The CIA’s conclusion that the Russian government acted to covertly influence the U.S. election has elicited anger and concern from across the political spectrum, even as President-elect Donald Trump ridiculed the idea that Moscow helped him to victory. This reaction only intensified after NBC News reported that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin took a personal role in the covert campaign.
But is this a kind of cosmic karma? Most Americans believe, with good cause, that our nation has been hugely positive in world affairs, promoting democracy and human rights, and taking on tyrants in two world wars. And the U.S. military amounts to the biggest humanitarian agency in the world, rushing relief to regions plagued by hurricanes and tidal waves. Yet all these virtues need to be considered in the context of American eagerness to meddle in other nations’ affairs. In the past century, for various reasons, Washington has played a role in either ousting governments or interfering in elections in Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Italy, the Congo, Chile, Haiti, Grenada, Panama, Honduras and Guatemala — and those are just the interventions that have been confirmed.
This history led Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive, to decry “a long pattern of U.S. manipulation, bribery and covert operations to influence the political trajectory of countless countries around the world” in a 1997 interview.
In 2000, UC San Diego professor Chalmers Johnson expanded on this observation in his book “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.” Johnson, who died in 2010, argued that the United States would inevitably face the same sort of dirty tricks it had played around the world, paying a price for trying to dominate far-away lands. After the terror attacks on New York City and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 — motivated by Osama bin Laden’s anger over U.S. overt and covert attempts to “annihilate” and “humiliate” Islamic nations — Johnson could not have seemed more prescient.
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None of this excuses what Putin has done, if the CIA is right about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. But Americans rarely make the effort to see the world as it looks from Moscow. In July, writing for The New York Review of Books, Gov. Jerry Brown reviewed “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, which warned that a nuclear war between the United States and Russia was a much greater risk than conventional wisdom assumed. Brown noted that Russia saw as deeply threatening the expansion of NATO, launched in 1996; the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal; and the building of missile defense sites in Romania and Poland.
Why wouldn’t Russia be wary? If a large group of other nations took such actions with the goal of containing the U.S. threat, our leaders wouldn’t shrug it off. If Putin fears America, why wouldn’t he try to help elect a president less hostile to Russia?
This line of thinking won’t appeal to people who see the world in black and white, but geopolitics has never seemed more complex. The U.S. government should do all it can to keep its elections free of foreign influence. Yet in a world where America is often resented as much as it is admired, it’s naive to think that what apparently happened in 2016 won’t be tried again and again.
Americans may believe that we hold the moral high ground — but we as a nation shouldn’t be foolish enough to assume that’s the global consensus.