American Diplomacy Unveiled
Published diplomatic cables push transparency limits, but many Americans disagree
A supporter of Julian Assange holds a placard outside as another wears a mask outside Westminster Magistrates Court on 7 December 2010 in London, England.
Wikileaks wesite founder Julian Assange appeared in court, before a district judge, to fight an extradition after being accused by the Swedish authorities of one count of rape. Mr. Assange was remanded in custody pending a hearing next week.
By Hussain Abdul-Hussain
Published: Wednesday 08 December 2010 Updated: Monday 13 December 2010
While WikiLeaks argues that its documents push the government’s limits on transparency, many of America’s champions of open government disagree. Meanwhile, in the Arab world, the cables show that what goes on behind closed doors differs little from what is said in public. With many Arab leaders, what you see is what you get.
On 13 June 1971, Alexander Haig, then assistant to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, called President Richard Nixon for the daily brief. Nixon’s initial questions were about the Vietnam casualty figures for the week. Only after the president asked, “Nothing else of interest in the world today?” did “Al” remark on the “Goddamn New York Times expose… devastating uh security breach… greatest magnitude of anything I’ve ever seen.” That day, The New York Times had begun publishing the Pentagon Papers, a documentary history tracing the ultimately doomed involvement of the United States in a grinding war in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam.
The initial Nixon reaction to Al Haig’s words was casual. Nixon even remarked that he had not read the story. It was not until Kissinger personally called Nixon from California that the president got heated up about the Pentagon Papers. Declassified White House tapes show the two men cranked up each other’s righteous indignation. Kissinger was the first to suggest, “it’s actionable, I’m absolutely certain that this violates all sorts of security laws,” and goes on to volunteer to call Attorney General Mitchell on what the prosecution options are. Nixon replied: “People have gotta be put to the torch for this sort of thing …(.)”
The Nixon administration employed a dual track. On the one hand, it censored The New York Times until the Supreme Court overruled the government on 30 June. On the other hand, Nixon formed his infamous team of “plumbers” that went on to investigate the leak, in effect committing a few break-ins, one of which took place at the Watergate building in Washington. The Watergate scandal eventually spelled the end of Nixon’s career. He was the first and only US president to resign (on 8 August 1974).
For America and the world, the 1971 Pentagon Papers announced the advent of the age of governmental transparency. An unfortunate Nixon misread the situation. Instead of surrendering to the leaks, he tried to kill them, and eventually lost.
Almost four decades later, Australian-born Julien Assange appointed himself as the new guardian of America’s transparency. On his website, WikiLeaks, he began the greatest leak in the history of governments as he slowly unveiled more than a quarter of a million US Department of State classified diplomatic cables that include all sorts of useful—and useless—details, from describing Russian President Vladimir Putin as an “alpha dog,” to reporting on Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s escort nurse. The documents cover everything from meetings to weddings and personal impressions.
The diplomatic gossip gave the press something to feast on, and America a red blushing face. World leaders were quoted speaking frankly. They had dropped their guard, knowing they were in an off-the-record environment. The leaks, therefore, made world leaders skeptical. If every undiplomatic thought they utter in front of American diplomats finds its way to the front page of world newspapers, then these leaders will stop speaking freely when around US officials. From the world’s perspective, America had better get its house in order and stop these leaks, or officials around the globe will start saying in their private meetings with their American counterparts what they tell the media in public.
WikiLeaks promises to release a total of 251,287 cables, comprising more than 261 million words. The cables cover close to half a century of American diplomacy, from 28 December 1966 to 28 February 2010. They originate from 274 American embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions.
Since 29 November the site has been unveiling cables at an average of 60 per day. At the current rate, it will take WikiLeaks 15 years to publish all of them. Whatever scandals these documents promise to uncover, the media hype and public interest in the content of the documents will probably recede in a few weeks. But before attention fades away, the world has been divided between those who support Assange’s efforts to force governmental transparency, and those who feel that his actions are an invasion of government privacy.
In a message on his website, Assange wrote that the goal behind uncovering the cables was to show the “extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in client states; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.”
This, according to WikiLeaks, is a “contradiction between the [US] public persona and what [the US] says behind closed doors—and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.” Not all Americans agree with Assange’s goal.
Leslie Gelb, one of the authors of the 1971 Pentagon Papers, told The Majalla that while “Assange insists he did this for transparency's sake... when he got to look inside, he didn't see what was plain: that our diplomats were doing a good job.”
Gelb—a former New York Times columnist and author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy—argued that Assange’s concept of government transparency was blurred. “If a US administration is lying, or distorting the facts, or telling one story to the public and another to itself, then by all means, let's have it out in public,” said Gelb. “If the US government is concocting intelligence in order to justify wars, let's hope an enterprising reporter finds it out for the rest of us,” he added.
Gelb, also president emeritus of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, said: “Indeed, when you turn off his nonsense and stop listening to the strange commentary on cable news and even on the front pages of great newspapers, when you actually read the cables, here's what you see: American leaders and American diplomats trying to solve crucial world problems.”
Other American voices downplayed the importance of the WikiLeaks cables. In an editorial, The Washington Post described the documents as “harmless,” and rather “helpful,” even though “foreign leaders everywhere may consider carefully, at least for a while, before speaking frankly to US diplomats.” The American daily called on the administration to employ new restrictions on access to classified government files.
From an American perspective, the WikiLeaks documents caused minor damage and taught Washington a lesson: End easy access to government files.
From an Arab perspective, WikiLeaks confirmed earlier accounts from anonymous sources, and showed that—in Arab capitals—what is discussed behind closed doors differs little from what is printed in newspapers. This means that with some Arab rulers, what you see is what you get.
In the past, a number of pundits wondered whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was as brutal as his actions suggested, or was merely encircled by advisors who shut him away from reality. The televised sessions of Saddam’s trials, in addition to later written accounts—such as from his FBI interrogator George Pirro or his lawyer Khalil Dulaimi—showed that the late Iraqi leader had been living in a world of illusion. Obsessed with his personal security and hygiene, Saddam lived in a world of conspiracies where mass brutality was simply in the interest of Iraqis and the Arabs. During his days as Iraq’s leader, everyone suspected that Saddam was mentally unstable. Piro and Dulaimi’s inside information came only to verify Saddam’s instability.
Similarly, the WikiLeaks documents prove the paranoia of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. American diplomats report on Qadhafi’s fear of traveling over water or living on a first floor, his threat to go back on surrendering his nuclear program should he be banned from erecting a tent in New York City. The WikiLeaks documents on Qadhafi verify what the public has always suspected, that Libya’s leader has a problem of uncontrollable erratic behavior.