Election meddling: Knowledge of history can complicate outrage over Russia’s actions

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
We are currently very focused and upset about the likelihood that Russia interfered in our election to help the current incumbent in the Oval Office become the current incumbent.

“American exceptionalism” means different things to different people. Every nation has its exceptional features, and some of our features are pretty good. But I worry a bit that “American exceptionalism” to some means that important laws and rules of international conduct apply to unexceptional, average nations but they don’t apply to us because, for reasons of our general excellence and altruism and indispensableness, laws and rules that apply to others do not apply to us.

We are currently very focused and upset about the likelihood that Russia interfered in our election to help the current incumbent in the Oval Office become the current incumbent. I share this suspicion and the upsetness about it. In my humble opinion, it is worse than obnoxious – it borders on an act of war – for one country to interfere in another country’s process of choosing its leaders and its government.

But, when wallowing in said upsetness, my mind has a tendency to move to forbidden thoughts and questions. Like this question: Is it always wrong for one nation to interfere in the election of another, and, if so, does that include the United States when it interferes — or is that one of those rules to which we are an exception?

The problem is that people like me carry around in our cortexes a pretty long list of cases in which our dear old nation has not been content to follow the general rule about allowing other countries to choose their own governments. And sometimes these cases even involve interfering in other countries elections. I’m pretty sure that the United States has participated in more “regime change” actions than any other nation in the last century or so, the one we sometimes call the “American Century.”

Unless I’m deluded about that, does it perhaps raise an obnoxious “sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander” problem? Is it outrageous for some other to interfere in the way we choose our leaders but much rageous (or do I mean “inrageous”) when we do it to them?

I can’t recall exactly what I was Google searching for on Saturday but something brought up this online Washington Post “Monkey Cage” piece from a couple of months ago headlined: “The U.S. tried to change other countries’ governments 72 times during the Cold War.”

Written by Lindsey A. O’Rourke, an assistant professor of international politics at Boston College, the piece broke the forms of U.S. meddling into categories, including “16 cases in which Washington sought to influence foreign elections by covertly funding, advising and spreading propaganda for its preferred candidates.”

Presumably all or most of the cases did not involve Facebook, but so what?

O’Rourke also noted that of all the ways the United States tried to change the governments of its target nations, “meddling in foreign elections is the most successful covert tactic (as Russia may not be surprised to learn).”

She added:

I found 16 cases in which Washington sought to influence foreign elections by covertly funding, advising and spreading propaganda for its preferred candidates, often doing so beyond a single election cycle. Of these, the U.S.-backed parties won their elections 75 percent of the time.

As in the case of Russia’s role in helping candidate Donald Trump and undermining Hillary Clinton back in 2016, O’Rourke acknowledges that in those instances when the United States meddled in other countries’ elections:

“it is impossible to say whether the U.S.-supported candidates would have won their elections without the covert assistance. Many were leading in the polls before the U.S. intervention. However, as the CIA’s head of the Directorate of Intelligence, Ray S. Cline, once put it, the key to a successful covert regime change is “supplying just the right bit of marginal assistance in the right way at the right time.”

You can (and should) read Prof. O’Rourke’s full piece and decide the sauce-for-the-gander question for yourself. The details are interesting. But the mere fact that the U.S.  government arrogated to itself the right to try to change the governments of other nations 72 times, including 16 cases that involved interference in elections, could complicate one’s moral outrage over the possibility of having been on the receiving end of similar interference.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/26/2018 - 09:52 am.


    There are many of us who have been opposed to the undemocratic meddling in other countries governments by the US long before Russia meddled in ours. My opposition to Putin’s shenanigans is very consistent with past beliefs, and I feel in no way hypocritical.

  2. Submitted by Brian Gandt on 03/26/2018 - 10:32 am.

    Well Said…

    …Frank, sums up my feeling perfectly.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/29/2018 - 11:17 am.

      Same here!

      I can remember when Reagan demanded that Nicaragua postpone its elections so that his handpicked candidate, Arturo Cruz, who had not lived in Nicaragua for 14 years, would have time to campaign.

      And that’s just the most overt bit of interference I can recall.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/26/2018 - 10:38 am.


    I share Mr. Phelan’s long-time opposition to both the Russian operation (done, presumably, with Mr. Putin’s knowledge and approval) and our own meddling in the internal affairs of numerous other nations, including their elections. Lecture me about “realpolitik” all you want, but if we’re so exceptional, and want to believe we’re a shining example of how democracy should be done, we should also understand that meddling in someone else’s election is the antithesis of the sort of “exceptional” aura we like to drape over our collective shoulders.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/26/2018 - 10:40 am.

    No, foreign influence in the politics of another country is as old as the hills and is not limited to the USA or Russia as perpetrators.

    For the USA, it is the perhaps the first time where the benefitting party and candidate are clearly obstructing a defensive reaction to the interference and were welcoming of the interference.

    Selling out your country for access to power (again an age-old occurrence) was usually done in secret, not broadcast as an open appeal during the campaign.

    No hypocritical moral superiority required, just a natural desire for national sovereignty.

  5. Submitted by Roy Everson on 03/26/2018 - 10:44 am.

    Yeah, bad, but no reason to curb your enthusiasm

    The motives are relevant, no? Leading the Free World through the Cold War–whatever one thinks of bone-headed hypocrisies during and afterward–was distinctly different from an authoritarian head of state leading an international plot to undermine peoples’ confidence in their democratic institutions.
    America’s price for its deviations was partial erosion of its moral high ground.

  6. Submitted by David Markle on 03/26/2018 - 12:28 pm.


    I’m sure that there are a lot of foreign leaders who would love to give us a dose of our own medicine by bombing us.

    During the Korean War we bombed the smithereens out of the North, and look at the nuclear armed and well tunneled-in potential foe that resulted.

  7. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 03/26/2018 - 01:30 pm.

    Is less about the meddling than it is about their choice

    In many respects, I’m less concerned about the meddling itself than their choice to interfere on behalf of Trump. And this support of Trump began in the primaries, so it can’t be explained simply by Putin’s hatred of Clinton. Putin apparently felt that it would be to Russia’s advantage to have Trump as president.

  8. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/26/2018 - 02:46 pm.

    You said that

    Russia’s intervention in our elections “borders on an act of war”.
    To the extent that this is true, any involvement (direct or indirect) by Trump would constitute giving aid and comfort to an enemy of the United States; an impeachable offense.

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/26/2018 - 02:48 pm.

    invasion of Canada

    (Quebec) in 1775.
    We started this sort of thing early!

  10. Submitted by William Beyer on 03/26/2018 - 05:35 pm.

    William Blum wrote the book on U.S. meddling – see his most recent summary in the Anti-Empire Report No. 156.

  11. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/26/2018 - 08:47 pm.

    The fact that …

    we seems to be getting a taste of our own medicine does not diminish that fact as others have point out that it was accepted behavior on the part of the good old USA or to be played out on us by those who sought to be informed. Ironic the role the YMCA played in the internal battles after the Russian Revolution. Much of what had been done had not been public knowledge until more recent times. The citizens were in the dark. Now it seems as if the hijacking of the elections also occurred hand in hand with internal sources with the increased knowledge of Cambridge Analytica’s behavior here and in the world. Then we have John Bolton’s PAC as a first user of the Mercer Bannon group with a degree of protection from Citzen United decision. And he has a new job. Humm. How this will play out is frightening. But at least many more people but not all seem to be better informed.

  12. Submitted by Rich Crose on 03/27/2018 - 05:37 pm.

    Might be here now!

    Just think, one of you is a Russian troll who got that moron elected.

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