Christopher Albon, blogging for The Atlantic, reported recently on Wikileaks’ embarrassment of Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai for support of international economic sanctions on Zimbabwe as a means of pressuring the government to institute reforms. He entitled this entry, rightly, “How Wikileaks Just Set Back Democracy in Zimbabwe.” On Christmas Eve, 2009, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who holds his post as a result of a settlement with longtime Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe following elections marred by allegations of fraud and even violence, met with leaders of several Western governments to ask that sanctions continue; now Wikileaks has leaked the routine diplomatic cable reporting this conversation. Now Tsvangirai is under investigation for treason for his support of international sanctions. Albon acknowledged that the treason investigation might not stick; however, the point may have been simply to broadcast Tsvangirai’s support for the sanctions, which are obviously extremely unpopular in underdeveloped and inflation-ridden Zimbabwe.
Once again, we see that Wikileaks isn’t trying to bring accountability to government here or abroad; it is simply trying to undermine our government’s normal diplomatic operations. Julian Assange talked explicitly about doing just this years ago, on his blog. Julian Assange is not Woodward and Bernstein, and he isn’t Daniel Ellsberg; he is a long-time hacker who doesn’t stay in one place for long and won’t talk about himself. Some people credulously swallow his indirect but sensationalist claims about collusion among governments and the role of the United States in international politics because of ideological foreign policy and torture and reconstruction scandals following the low-transparency environment and lack of media probity during the early days of the Iraq War. While these are serious issues, the Liberal Ironist has only seen 1 scoop emerge from the vast trove of Defense Department documents and State Department cables–the deplorable performance of the various expensive “security contractors” with narrow mandates operating in the Iraq and Afghan war theaters. Aside from that, whether bombshells or open secrets, Wikileaks’ extended publicity stunt has been conspicuously absent of transformational revelations. Occasionally, though, these leaked documents look set to cause trouble for the wrong people, and only for the wrong people.
Morgan Tsvangirai colluded with foreign governments in order to pressure Robert Mugabe into further political reform. This seemed to be working, but now it has backfired because the man whose actions brought the sanctions on Zimbabwe–read: Mugabe–has found a way to harp on the paranoia which broad economic decline and the sanctions have spawned.
Though I agree with Mr. Albon that a prosecution of Mr. Tsvangirai is unlikely, the damage to Tsvangirai’s reputation will be more-than-sufficient. In the meantime the sanctions will continue, and Zimbabwe–an impoverished, disease-stricken and isolated country with a basket case economy–will likely be without credible political opposition. For this I blame Robert Mugabe for manipulating a defeated people at every turn, and Julian Assange and Wikileaks for sacrificing a growing number of foreign nationals in various ways to their one obsessive cause of embarrassing the US government. To say that access to information always increases accountability is nothing but an article of faith, and one that can’t really be demonstrated; I for one acknowledge that information is never received objectively.
One can find fault with Morgan Tsvangirai’s scruples on either the intrinsic grounds of his dishonesty towards his own people or on account of the human toll sanctions imposed upon Zimbabweans in the intermediate-term; it still remains a fallacy to argue on that basis that Wikileaks’ disclosure of that conversation is automatically-justified. This disclosure isn’t a meaningful blow for transparency, it is an injury from which the Zimbabwean opposition likely won’t recover. Wikileaks disclosed this cable for the same reason as the others; to discourage our foreign service personnel from recording their observations so as to make our government’s operations less-efficient. Assange long ago admitted in writing that this was the plan. This isn’t really about accountability, it’s supposed to be about revolution. Like most revolutionary gestures, it hurts the wrong people and helps the authoritarians win most arguments by changing the subject.