“How would it be if the United States were viewed by the rest of the world as interfering with elections directly of other countries and everybody knew it?”
President Joe Biden made this stunning remark after his Wednesday meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden meant it as a rhetorical question, but it landed with a thud. The United States does interfere in foreign elections. We’ve done it for decades. Denying this basic historical reality does us no favors with the rest of the world; indeed, it hampers our ability to continue to champion democracy and human rights.
In 1953, the CIA run by Allen Dulles orchestrated a coup in Iran, overthrowing democratically elected Prime Minster Mohammed Mossadegh in favor of the more pliant Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iranians didn’t forget it; in 1979, the Iranian Revolution swept in religious fanatics riding a wave of hatred toward the shah and, by extension, toward America. In Chile in 1973 we overthrew another democratically elected leader, Salvador Allende, paving the way for the brutal — yet U.S.-friendly — Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet enjoyed an excellent relationship with President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger while his regime tortured and disappeared tens of thousands of Chileans.
Whatever election-interfering trick you can think of, we’ve done it. We’ve trained and unleashed death squads in Latin America. We funded splinter groups in Guayana, spread false reports accusing an Indonesian communist party of treason to aid the tyrant Suharto, quarterbacked the overthrow and murder of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba and delivered cartoon-sized bundles of cash to ensure our candidates won elections in Italy. Scholars disagree on the total scale of America’s interference in the modern (post-World War II) era, but we’ve interfered in at least several dozen elections over the past seven or eight decades.
Nor has Russia escaped it. While we’ve spent the past five years obsessed with Russia’s meddling in America, we’ve conveniently forgotten America’s meddling in Russia.
It wasn’t subtle. On July 15, 1996, the cover of Time featured the drawing of a smirking Boris Yeltsin — who’d been re-elected president of Russia — waving an American flag. “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisors Helped Yeltsin Win” proclaimed the headline. Yeltsin had plenty to smirk about; he’d just pulled off a seedy, oligarch-backed victory bankrolled and orchestrated in part by Washington.
By 1996, Yeltsin had gone from being a symbol of democracy to the face of the brutal economic austerity measures that left Russians reeling. He was about to get trounced when President Bill Clinton stepped in. The White House leveraged the International Monetary Fund to pump $10 billion into Yeltsin’s stagnant economy while a trio of D.C.’s crack election wizards were dispatched to drag his bloated campaign across the finish line. The election was rife with fraud — even the U.S. deputy of secretary of state admitted it was most likely corrupt.
Seven years later, Hollywood celebrated Washington’s coup with a lighthearted comedy called “Spinning Boris,” starring Liev Schreiber and Jeff Goldblum. “Electing a Russian President the American Way” was the tagline. Russians didn’t find it funny, especially since Yeltsin’s rapid privatization push sent millions of Russian men to early graves due to unemployment, poor health care, addiction and other social ills. In the process, an entire generation was poisoned to the notion of democracy. This led to a climate of cynicism that was masterfully exploited by Putin.
Often, Americans don’t even register our government’s interference at all. Take Ukraine, where a pro-Western uprising in the winter of 2013–14 led to the ouster of Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych. During the protests, a steady stream of American bigwigs, from Sen. John McCain to Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, joined the crowds, assuring them of U.S. support. “We’re with you!” McCain boomed to the masses. Nuland handed out snacks to the protesters.
It’s safe to say many Americans wouldn’t even consider this meddling. But simply imagine the apoplexy if say, China or Russia had government officials join a Black Lives Matter protest, or an anti-coronavirus restrictions protest — or the Capitol riot.
Imagine the apoplexy if say, China or Russia had government officials join a Black Lives Matter protest, or an anti-coronavirus restrictions protest — or the Capitol riot.
And there’s good reason for that. No one likes meddling, and over the years, America’s interference has had disastrous results. Pretending otherwise makes us look like we’re dissembling or, worse yet, utterly disconnected from reality. It impairs our ability to promote democracy because no nation can credibly address the topic while blatantly whitewashing its past. Above all, it callously dismisses the fates of the millions who’ve been maimed, starved, bombed and murdered as a result.
It’s hard to admit this. Every country has a story it tells itself about itself, a story that shapes how it sees the world. Some countries say they’re strong, some say heroic, some say divine or tragic or misunderstood. America, more than any other place, tells itself that it’s good — innately and universally. If we start questioning that, we rattle our very psyche.
I know this well. When I was 10, my family was admitted to the U.S. as political refugees fleeing Soviet antisemitism. I fell in love with this country the moment I landed on its shores. I loved the freedom, I loved the suburbs, I loved holidays full of eating and fireworks, I loved the ample personal space, and I loved, deeply loved, Ronald Reagan — the American president who fought for my freedom. Like for many other Soviet Jews, Reagan embodied America for me. Reagan was good.
That story fell apart when I was studying at Boston College, a Jesuit school with deep ties to Latin America. There I learned about the massacre at El Mozote, where a U.S.-trained battalion from a Reagan-supported government exterminated over 800 Salvadoran villagers, including children. Soon enough I realized that while for me, the American flag symbolized hope, for those Salvadorans, the American flag meant death.
I’m a product of American foreign policy; the problem is, so are the dead people of El Mozote … and Iran, and Indonesia, and a whole lot of other places. Biden should acknowledge them and acknowledge our history. It’s what a good country should do.