It was a moot question put towards the nominees early on in the presidential debate Thursday night that went largely unnoticed in the political commentary that followed. But it spoke volumes about our blinkered Western-centric approach to world politics.
“Last night, top intelligence officials confirmed again that both Russia and Iran are working to influence this election,” moderator and NBC journalist Kristen Welker told U.S President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. “Both countries have obtained U.S. voter registration information, these officials say, and Iran sent intimidating messages to Florida voters.... What would you do to put an end to this threat?”
Questioning election integrity is hardly surprising in a country whose last election saw targeted cyberattacks by Russian-backed hackers and trolls swinging the election in President Trump’s favour. Millions of Americans have indicated they are worried about the potential of foreign interference in November’s election, including nearly 70 per cent of Biden supporters and 30 per cent of Trump voters. So it’s not surprising that Biden responded to Welker’s question with a defiant stare into the camera.
“I made it clear that any country, no matter who it is, that interferes in American elections will pay a price. They will pay the price,” he declared. “They’re interfering with American sovereignty.”
But Russia isn’t the only one to meddle in a country’s political system. The U.S. does it too, and with disquieting success. After former U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller announced the indictments of 13 Russians for using social media to attack former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and boost Trump last year, a former CIA intelligence officer told the New York Times that the U.S. “absolutely” has engaged in election influence abroad. “And I hope we keep doing it,” he added.
For all of the talk of a return to American democratic values — particularly from Biden, who promises a return to “decency, honour, respect” — the reality is that the U.S. has actually done far more to harm democracy than promote it.
Just ask anyone from Iran. You would be hard-pressed to find a single Iranian today, of any political leaning, who doesn’t recall and resent the CIA-led 1953 coup against the democratically elected and then widely popular Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh was considered a threat to U.S. interests when he decided to nationalize Iran’s oil industry.
“It is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said in a 2000 address. The U.S. gave “sustained backing” to the subsequent Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the Shah) regime, which “brutally repressed political dissent.”
Decades later, Iranians continue to suffer from the impact of U.S. interference — less so through its political system (though this itself is arguable since Trump’s cronies continue to schmooze with cult-like exiled Iranian opposition groups) and more so through crippling economic sanctions. These sanctions, reinstated in 2016, are killing cancer patients and children with rare diseases unable to receive life-saving medical supplies because of the restrictions now placed on Iranian banks.
Despite this, Trump’s response to a hastily arranged news conference the night before the presidential debate, in which officials claimed that Iran posed as a far-right group sending intimidating emails to voters, was to slap more sanctions on Iran.
And in another breathtaking move of shortsightedness and hypocrisy, Trump announced Friday that Sudan and Israel had agreed to normalize diplomatic relations, a move he proclaimed a last-minute foreign policy win and Palestinians rightly called a “new stab in the back.”
For decades, Washington has proven to be a dishonest broker in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, most notably when Palestinian group Hamas won a sweeping electoral victory in 2006. Though the election result was widely recognized to be free and fair, jolted U.S. leaders refused to recognize the new, democratically elected government, paving the way for years of continued conflict and international neglect.
Both Democratic and Republican governments have a long and unashamed history of election-meddling since the Cold War. One study found the U.S. intervened in at least 81 foreign elections from 1946 to 2000, in places like Nicaragua, Poland, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of the time, these operations were conducted covertly, such as in Russia in 2016.
The brash and unwarranted power and privilege that Washington continues to hold over foreign countries makes words like Biden’s hard to stomach.
Why should any country that interferes with American elections pay a price? America clearly doesn’t.