Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Embarrassment to Democracy
By David G. Young
Puerto Morelos, Mexico, February 20, 2018 --
Election interference is a practice shared by America as well as Russia. American Democracy is strong enough to withstand the meddling.
When Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian citizens for interference in the American election, the most striking revelation was what the indictment did not say. There were no murders or violence of any kind. No break-ins, no torture, and no kidnappings. The eight-count indictment would make for the most boring spy movie ever.
Instead, the special counsel charged Russians with performing the most mundane (yet always illegal) tasks of spycraft. The Russians allegedly opened bank accounts under assumed names using real Americans' social security numbers. They lied about being these people over the phone and when accessing computer networks. They lied on their visa applications for travel to the United States and (gasp!) failed to register with the Justice Department as foreign agents.1
But when it comes to the core of what bothers Americans about Russian election interference -- actually attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election -- the indictment was silent. That’s because what the Russians did was perfectly legal..
This is one of the greatest things about American democracy. It’s legal to support distasteful candidates and make misleading (even false) arguments in support of them. Free speech in America is robust because it allows disparaging remarks about public figures without having to prove that they are true. Facebook is only a new tool for spreading lies — it’s been going on in newspapers and America’s town squares for centuries.
Where Russian agents crossed legal lines is in attempts to conceal (using illegal means) that it was Russian agents placing pro-Trump postings on Facebook and organizing anti-Clinton political rallies. The arcaneness of the indictment is important because it goes to the heart of the Russian argument: "We didn't meddle, but even if we did, you guys do the same thing, too."
Indeed. American agents have meddled in foreign governments for over a century (anybody remember the 1973 coup in Chile?) America has more recently meddled in politics in Russia and its former client states. These activities started with the 2003 Rose revolution in former Soviet Georgia and then again in the 2004 Orange revolution in Ukraine. That latter revolt saw the election of Russian lackey Viktor Yanukovych overturned in favor of Western darling Viktor Yushchenko.
Back then, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton admitted to secretly meeting with Yushchenko’s aides and advising them to organize exit polls to claim fraud, which they later did.2 In the same election, the National Endowment for Democracy and Open Society Institute spent American money in Ukraine to support pro-democracy activities (like exit polls) that were far more helpful to the pro-Western opposition than to Russian-backed establishment.3
In 2011, mass protests against rigged Russian parliamentary elections directly threatened Putin. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly expressed sympathy for protesters. An enraged Putin accused Clinton of sending a signal to protesters, and began a hash crackdown.4 Russia passed a law in 2012 banning foreign Non-Governmental Organizations, and in 2015 kicked out the National Endowment for Democracy, the same American group that had helped defend democracy in Ukraine.5
The last straw for Russia came in January 2014. By then, they had managed to regain control of Ukraine. Their man Yanukovich was poised to reject a treaty with the European Union and join a Russian trade block. America backed massive pro-Western “Euromaidan” demonstrations, forcing Yanukovich to flee to Russia. The Kremlin's propaganda vehicle in America, Russia Today, published a wire tap of a phone call between the U.S. Ambassador and the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe about who they wanted to put in charge in Ukraine to replace the Kremlin's man.6
This humiliating loss of control in Ukraine inspired Putin to seek revenge in the 2016 presidential election in America. Russia doesn’t care about the arcane legal charges in Mueller’s indictment, because it sees breaking the law to interfere in America’s election is equivalent to American NGOs breaking Russian laws to interfere there.
To be sure, there is no moral equivalency. A bunch of Western technocrats helping organize exit polls in Ukraine is not the same as Russian agents trying to incite idiot voters on Facebook under assumed names. But Americans should not overreact. The Mueller indictment is an embarrassment to American democracy.
The United States has an unusually strong and durable democratic system. It does not need a prosecutor to come to its defense. There is no proof that Russian support managed to tip the balance in a close election to an distasteful populist — whether you like him or not, that populist already had widespread public support. Hundreds of other interest groups also tried to influence the election (sometimes obscuring their identities with means of varying legality) one way or another. The fact that the Russians were on the winning side doesn’t mean they were responsible. It just means they were lucky.
Related Web Columns:
A Disastrous Conspiracy, August 1, 2017
1. BBC News, Russia-Trump inquiry: Full text of Mueller's indictment, February 16, 2018
4. New York Times, Putin Contends Clinton Incited Unrest Over Vote, December 8, 2011