The highly-anticipated Wikileaks release of thousands of diplomatic cables began with the first installment of releases on Sunday. The release gives average people an unprecedented look into the workings of international statecraft. Beyond historical reference and human interest, the cables reveal contemporary political dishonesty.
The rare inside look at current foreign policy holds immense value for people trying to gain a detailed understanding of politics. The fact that released cables date back to 1966 aids in the value of historical research as well.
But what matters of importance can be found within the drama of the release?
It should not be surprising that government officials make disparaging comments about each other. National leaders are probably ready to pounce on whatever personal weaknesses they find in US diplomats as well. But is interesting to see exactly what kind of assessments they have of each other. Although revelations of information gathering at the United Nations were initially surprising, they really should not be a shock. Of course diplomats are trying to get the upper hand on each other and reporting items of interest to other government agencies. If anything each country only varies in its audacity. However, the human interest part of the story does provide a direct, personal confirmation of what people should realize about government officials. They have human flaws like the rest of us, so how do they get so much power? Partly because at every level they are working to gain advantage over one another.
There are at least six issues raised in the initial cable leaks that ought to be major news.
1) American diplomats offered to trade Guantanamo detainees to foreign nations in exchange for favors. The New York Times reports that “Slovenia was told to take a prisoner if it wanted to meet with President Obama, while the island nation of Kiribati was offered incentives worth millions of dollars to take in Chinese Muslim detainees.” American officials also “suggested that accepting more prisoners would be ‘a low-cost way for Belgium to attain prominence in Europe.’” (All New York Times quotes are from November 28 article “Leaked Cables Offer Raw Look at U.S. Diplomacy”)
2) The government of Saudi Arabia wants the US to attack Iran. Antiwar.com, which has provided excellent analysis of the leaked cables, reported that “Saudi King Abdullah has been repeatedly pressing the United States government to launch a unilateral attack on his long-standing rival, Iran.” Islamic sectarianism may be a motivating factor for Abullah. It should be remembered that the Obama Administration has just made the largest arms deal US history with Saudi Arabia, a theocratic state with a terrible record on civil liberties and gender equality. In addition, the New York Times reported that leaked cables indicate “Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like Al Qaeda.” The influence of regional rivalries suggests balance-of-power politics at work in US foreign policy.
3) The United States told the Turkish government to toe the line on Iran. Antiwar.com describes how in late 2009, the Obama administration “privately warned the Turkish government not to criticize unsubstantiated allegations against Iran’s civilian nuclear program, in particular warning that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments made Turkey ‘vulnerable to international community criticism.’”
4) Afghan President Hamid Karzai claims that the Pakistani government is forcing Taliban militants to keep fighting coalition forces. If it is true that Pakistan is intentionally lengthening the war, it should be considered evidence that war is not unavoidable but is a deliberate policy for furthering state power.
5) Zia Massoud, the vice president of Afghanistan, was found to be carrying $52 million in cash when he visited the United Arab Emirates. Despite suspicion of corruption, the New York Times reports Massoud was ultimately allowed to keep the cash “without revealing the money’s origin or destination.”
6) Yemen officials boldly lie about US bombing. While it has been previously reported that the Yemeni government was involved in covering up the US government’s role in missile strikes aimed at Al Qaeda, leaked cables provide an inside look at the attitude toward deception. The New York Times quotes the Yemeni president as stating “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” which prompted the deputy prime minister to “joke that he had just ‘lied’” to the country’s parliament by telling them Yemeni forces were responsible for the strikes.
The leaks also contain confirmation of unsurprising bad deeds. They reveal that US officials pressured German authorities to prevent them from arresting CIA operatives for the mistaken abduction and detention of a German citizen with the same name of a suspected militant. Government agents expect to operate above the law, and a more powerful government can leverage its power to prevent rivals from holding its agents accountable.
Similarly unsurprising, but nevertheless interesting for their viewpoint, are numerous allegations of corruption, descriptions of the Russian mafia state, and revelations of hacking directed by the Chinese government. Also of note are political assessments of North Korea.
But perhaps the biggest story is how the cables made it to the news in the first place. It is believed that a disgruntled soldier named Bradley Manning downloaded files from a government information network then gave the information to Wikileaks. Manning, a low-level intelligence analyst, was one of 2.5 to 3 million US citizens with access to the network. The US government had apparently set up the vast network for the sake of facilitating the exchange of information between different government agencies, preventing communications failures from becoming weak points.
The dilemma of the vast, vulnerable information network demonstrates tension between security and bigness, but also between security and secrecy. The more people who have access to the network, the more likely one person will take information from it. Yet the fewer people who have access to information, the harder it is to share vital information and pick up on unnoticed connections.
It should also be noted that these are State Department cables, none classified at the highest level of secrecy. What information exists in the bowels of intelligence agencies remains to be seen, possibly after a leak.
So take the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of the State Department. Go to Wikileaks and reach into the stash. And ask why such information was only meant to be seen by a privileged minority.