Christian Morality and US “Meddling” in Overseas Elections

Recently, a prominent liberal American evangelical commended an Intercept commentary by British Al Jazeera commentator Mehdi Hasan, who chastises 70 years of US interference in elections globally.

Hasan says:

U.S. politicians and pundits cannot credibly object to Russian interference in U.S. elections without also acknowledging that the United States doesn’t exactly have clean hands. Or are we expected to believe that Russian hackers were the first people in human history to try and undermine a foreign democracy?

Hasan complains that America has “spent the past 70-odd years meddling in elections across the world.”

Russia is “not the first power to try to undermine a foreign democracy,” Hasan proclaims, citing a 2016 study by Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University that chronicles 81 US electoral interventions between 1946 and 2000, compared to only 36 by Russia. Hence, Hasan says, “So much for the moral high ground!”

Evidently, the less intrusive power lost the Cold War. How tragic. (Actually, Levin’s study almost surely understates Soviet electoral interventions, since Soviet era covert records are less accessible than US Cold War documentation.)

In his brief overview of US electoral meddling, Hasan recalls Italy’s 1948 election, when America was “obsessed” with opposing Italy’s powerful Communist Party. This obsession is implied to be irrational, perhaps psychotic.

Hasan doesn’t mention that Italy’s Communists were effectively aligned with Stalin’s Soviet Union. Their victory could have inhibited a democratic Italy inside NATO, facilitating instead a potential dictatorship aligned with or ultimately inside the Warsaw Pact.

Italy had just emerged from over two decades of fascism, and democratic institutions were hardly secure. Also, had the Communists won in 1948, there could’ve been a civil war, as Greece had suffered. Thankfully, the Christian Democrats won and presided over decades of democracy and relative stability with unprecedented Italian prosperity. The Vatican and Catholic Church were also key partners in US efforts to prevent a Communist victory.

Hasan sarcastically notes the CIA distributed “bags of cash” during the 1948 Italian election. Some of those bags reputedly went to future Pope Paul VI, who was central in the Vatican’s support for the Christian Democrats. His covert collaboration with the CIA in keeping Italy democratic and religiously free was not directly cited in his later canonization, but perhaps it should have been!

What motivated the Vatican to cooperate with the CIA? Beside the common good of Italy, there was the growing persecution of the church behind the Iron Curtain that had just descended across Eastern Europe. This context evidently doesn’t interest Hasan.

Understandably preferring not to dwell too much on these Cold War related elections, which might distract from his anti-US theme, Hasan stresses that one-quarter of US electoral interventions occurred after Communism’s fall. He cites US support for Boris Yeltsin in Russia’s first post-Soviet presidential election in 1996.

Hasan doesn’t mention that Yeltsin’s main opponent was Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, who was initially expected to win and who would have attempted to revive Soviet-era policies. Whatever his faults, Yeltsin was Russia’s virtually only democratic leader in history, except for Alexander Kerensky, who ruled for several months before the Bolsheviks came to power. Putin has subsequently squashed Yeltsin-era freedoms, but almost certainly Zyuganov would’ve been even worse.

Comparing 1996 to the Russian electoral intervention in 2016 America, Hasan sneers, “Oh the irony!” America was trying to sustain embryonic Russian democracy, while Putin’s Russia tried to disrupt American democracy. But Hasan sees no moral or strategic difference. (Hasan doesn’t mention it, but Levin’s study examines US support for post-Cold War East European democrats against receding Communists, such as Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel and opponents of Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milošević.)

Hasan also mocks US support for Fatah against Hamas in the unique Palestinian election of 2006. He scoffs, “Screw the will of the Palestinian people!” Fatah is bad enough, but Hasan seems untroubled by the prospect of violent theocratic rule by Hamas, as Gaza now suffers.

“All meddling in elections is wrong,” Hasan serenely concludes. But what if elections pit democrats against tyrannical movements whose victories would be catastrophic domestically and internationally? He focuses on US interventions since 1946 without reflecting on why America began such interventions after World War II.

Maybe America learned from the global consequences when totalitarians exploited democracy to decapitate democracy. Would Hasan have favored Western support for pro-democrats in Germany’s 1932 election? Or would that “meddling” have been wrong, too?

What if by some miracle North Korea had an actual election pitting its current tyrant, backed by China, against a democratic opposition? Would Hasan favor neutrality?

The liberal US evangelical who commended Hasan’s exposé of American electoral “meddling” presumably supports all sorts of social justice advocacy. But does Christian social justice not include solidarity when possible with democratic defenders of human rights against dangerous tyrannies?

Mark Tooley is co-editor of Providence and president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.

 
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