their right-leaning opponents. But as the Boston College political scientist Lindsey O’Rourke notes in her forthcoming book, Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War, “There is no objective truth to their claim that the leftist parties” the U.S. “targeted were ‘inherently antidemocratic.’ To the contrary, many of these groups had repeatedly committed themselves to working within a democratic framework, and, in some cases, U.S. policymakers even acknowledged this fact.” The University of Kansas’s Mariya Omelicheva, who has also researched America’s Cold War election meddling, told me she “cannot think of a case in which America’s democracy concerns superseded its national-security concerns.”
But in recent decades, some experts contend, America’s behavior has changed. First, America’s interventions have grown more public. In 1983, Ronald Reagan created the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which—by giving grants to “political parties, trade unions, free markets and business organizations, as well as the many elements of a vibrant civil society”—does openly what the CIA once did in secret. Second, the United States now focuses primarily on strengthening democratic processes and institutions, not backing particular candidates. “Unlike Russian electoral meddling,” argues Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “U.S. democracy promotion does not … favor particular candidates, or undercut the technical integrity of elections. On the whole, it seeks to help citizens exercise their basic political and civil rights.”
These principles, when followed, distinguish America’s recent behavior from Russia’s. There is a moral difference between open interventions and secret ones. If a government publicly urges another country’s citizens to elect a particular candidate, then those citizens can judge for themselves whether the intervening country has their best interests at heart. That’s why Russia’s attacks on Hillary Clinton via the English-language television station RT—which it openly funds—were less worrying than its clandestine social-media campaign, let alone its alleged hacking and disclosure of Democratic Party emails.
It’s also legitimate for governments to fund organizations that promote free elections and human rights. The United States isn’t alone in doing that; many European governments do, too. In theory, foreign governments should be able to do the same in the U.S. Imagine if Russia gave money to the NAACP to combat voter ID laws that suppress the African American vote. Sean Hannity would howl. But unless the U.S. government was prepared to shut down NED, it would have little basis upon which to object.
If Americans believe in these principles, however—if they want to draw a distinction between America’s behavior and Russia’s—then they must defend them not just against Vladimir Putin, but against their own government. Carothers may be right that since the Cold War, America’s electoral interventions have become more transparent and less focused on engineering a particular outcome. But America’s Cold War habits haven’t entirely disappeared. Clinton has admitted that in 1996, the same year he tried to elect Yeltsin, he also “tried to help Shimon Peres to win the election” against Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. In 2002, a key NED grantee—the International Republican Institute—helped conservative opposition groups in Haiti work to oust left-leaning president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In his memoir, the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates accuses Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, of “doing his best to bring about the defeat of [Hamid] Karzai” in the Afghan elections of 2009.
If such interventions grew rarer after 1989, it’s largely because global circumstances changed. Once the Cold War ended, American leaders simply didn’t care as much about the outcome of foreign elections. Even if countries elected anti-American candidates, those candidates could no longer link up with a rival superpower. It was this “change in U.S. interests,” notes Carothers, which helped prompt “an evolution of norms in many parts of the U.S. policy establishment about the acceptability” of Cold War–style meddling.
But great-power competition is now back. European elections now shift the power balance between America and Russia in a way they haven’t since the 1980s. In countries like the Philippines, they also shift the power balance between America and China. This could easily erode the fragile norm against secret interference on behalf of particular candidates that has emerged in the United States since the Cold War. Imagine an election in Italy or France between a pro-Russian political party and a pro-American one. I suspect that some of the hawks who are most upset about Russia’s interference in recent American and European elections would support American interference to meet fire with fire. Trump himself may have little interest in meddling to defeat a pro-Russian party, since he seems to consider American and Russian interests closely aligned. But it’s not hard to imagine him embracing Cold War–style political subversion in U.S. adversaries like Venezuela or Iran. Before becoming national-security adviser, John Bolton declared, “We once had a capacity for clandestine efforts to overthrow governments. I wish we could get those back.”
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.