The Wikileaks leak of State Department diplomatic cables (heretofore and eternally known as “Cablegate”) contains little in the way of revelations, and this is what makes Wikileaks’ actions so damning. The substance of what was said in them is not important; the fact that specific foreign service personnel are known to have said these things about their foreign counterparts, or about foreign heads-of-state, is what is of consequence.
Let’s consider some of the prominent cables that supposedly constitute “dirt” on our government: In one cable a State Department official accuses Russian President Dmitry Medvedev of “playing Robin to Putin’s Batman,” echoing an opinion of many stateside observers–including even Stephen Colbert–that Vladimir Putin has retained the real power in Russia even as he moved over to the top position in the Duma. The leak also revealed our embassy’s discontent with mounting authoritarianism within the Kremlin–apparently checked mostly by endemic corruption throughout Russia’s bureaucracy. In another cable–one which is pretty difficult to justify leaking–the US ambassador to Pakistan last year expressed concerns that the government of Pakistan was moving too slowly to allow us to dispose of its excess weapons-grade uranium; from the New York Times article: “A senior Pakistani official, she said, warned that if word leaked out that Americans were helping remove the fuel, the local press would certainly ‘portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.'” So, Wikileaks decided that the principle of open information was important-enough to accept tipping off everyone else as to where there is unsecured weapons-grade uranium not yet fashioned into a bomb; in the same leak it also decided it was alright to reveal a disposal deal apparently so embarrassing to Pakistan that could push back plans to secure the nuclear material indefinitely. Then there is the recent US counter-terrorism relationship with the amusingly-businesslike Ali Abdullah Saleh, the dictator of Yemen. This man drives a hard bargain, discerningly implying our government will have to provide further military aid to further its campaign against the major al-Qaeda presence in his country. If we are lucky, the exposure of this hard-nosed exchange will give more people a sense of clarity about the centrality of deal-making in international politics. (It’s also central to domestic politics, of course–but there are a lot of people who can’t be told that.) Interestingly, in one of the leaked cables our ambassador to France said that, while Nicolas Sarkozy is a good ally of the United States, he also moves in “a zone of monarch-like impunity,” relying upon a cabinet that won’t offer pointed criticisms and apparently harboring suspicions toward Turkey.
So: A number of these cables simply reveal a hard-working foreign service who seem to be motivated by the right concerns–not just US or even World security but the (flagging, beleaguered) promotion of liberal government.
Consider for a moment what Julian Assange and Wikileaks have accomplished: Moreso than our government in aggregate, it’s likely that the greatest injury will be done to those State Department officials who observe a lot of things they are discontented about–but who recognized the value of discretion while they tried to achieve a variety of objectives from national security interests to disaster relief distribution to political reforms. In other words, this wasn’t a blow against government secrecy, it was an attack on the privacy of some of the most-principled and diligent people working in our foreign service.
Considering how secretive he is about his personal life, Assange could easily be charged with hypocrisy for consenting in and promoting the embarrassment of so many individual State Department employees.
If anything, this leak is less-likely to pose difficulties for the most-jaded or the less-diligent among our foreign service personnel. (If you’ll recall my previous blog post in which I referred to Assange’s own description of a campaign to cause “cognitive degradation” in government, you may suspect as I do that this was his very intention.) Those in the foreign service who aren’t troubled by the authoritarian disregard for the rule of law or the rights of countrymen that are the very governing style of a Vladimir Putin, a Hu Jintao or a Hosni Mubarak would be less-likely to make some of the observations that appeared in these cables. Julian Assange, all the while with mild portents that he considers himself our savior, has managed to embarrass State Deparment officials almost in proportion to the extent that their work required a very moral kind of diligence. The State Department may conclude that any number of these people can’t continue with their present postings because their foreign counterparts or certain capricious heads of state simply won’t want to deal with them. Yes, a lot of the information that came out of these diplomatic cables was common knowledge; maybe many American observers of foreign policy even assumed that all this unflattering dirt on foreign governments (ironically) was “public.” But it wasn’t. No particular end was served; it injures hard-working State Department officials whose agenda is often a beneficial one of political development. I’m talking about the disruption to the lives and work of a countless number of the talented and hardworking people in our foreign service. This is a leak that disadvantages the good guys relative to the bad guys. How would you feel if you were passed over for a promotion because someone leaked compromising information about you that didn’t reflect negatively on you in any way personally, for reasons that had nothing to do with your own work? How would you feel if they said that the very nature of your industry was corrupt, implying that the good work you know you’ve done wasn’t significant?
A “bad diplomat” is less-likely to say that he’s concerned about French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s authoritarian political behaviors because Sarkozy has been a good ally to the US. A “bad diplomat” is less likely to write the dirt home about President Hosni Mubarak’s…well, near-absolute monarchy in Egypt because he has been a good ally to the US. The point of these leaks, to put it crudely, was to punish the “good guys” in our foreign service who reported corruption, oppression or solipsism by foreign leaders to weaken the cognitive capacity of our government overall. That only makes sense if you really don’t want your foreign service taking note of it when foreign governments manhandle their own citizens–I’m sorry, subjects. I would hope that our State Department workers could continue to keep their eyes open and their minds engaged, but if Assange and Wikileaks actually manage to “change things,” it would most-likely be through a chilling effect that ensures this isn’t so.
The State Department personnel most-likely to be embarrassed, reassigned or even passed over as a result of these disclosures are precisely those who felt most-compelled to document the sorts of compromises our State Department sometimes has to make to achieve other objectives. These members of the foreign service still recognize, for differing reasons, perhaps, the need for discretion for the time being. Wikileaks isn’t striking a blow for government transparency, it is invading the privacy of some of the most-principled and diligent members of our foreign service.