As the rhetoric over the possibility of Russian interference in US elections heats up, Sam Kriss reminds us of all the times that the US did not merely meddle in the elections of other countries in order to put their own person in power but when those efforts failed, actually overthrew the democratically elected leaders in order to install their preferred candidates, causing decades of immense suffering to the people of those nations.
It’s possible that the Democratic National Committee leaks were caused by Russian hackers—but given that the hack took place thanks to John Podesta clicking on a link in a phishing email, displaying all the technological savvy of someone’s aunt extremely excited by the new iPhone she thinks she’s won, it could have been anyone. The “leaked” CIA concerns over Russian meddling were quite clearly leaked deliberately by the CIA itself, an organization not exactly famed for its commitment to the truth; they’re the conclusions of an investigation that hasn’t even happened yet and on which there’s no consensus even among the gang of petty Caligulas that calls itself the intelligence community. Still, it’s possible. Countries sometimes try to exert influence in each other’s internal affairs; it’s part of great-power politics, and it’s been happening for a very long time. When Americans meddled in Russia’s elections, it was by securing victory for Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s very own Donald Trump, a man who had sent in tanks to shell his own parliament. Leaked cables suggest that Hillary Clinton’s own State Department interfered with the political process in Haiti by suppressing a rise in the minimum wage. And American involvement in the politics of Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Iran was mostly through military coups, sponsored by none other than the CIA. There was no question of these countries repeating their elections; anyone the generals didn’t like was tortured to death. Next to the mountain of corpses produced by America’s history of fixing foreign elections, a few hacked emails are entirely insignificant.
What the Russia obsession represents is a massive ethical failure on the part of American liberals. People really will suffer under President Trump—women, queer people, Muslims, poor people of every stripe. But so many in the centrist establishment don’t seem to care. They’re far too busy weaving themselves into intricate geopolitical power plays that don’t really exist, searching for a narrative that exonerates them from having let this happen, to do anything like real political work. They won’t accept that Trumpism is America, in all its blood-splattered horror—that the dry civics lesson of a democracy they love so much is capable of creating a monster. Decades of neoliberal policy disenfranchised people to the extent that Donald Trump could look like a savior; far better to just hide your bad conscience somewhere far away in Eastern Europe. It wasn’t us, it wasn’t our country, we were all duped by Putin. And if this means falling into reactionary paranoia, screaming red-faced about traitors and spies, slobbering embarrassingly over the incoherent rants of any two-bit con artist whose name isn’t Donald Trump—so be it. None of this will help anyone or achieve anything, but that’s not the point. And then, at the end, with nothing solved, they shrug at us like Eric Garland’s imagined game-theory version of Hillary Clinton. Jesus, what can you do?
Meanwhile president Obama in an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep says that the US will retaliate against any country that interferes in its elections and ends the interview with the usually praises for US virtue.
“Even our adversaries generally respect our adherence to rule of law, our transparency, our openness. And if we start losing that – if other countries start saying that, well, America doesn’t care about these issues or it’s just a might-makes-right environment and we’re not speaking out on behalf of our values and demonstrating our values, then America’s going to be significantly weakened.”
Inskeep, the good establishment reporter that he is, knows the rules of the game and that one must never embarrass the president by asking about the obvious hypocrisies between his words and actions and to directly raise the question of whether it is seemly that the US should be so outraged about foreign interference when they routinely do much worse to other countries.
There have been other reports of US interference. What is interesting is that even when they are pointed out, the US is exonerated. Take this article in the Washington Post. Before listing the examples of US interference, it comes out with the patented excuse that “that was all in the past when we may have done some bad things but we are good now and so have the right to condemn others”. They seem to have forgotten that we only learned many of the horrific details long after the events occurred.
While the days of its worst behavior are long behind it, the United States does have a well-documented history of interfering and sometimes interrupting the workings of democracies elsewhere. It has occupied and intervened militarily in a whole swath of countries in the Caribbean and Latin America and fomented coups against democratically elected populists.
The most infamous episodes include the ousting of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 — whose government was replaced by an authoritarian monarchy favorable to Washington — the removal and assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961, and the violent toppling of socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende, whose government was swept aside in 1973 by a military coup led by the ruthless Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Sometimes that agenda also explicitly converged with the interests of U.S. business: In 1954, Washington unseated Guatemala’s left-wing president, Jacobo Arbenz, who had had the temerity to challenge the vast control of the United Fruit Co., a U.S. corporation, with agrarian laws that would be fairer to Guatemalan farmers. The CIA went on to install and back a series of right-wing dictatorships that brutalized the impoverished nation for almost half a century.
In the late 1940s, the newly established CIA cut its teeth in Western Europe, pushing back against some of the continent’s most influential leftist parties and labor unions. In 1948, the United States propped up Italy’s centrist Christian Democrats and helped ensure their electoral victory against a leftist coalition, anchored by one of the most powerful communist parties in Europe. CIA operatives gave millions of dollars to their Italian allies and helped orchestrate what was then an unprecedented, clandestine propaganda campaign: This included forging documents to besmirch communist leaders via fabricated sex scandals, starting a mass letter-writing campaign from Italian Americans to their compatriots, and spreading hysteria about a Russian takeover and the undermining of the Catholic Church.
“We had bags of money that we delivered to selected politicians, to defray their political expenses, their campaign expenses, for posters, for pamphlets,” recounted F. Mark Wyatt, the CIA officer who handled the mission and later participated in more than 2½ decades of direct support to the Christian Democrats.
This template spread everywhere: CIA operative Edward G. Lansdale, notorious for his efforts to bring down the North Vietnamese government, is said to have run the successful 1953 campaign of Philippines President Ramon Magsaysay. Japan’s center-right Liberal Democratic Party was backed with secret American funds through the 1950s and the 1960s. The U.S. government and American oil corporations helped Christian parties in Lebanon win crucial elections in 1957 with briefcases full of cash.
In Chile, the United States prevented Allende from winning an election in 1964. “A total of nearly four million dollars was spent on some fifteen covert action projects, ranging from organizing slum dwellers to passing funds to political parties,” detailed a Senate inquiry in the mid-1970s that started to expose the role of the CIA in overseas elections. When it couldn’t defeat Allende at the ballot box in 1970, Washington decided to remove him anyway.
After the end of the Cold War, the United States has largely brought its covert actions into the open with organizations like the more benign National Endowment for Democracy, which seeks to bolster civil society and democratic institutions around the world through grants and other assistance. Still, U.S. critics see the American hand in a range of more recent elections, from Honduras to Venezuela to Ukraine.
The pattern is clear. The US vigorously denies doing anything wrong, speaks in high moral tones, and vigorously opposes any attempts to investigate and get at the truth. Then when the truth finally emerges long after the events, then the US government says that that was all in the bad old days and we don’t do such things now and we should “look to the future and not to the past” (Obama’s favorite excuse for not doing anything about the Bush-Cheney atrocities) and the cycle starts anew.