BOSTON — The great Thanksgiving-weekend document dump is upon us.
The staggering download of 250,000 diplomatic documents and cables yielded by WikiLeaks is startling and serious, particularly those uncovered in the Middle East.
They make us all, as The New York Times put it, “global voyeurs” peeking through the keyhole of the inner workings of diplomacy. We shouldn’t be surprised that the view is pretty tawdry.
It would be nice to think that this kind of “transparency” is a benefit for all and that WikiLeaks is facilitating journalism in the digital age. And it’s easy to think the diplomatic community’s uproar over the leaks is the thin-skinned reaction of a bloated and secretive U.S. State Department.
But the truth about these leaks is neither nice nor easy. These leaks may in fact undercut the very spirit of “transparency” that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange says he seeks to inspire.
Diplomatic sources, foreign editors and former ambassadors interviewed by GlobalPost say they believe diplomatic players will now be more guarded — and less transparent — in what used to be called in the delicate parlance of diplomacy “frank discussions” or “a candid exchange of ideas.”
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That will not help governments work together in the spirit of diplomacy, and it won’t necessarily help journalists looking for information on important stories.
It will also have at least one significant unintended consequence. It will, as at least one former ambassador describes it, “fuel the penchant for conspiracy theories in the Muslim world.”
Afghan Ambassador Said Jawad, who has recently stepped down from his post as ambassador to Washington, said in a telephone interview today, “There are so many conspiracy theories, and it will serve to perpetuate the nonsense.”
“The big conspiracy theory is that there is a big brother that just dictates what happens. In reality, the way government operates and the way diplomacy functions is very different, is very transparent, measured and layered decision making.”
Government leaders and diplomats in the Middle East devote much time to dismissing these kind of conspiracy theories. But that job just got a lot harder. The cables portray a shabby view of the kind of craft and sometimes misinformation that goes into diplomacy and international decision-making. This voyeuristic keyhole view fails to enlighten on the bigger picture, the international context and the system of protocols in which fateful decisions are made.
|Backdropped by the Dome of the Rock, Israelis and tourists pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's old city on Nov. 21, 2010. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)|
So far, the most jarring and dramatic revelations in this vast cache of U.S. diplomatic cables seem to come out of the Middle East, particularly in relation to reported calls by Arab world capitals for the United States to do what it must to rid the world of the fear of the Iranian regime headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz is reported to have repeatedly urged the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear program. He wanted the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” in Iran, as the Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir quoted the king as saying in a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus in April 2008.
Another potentially damaging and dangerous revelation was that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh covered up U.S. military strikes on Al Qaeda in Yemen by claiming they were carried out by Yemeni forces.
“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said in January talks with Petraeus, according to a cable published in The New York Times.
One former U.S. ambassador speaking to GlobalPost on background said, “The problem is that this document dump is not about the spirit of enlightenment and the goals of good journalism, it is about undercutting a system of confidential diplomacy that needs to function for any government to achieve its goals in the world.”
It will not foster more transparency, but “very likely” serve to undercut that transparency, the former ambassador said.
Christopher Dickey of Newsweek framed this concern well in a Sunday blog post titled “Fighting Words,”: “This isn’t like the Pentagon Papers, or even Afghanistan and Iraq documents that WikiLeaks poured out earlier this year, which helped to expose or, in most cases, confirm what we already knew about very badly conceived and executed wars. This would appear to be a direct assault on the whole idea of confidential diplomatic correspondence. And that’s not just a bad idea, it’s a stupid one.”
Ryan Crocker, an American ambassador who has held some of the most difficult postings in the world and who helped to execute what is widely seen as the successful military and civilian strategy in Iraq that gave the country breathing room to hold an election, has weighed in on WikiLeaks, saying, “I think Assange is an anarchist — he’s not really interested in getting at important policy issues — just expose it all.”