The statement by the director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center, William Evanina, on August 7 giving an “unclassified overview of foreign threats” to the 2020 US presidential election, selectively focuses on “the ongoing and potential activity” by three adversaries – China, Russia and Iran.
Traditionally, Israel has meddled in US elections directly and forcefully much more than any other country possibly could, but the American elite regard it as a family affair.
More recently, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also been mentioned as interfering in US elections, but again none of them can be regarded as an adversary of the US so far.
In the upcoming November election, India also may be deemed to have made a maiden entry – the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston last year where Prime Minister Narendra Modi solicited Indian-American votes for President Donald Trump in his presence.
Many Indian analysts were bullish that there were few takers for anti-India rants in Texas; they went on to applaud that Modi could “handsomely encash” that brazen act in Houston if Trump gets re-elected.
But that is becoming a big “if,” as things stand. According to American history professor Allan Lichtman, who has correctly predicted the winner of each presidential race since Ronald Reagan’s re-election victory in 1984 using his famous “13 keys” system, Trump is heading for defeat.
Who is backing who?
Indeed, we won’t know either way until the November election.
America’s counter-intelligence czar Evanina in his statement last Friday categorized China, Russia and Iran into three broad categories – China against Trump, Russia against Joe Biden and Iran against both Trump and Biden.
This is a plausible categorization, but caveats must be added.
To take China first, it is at once obvious that Beijing has stepped up anti-American rhetoric in the past several weeks. But it is hard to see any trace of interference in the November election.
The rhetoric is almost entirely by way of presenting a counter-narrative to what US officials have been stridently propagating against the Chinese Communist Party leadership. Simply put, the Chinese rhetoric has been largely defensive.
While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has directly mentioned President Xi Jinping by name in his criticism of China, Beijing’s rhetoric has steered clear of Trump.
China has instead highlighted Pompeo and White House aide Peter Navarro as incorrigible Sinophobes, and made a clear distinction between “some American officials” and the rest of the US administration.
The US officials who negotiated the trade deal with China – in particular, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer – or Defense Secretary Mark Esper, never figured in the Chinese rhetoric.
No good choices
Contrary to what Evanina would have us believe, the overall impression one gets is that China can learn to live with either Trump or Biden – or, to put it differently, there will be little to choose between the two, since historical forces are at work in the China-US rivalry and that will remain the case regardless of who is in the White House.
In this Marxist-Leninist line of thinking, China sees the inevitability of rivalry and tensions in the relationship for a foreseeable future. If anything, China has been listening to Sinologists such as Kevin Rudd, who predict that Biden will be no less “tough” on China than Trump.
Nonetheless, China probably regards Biden as a predictable politician in contrast with Trump’s mercurial personality.
Evanina’s statement works to Trump’s advantage insofar as the latter gains out of any perception that the Chinese do not like him because he’s “tough.” The “tough-guy” image apparently goes down well in America where the majority opinion favors the US taking a hard line vis-a-vis China on trade and related issues such as jobs.
When it comes to Russia, Evanina’s statement is spot on. It is plain to see that Russia is working hard to debunk Biden’s candidacy. Russian state media hardly ever criticize Trump, but every little slip-up on Biden’s part is grist to the Russian mill.
Notwithstanding the unfriendly policies pursued by the US State Department, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency since 2017, Moscow’s comfort level with Trump himself is appreciable. It seems confident that Trump is not inherently hostile and can be trusted to keep tensions under check.
Moscow takes sides
On the contrary, Moscow is deeply skeptical of Biden and harbors an antipathy toward him no less visceral than toward Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Indeed, Biden has a long record in foreign policy dating back to his decades in the US Senate and the eight years as vice-president under Barack Obama.
Moscow knows Biden in and out and has no illusions that his hardline attitude, which was very much in evidence during the regime change in Ukraine, all but closes the door on US-Russia normalization if he becomes president.
Any strengthening of the trans-Atlantic partnership, which is a key foreign policy agenda for Biden, will isolate Russia even further geopolitically.
Clearly, Russian state media is working to weaken Biden’s election prospects. He is the butt of ridicule and his stance on various issues is subjected to critical scrutiny.
Curiously, Trump claims he is the toughest American president that Russia ever knew, but President Vladimir Putin has been a cooperative interlocutor all along where vital US interests were involved including on oil prices, terrorism, etc. To be sure, we’ll hear more on this topic in a Biden presidency.
Iran’s stance has similarities with China’s insofar as Tehran also has no preferences and is inclined to view the November election through the prism of its overall relationship with the US.
Iran and its stance
Tehran had placed high hopes initially on Trump, whom it regarded as a pragmatic politician and a potential dealmaker. But all that has become a thing of the past.
Most certainly, the assassination of the Quds chief General Qasem Soleimani in January was a turning point. The dastardly murder colors Tehran’s perspective today on Trump as a criminal.
On the other hand, it is entirely conceivable that under a Biden presidency, US-Iran tensions would ease and the two countries would return to the negotiating table.
Tehran knows that any negotiations will be tough, since Israeli influence on the Democrats will remain substantial, and the contradictions stemming from the US’ regional strategies in the Middle East cannot be wished away.
Iran faces severe constraints in making inroads into US domestic politics or public opinion. Its capacity to interfere in the US election is marginal. Its influence over American think-tanks and the media has been rising in recent years but there is still a very long way to go – another decade at least – before Tehran can aspire to be an opinion maker.
It is doubtful if US counterintelligence seriously regards Iran as posing a threat to the US election.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.