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Electoral Interventions: a Suspiciously Naïve View of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War World

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

If there has been one overarching silver lining to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it is that it has sparked a broader discussion of U.S. intervention abroad. In his new book, Rigged: America, Russia, and 100 Years of Covert Electoral Interference, David Shimer, a New York Times correspondent, pursues the ambitious agenda of examining the last century of U.S. and Soviet/Russian electoral interference. In doing so, Shimer conducted dozens of interviews with high-ranking U.S. foreign policy elites, including CIA members and individuals who served in recent U.S. presidential administrations. In the end, though, he offers up a highly naïve and suspiciously uninformed portrait of U.S. foreign policy, particularly as it involves U.S. state activities in the post-Cold War world.

In its first chapters, Shimer provides a clear view of U.S. intervention in Italy following World War II, as well as U.S. efforts to keep former Chilean President Salvador Allende from coming to power and then collaborating with opposition forces, including General Augusto Pinochet, to have him ousted in a violent coup. The elephant in the room of these discussions, however, is that U.S. intervention existed long before efforts in Italy in the 1940s. Since the inception of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the U.S. had formalized its self-proclaimed dominance over the Western Hemisphere. Shimer admittedly only sets out to examine the last century of intervention; however, there’s hardly any mention of U.S. interventionist policies particularly in Central America and the Caribbean during the early 20th century – in places such as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua. During the past century and before the Cold War, such policies extended even beyond the hemisphere into the Philippines and Guam. All of this is a serious omission from the text.

All together, Shimer seemingly excuses U.S. behavior during the Cold War due to existing global relations with the Soviet Union. According to him, the Soviet Union posed a serious threat to the U.S. and, as a result, the U.S. couldn’t absolutely pursue its allegedly natural interest in democracy. In doing so, he offers very little in the way of criticism of U.S. support for dictatorial governments. Instead, he opts to humanize many of the actors who manipulated elections and deceived foreign citizens abroad. This is somewhat fascinating at times, but paired with the overall tone of the book, it feels rather celebratory.

In the post-Cold War world, Shimer views the U.S. as finally able to pursue its mission all along: democracy promotion. However, there is next to no critical attention paid to the type of democracy that is promoted, what parties and individuals receive assistance, and what actors are sidelined in the process. There is no critical interrogation of U.S. agencies and their objectives, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (and its associated groups: the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute), and the U.S. Agency for International Development. There is next to no engagement with literature produced by social scientists or even by former employees of the NED/USAID, some of whom have deeply criticized the partisan nature of U.S. democracy promotion. Instead, Shimer believes that such efforts are truly non-partisan in most instances and that funding flows to any democratic actor interested in receiving it.

Research on this topic, though, has shown that funding does not simply flow to any actor interested in it. Rather, it primarily flows to actors that U.S. state elites view as maintaining a similar geopolitical worldview as the U.S. Research has also shown that the U.S. promotes a liberal form of democracy, which while it might include some form of civil and political rights, any emphases on social and economic rights are largely absent. More concretely, support has largely flowed to parties that accept or at least do not challenge U.S. global power, such as the right-wing opposition in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Shimer’s characterization of this sort of funding as “above board” and out in the open is equally suspect. The NED and USAID provide very little information to the public on what it is they do with taxpayer money abroad. In fact, I waited nearly seven years to receive all of the documents I requested from the NED through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on its activities in Venezuela. This is hardly transparency; it’s public relations management that has apparently fooled some into believing that the U.S. engages in no more covert action. Indeed, much of the discussion hinges on the term “covert,” a term that the NED surely detests what with its Cold War connotations. I know this, of course, because the group requested that the Washington Post alter a headline given to an article I published with them on NED funding in Venezuela in February 2019 initially titled “The U.S. has quietly supported the Venezuelan opposition for years.” As a result, the term “covertly” was changed to “quietly” several hours after its publication. (The link itself, however, contains the original headline.)

We can agree that the NED and USAID at least list the locations they work around the world on their respective websites and within their brochures. But, does it disclose to existing leftist governments that they are helping opposition groups develop campaign platforms? Does it disclose that they work with student groups that protest their leadership? Does it disclose they are funding rock bands to critique them? Does it disclose they are creating fake community groups, and designing all of their materials in order to change the political affiliations of poor, barrio residents?

It’s also stunning how despite the legacy of CIA deceit and lies, Shimer thinks that the former CIA employees he interviews are providing him with the truth. His conclusion from his interviews with CIA members is that the organization no longer attempts to influence electoral outcomes. His evidence, again, are his own interviews with CIA members. It’s quite a feat of naïveté to take such individuals at their word.

Only a few years ago, for instance, former CIA Director John Brennan lied to the public about the CIA domestically spying on Senate staffers investigating CIA use of torture. Earlier, he had lied about the extent of civilian casualties amid the CIA drone warfare program.

Why would any CIA officer tell Shimer the truth about their activities abroad, particularly while on the record? Why would they disclose to him whether or not they are manipulating elections? These sections involving contemporary CIA activities read like propaganda and parody: “I asked the CIA if they manipulate elections these days. Their answer? No, or perhaps very rarely. So there you have it.”

There is a rich, social scientific history involving contemporary forms of U.S. intervention abroad. It shows how the U.S. still engages in partisan forms of intervention. In my own research, members from both USAID and NED told me this: they want geopolitical allies around the world. Even if Hugo Chávez or Evo Morales are democratically elected, so what? If they oppose major aspects of U.S. foreign policy, then the U.S. democracy promotion community will work to change minds and enhance opposition parties. In the instance of Venezuela, this even included working with actors who had undemocratically sought to depose Chávez in a coup in 2002.

As for Shimer’s sections on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, there is nothing new.

It’s a deeply unfortunate book. Shimer gained access to all sorts of political elites, from Bill Clinton to several former heads of the CIA. Yet, he comes away with nothing insightful or nuanced – just a regurgitation of their carefully crafted statements, all of which you could find in their institution’s mission statements. The book has received accolades from The Guardian and the New York Times, to Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, and Hillary Clinton. The latter is not surprising. For a book all about recent intervention, there is little mention of Clinton’s own attempt to keep the democratically elected and undemocratically toppled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya from running in elections in the post-coup period.

Hillary herself sought to whitewash her memoirs by removing this information from subsequently published copies of her book. The NED carefully selects adverbs to describe its uniformly non-transparent funding. And we now get an author drinking it all in and providing a suspiciously uninformed and under-explored treatment of U.S. intervention abroad. Look elsewhere for the truth.