Putin, Russia and the hard truth about election meddling

President Trump’s order Monday to expel 60 Russian diplomats and intelligence officers from the U.S. in retaliation for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain has sent U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest point yet during the Trump administration.

The U.S. joined at least 22 other nations in expelling Russian officials in support of Britain, after the British blamed Russia for the March 4 attack on former Russian spy Sergei V. Skripal and his daughter with a deadly nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union. Both remain hospitalized in critical condition.  

Just about all Americans, regardless of political party, can agree that Russian President Vladimir Putin is an aggressive leader who is one of our greatest geopolitical adversaries – not just because of the poisoning in Britain, but because of a series of other actions he has taken.  

But unfortunately, realizing that Putin is not our friend doesn’t tell us how to deal with him and his government.

We’re already at peak craziness. Was it the Russians who prompted Sen. Tim Kaine to call for progressives to fight in the streets? Did the Russians ask Hillary Clinton to join the resistance? Do they edit the Washington Post and New York Times, or operate CNN and MSNBC?

We could do nothing and just let our differences with Putin and his government fester. But that would mean acceptance of the status quo – a divided and bloodied Ukraine, a continuing civil war with massive casualties and a refugee crisis in Syria, and a costly an arms race.

Alternatively, President Trump could seek an accommodation with Russia to resolve as many of our differences as possible. But isn’t accommodation with a dictator who denies his people many freedoms that we take for granted beyond the pale?

If you think we should have nothing to do with despots, how do you feel about the proposed meeting in May between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un? And what about other dictators America has worked with throughout our history and deals with today?

Given the number of times we’ve sought a deal with the North Koreans – only to be lied to repeatedly and be treated as patsies – do you think them more trustworthy than Putin? And while Russia interfered with our 2016 presidential election, Kim has threatened to nuke the U.S. On the scale of things, isn’t that a wee bit more serious?

But let’s talk about the meddling by the Russians in our presidential election. In monetary terms, it was small potatoes. And if the Russians had wanted to disrupt our politics, it’s unlikely they could have done very much in 2016 or this year.

We’re already at peak craziness. Was it the Russians who prompted Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., to call for progressives to fight in the streets?  Did the Russians ask Hillary Clinton to join the resistance? Do they edit the Washington Post and New York Times, or operate CNN and MSNBC? We don’t need the Russians to make a mockery of American politics. We do it all by ourselves.

And if we are to take further actions against Russia’s meddling in our elections past and future, just what might we do? The First Amendment to our Constitution bars the federal government from interfering with free speech and freedom of the press. If our government tried to censor what is said on the Internet and in the media about our elections, such an action would be unconstitutional.

Instead, it makes the most sense to respond to Russia’s interference in our election by going on the offense, tit-for-tat. If the Russians interfere in our elections, we should interfere in their elections.

But guess what? We’re interfering with Russia’s internal politics already – and we were doing it long before the Russians started meddling on social media sites. If they messed with us, we had started it and it was they who were playing tit-for-tat.

The U.S. government has a long record of supporting pro-democracy non-governmental organizations that seek to subvert undemocratic governments in other countries.

For example, the National Endowment for Democracy is funded primarily by U.S. taxpayer dollars with a mission of exporting democracy. It does so around the world.

In Russia, the National Endowment for Democracy has directed its grants to organizations that employ Putin’s opponents or that engage activists to foster civil engagement. When the Russians enacted their Undesirable Organizations Law in 2015 to bar such activity, the first group banned was – unsurprisingly – the National Endowment for Democracy.

In truth, America has a long history of messing with other countries, beginning with our invasion of Canada in 1775.

On the right, conservatives have decried our support for regime change in Libya and our efforts at nation-building in the Arab world in recent years.

People on the left are apt to remember our support for the right-wing rebel group known as the Contras in Nicaragua under President Reagan, or our ousting of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran under President Eisenhower.

In a more recent example of taking sides in a foreign election under cover of supporting democracy, in 2015 President Obama’s State Department gave $350,000 to an Israeli group – ostensibly to seek an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

In reality, the $350,000 was spent to build a voter database and train activists to oppose the democratically elected government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who Obama detested.

So where does that leave us? We might either shut down our efforts to export our ideals or expect that if we mess with Putin he’ll mess with us.

President Trump largely favors the former strategy. He’d like to slash the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy and clip its wings. He doesn't believe we should seek to export democracy, except by way of providing an example for other countries.

Such a move would be a radical break in the American tradition of defending democracy abroad – and one we should not make.

With all the mistakes we’ve made – with all the ways in which the cause of exporting democracy has been used to excuse foreign wars – the ideal of liberal democracy is worth defending and even exporting.

We did so to resist communism and have no apologies to make on that score. So let’s keep the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Voice of America and support democracy and freedom in other parts of the world.

But if we do these things, let’s be realistic. It’s naïve to think we’ve heard the last from Russian trolls. As we do unto others, they do unto us.

F.H. Buckley teaches at Scalia Law School at George Mason University in Virginia. His book “The Republic of Virtue: How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What We Can Do About It” will be published in December by Encounter Press.