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Opinion | Andrew J. Bacevich

Foreign governments are messing with our elections the old-fashioned way

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff illustration | Adobe

President Trump’s record as a unifier is spotty at best. Yet on at least one issue, he has helped forge a solid consensus: Americans are not going to tolerate further outside meddling in their politics. In discussing next year’s elections, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell recently put it this way: “Any foreign country that messes with us is going to have a serious problem in return.” The integrity of our electoral system is sacrosanct.

Consider yourself warned, Mr. Putin.

The Mueller report showed conclusively that in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election Russian hackers had done plenty of messing. Republicans and Democrats alike (if not President Trump himself) are now intent on preventing any recurrence of such interference, whether by Russia or other mischief-making interlopers such as Iran or China.

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Patriotic citizens must hope that those efforts will succeed.

Yet those same citizens would do well to consider the other ways in which foreign governments, many of them ostensible friends, have habitually interfered in our politics. To do so, those governments do not employ the latest innovations in information warfare, waged via social media. No, they mess with our politics the old-fashioned way, distributing vast sums of money to buy influence.

Consider oil-rich Saudi Arabia. In 2018 alone, the government spent $33 million in its attempts to influence US policy. To cite one small example, a firm run by former US representative Howard “Buck” McKeon of California received a half-million dollars from the Saudi embassy that year to lobby on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s interests. McKeon himself reportedly received tens of thousands of dollars per month.

The Saudis did not choose their lobbyist at random. During his 22 years in Congress, McKeon acquired a well-deserved reputation for supporting high levels of military spending and for shaking down leading arms manufacturers for campaign contributions.

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Of course, those same arms makers have long viewed deep-pocketed Saudi Arabia as a lucrative export market. During the period 2008-2015, with McKeon either chairing the House Armed Services Committee or serving as its ranking member, Saudi Arabia inked agreements to purchase $93.5 billion in American-made arms. So there is a certain symmetry in someone like McKeon, who formerly served as a de facto agent of the military-industrial complex, now serving as a registered agent promoting the interests of a foreign government that helps keep the military-industrial complex profitable.

Of course, all of this circulation of lucre in and out of pockets is perfectly legal — a form of honest graft, as it were. Yet one has to wonder why the pervasive use of Saudi money to influence US policy is any more tolerable than Moscow’s campaign to tilt the outcome of a presidential election in favor of its preferred candidate.

The Kremlin’s “active measures” to influence the 2016 election constituted a direct attack on American democracy. Yet Saudi Arabia’s longstanding practice of greasing palms in Washington amounts to an indirect attack, nominally within the rules but hardly less subversive to genuine democratic practice.

I do not mean to single out Saudi Arabia, although it does not subscribe to liberal democratic values. It has a long track record of promoting a notably intolerant form of Islam, is engaged in a genocidal war in Yemen, and just a year ago engineered the assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Apart from oil and arms purchases, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand why Saudi Arabia even qualifies as an ally.

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Nor do I mean to pick on McKeon, who is merely adhering to a long and tawdry tradition of former elected and appointed senior officials, not to mention generals and admirals, cashing in on their connections once no longer in office in order to enrich themselves.

One could easily cite other nations with records of behavior nearly as objectionable as Saudi Arabia’s and other willing accomplices at least as venal as McKeon. The simple fact is that there are many other foreign governments engaged in manipulating American politics to their advantage and many other Washington hangers-on more than eager to rake in some dough.

Interested in salvaging the remnants of integrity that survive in American democracy? Well, it won’t be enough to stop the hackers employed by Moscow or Beijing or Tehran (even assuming that it’s possible to do so). To prevent foreign governments from mucking around where they are not wanted will require a concerted effort to get outside money out of American politics altogether. The moneychangers need to be ousted from the temple.


Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory” is due out in January.

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