A Dog with a Bone
By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
What’s that old saying? Let sleeping dogs lie?
Well, obviously, the U.S. Democrats didn’t pay attention to it.
Rather than allow diplomacy to work its course and to try to resolve mounting tensions with Russia through peaceful negotiations and friendly coaxing, they have spent the last year and a half painting the Kremlin as an international Perils-of-Pauline-worthy villain and Russian President Vladimir Putin as an evil cross between Adolf Hitler and Niccolò Machiavelli.
Did the Russians try to meddle in how U.S. voters leaned in the 2016 elections?
Of course they did.
Russian propaganda machines churned out oceans of spiel on the internet intended to sway U.S. voter sentiment.
But so did practically every other nation on Earth.
Some supported Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and some supported her Republican adversary Donald. J. Trump.
Most Mexican newspapers and broadcasters firmly endorsed Clinton, carefully tailoring their coverage to favor the Democrats over the Republicans, and a majority of Mexican politicians were outspoken in the media about their disapproval of Trump for the U.S. presidency.
Trying to get their U.S. candidate-of-choice elected through stilted media reports is a natural and logical response for foreign governments since what happens in the United States (and who is at the helm of that country) inevitably influences what happens in their own territory.
And using the media to influence politics in other countries and drive agendas is nothing new.
The practice goes back to medieval times, when kings and other European leaders used their influence within the Catholic Church (the main source of public information diffusion at the time) to pressure their neighbors into complying with their particular political agendas within the world order and to outright determine who would sit on the throne in other countries.
In time, newspapers and printed journals replaced the Church as the main means of information dissimilation, and then came television and radio in the 19th and 20th century, and the explosion of free access to everyone everywhere (or nearly) with the introduction of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, which led us to our current age of social media.
Every single one of these media has, at some point in time and in one way or another, been exploited by political groups – both foreign and domestic – to advance their agendas and try to alter the outcome of democratic elections.
Political meddling through news manipulation and disinformation tactics is, in fact, so common, that entire courses on the “art of media influencing” are now taught in virtually every major diplomatic and foreign relations study program in the world.
And with the advent of bots, professional propaganda disseminators and social media algorithms to ensure high visibility, the practice has become even more widespread and technically sophisticated.
It is the implicit obligation of governments to try to ensure that their neighbors have political leaders who are sympathetic to their own national interests, and it is the conspicuous duty of their respective intelligence organizations to work toward achieving those objectives.
Virtually no country, government or political entity on Earth can claim innocence as to having used media manipulation to try to change the course of democratic history.
And when it comes to using the media to try to steer democratic processes abroad, the United States literally wrote the book on the subject in the early 1970s as part of its less bellicose curriculum at the infamous School of the Americas (later known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), where Washington unabashedly taught representatives of repressive regimes imposed by military juntas how to stage coups and stay in power through any means possible (including media manipulation).
In fact, the United States has a long and egregious history of interfering in other nation’s political affairs, especially in the case of Russia.
Among Washington’s more notable examples of attempts to muddy the waters of other countries’ elections by interfering in their democratic process are the cases of CIA funding and propaganda churning in support of “pro-Western” parties against their leftist opponents in both France and Italy during the 1950s and 1960s.
During that same period, the United States also played a big role as instigator in overthrowing democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala and helping to install autocratic regimes in their stead.
And let’s not forget about Washington’s unabashed interference in Nicaragua and its backing of the Contras in the 1980s against the leftist Sandinistas; or its intervention in the Philippines in 1986, leading to the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos; or its involvement in the 2009 coup d’état against elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.
More recently, Uncle Sam was also instrumental in the ousters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi that same year (although no one is claiming that Gaddafi was duly elected).
U.S.-funded NGOs like the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, meanwhile, are still afoot around the globe, overtly helping to “educate” fledgling democracies in the art of republicanism while they covertly fund candidates they feel are pro-American.
Still not convinced?
How about the $5 billion-plus the Barack Obama administration channeled to pro-democracy forces in Kiev during his eight years in office?
Or Republican Senator John McCain showing up in Ukraine in 2016 to coax demonstrators to demand the expulsion of Kiev’s elected government?
As for U.S. meddling in Russian politics, in 1996, Washington sent three American political consultants to secretly manage Boris Yeltsin’s reelection campaign (including media coverage), all of whom later publicly admitted their role in that process in an interview with Time magazine.
Tit-for-tat Russian cyber meddling into the 2016 U.S. electoral process pales in comparison.
At the end of the day, it is up to the voter to weed out which sources of information he or she chooses to believe and allow to influence their ballot.
That may sound a bit like a political version of caveat emptor, but remember that the media has always played a role in molding public opinion and promoting or defaming candidates.
The difference today is that people now have access to a barrage of different media voices and opinions and it is up to the audience to pick and choose which of those voices they elect to give credence to. (The key, of course, is to consider the source, which has always been the gold standard for filtering information.)
To assume that U.S. citizens are not sufficiently intelligent or capable of choosing what sources to believe, and thus curtailing their access to views from abroad or from sources deemed “un-American” or “enemies of the state,” is both an insult to the American voter and the crossing of a very dangerous line into a slippery slope of government censorship, which is the biggest threat to democracy.
If the Russians did in fact hack into U.S. election polling apparatus, such as voter-registration operations, state and local electoral databases, e-polling books and other equipment – and there seems to be strong evidence that they did – then there are clear grounds for concern and legal action.
But demonizing Moscow for having churned out anti-Hillary spiel during the 2016 elections is both futile and hypocritical.
It has also served to antagonize Russia, which has in the past been an arm’s-length ally to the United States on a range of international issues.
Maintaining good diplomatic rapport with Moscow is crucial to U.S. national security and interests, and is vital to global stability.
The fact of the matter is that Washington needs Moscow, not only as an ally in its fights against global terrorism, but also in order to achieve nuclear disarmament, guarantee European political stability, curb global warming, rein in North Korea, and accomplish a Chinese laundry list of other pressing issues.
Getting back to that sleeping dog, Putin showed this week that he had been poked enough and is now ready to bring out the big guns, literally.
In his state of the nation address on March 1, the Russian president announced that his government is about to release an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons that will be immune to detection by U.S. and NATO missile defense systems, and to illustrate, he presented an animated video of one of those warheads dodging a series of detectors to land smack-dab in the middle of Florida.
Most international pundits do not seriously believe that Putin would actually deplore a nuclear warhead aimed at the United States (after all, we are not talking about Kim Jung-un, but rather a sane and — albeit, questionably — duly elected world leader).
But even if his bark is worse than his bite, it is high time for the United States (particularly the Democrats) to stop treating Russia as its enemy and trying to paint Putin as the new Great Satan.
Any dog kicked enough – especially when subjected to a hypocritical double-standard of criticism for its alleged meddling in foreign politics – will eventually bite back.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.