Tell me if this sounds familiar: the leadership of a distant nation has its own ideas about whom you should vote for, or who should rule your country, and acts decisively on them, affecting an election. Such interference in the political life of another country must be a reference to… no, I’m not thinking about Vladimir Putin and the American election of 2016, but perhaps the Italian election of 1948, or the Japanese election of 1958, or the Nicaraguan election of 1990 — all ones in which the U.S. had a significant hand and affected the outcome. Or what about an even cruder scenario than just handing over suitcases of cash to those you support or producing “fake news” to influence another country’s voting behavior? How about just overthrowing an already elected democratic government you find distasteful and installing one more to your liking, as in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, or Chile in 1973?
All of the above were, of course, classic American operations in which the CIA, in particular, “hacked” foreign elections (so to speak) or simply wiped out democratically elected governments. In the post-World War II era, this sort of thing was a commonplace. As Joshua Keating of Slate reports, a recent study “found evidence of interference by either the United States or the Soviet Union/Russia in 117 elections around the world between 1946 and 2000, or 11.3% of the 937 competitive national-level elections held during this period. Eighty-one of those interventions were by the U.S. while 36 were by the USSR/Russia.”
While people may still be arguing about what exactly Russia hacked into during the recent U.S. election and which Russians did it, the history of U.S. interference in, or in response to, elections in other countries is at best a fringe story in our world. And yet, here’s the strange thing: given the official shock and outrage in Washington right now over the very idea of the Russians tampering with an American election, you can search the historical record in vain for past public hints of remorse in Washington, no less apologies for overthrowing or even killing foreign leaders or undermining, or simply ditching, elections. And yet you have to wonder what the world might have been like had the U.S. not interfered so relentlessly in electoral politics globally. How might the history of Chile, Guatemala, or Iran been different if the U.S. hadn’t been quite so focused on destroying democracy in each of those countries?
Such thoughts came to my mind because, in today’s piece, Rajan Menon, author of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, explores Donald Trump’s possible plans for tearing up (or living with) the Obama administration’s Iranian nuclear deal — and for tearing into or living with Iran itself. After all, if there is one thing the men he’s appointing to his national security team seem to have in common, it’s their obvious Iranophobia. Their sky-high level of animus and anger toward that mid-sized regional power is, or at least should be, striking. It would be inconceivable, had the CIA, in cahoots with Britain’s MI6, on the orders of American President Dwight Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, not taken out the popular elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq in August 1953. They did so in response to its nationalization of the properties of the British oil company we now know as BP. That CIA-engineered military coup, which put an autocratic and oppressive Shah firmly on the Peacock Throne for the next quarter century and consigned democracy to the trash heap of history, led directly to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution of 1979, the embassy hostage situation of that year, and all the decades of enmity that followed. The present Iranian situation — now one of the most combustible on the planet, as Menon points out — might as well be stamped “creation of the Great Satan.” But who would know it here? Who cares? Who remembers?
Those who forget history are fated to… well, perhaps be Trumped by it, as we may soon see.