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WikiLeaks: A Blow To Obama’s Prestige, But To Date, Not Much That We Didn’t Already Know..

December 2, 2010

Four days after the most recent WikiLeaks release of secret State Department cables – some 250,000 of them – the Obama Administration is still trying to assess the extent of the damage done to its foreign policy. That the leaks haven’t helped, is, of course, an understatement. But just how much have these documents hurt the US position in the world?

At this point, much of the discussion in the mainstream media – and at a forum on the subject held recently at the University of Denver – centered around the morality of the leaks, should or shouldn’t WikiLeaks have let 250,000 cats out of their bags? Much more attention has focused on the messengers, rather than the message.

As one who has come to firmly believe in the importance of what Mikael Gorbachev used to refer to glasnost, I welcome the release of these documents. I consider, the release, whatever their shortcomings, a public service and and act of no small amount of moral courage on the part of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange. Any attempt to pierce the wall of secrecy that surrounds much of U.S. foreign policy is welcome.

That said, let us return to the content of the cables.

The clearest statement (that I have found to date) concerning the impact of the release of these State Department cables comes from a piece in yesterday’s (December 1, 2010) Israeli newspaper Haaretz written by Aluf Benn which depicts the United States today as a tired, weak and declining superpower who no one listens to anymore – be it the Israelis, Saudis, or anyone else, this despite its still obvious considerable military power.

As Benn puts it:

…the cables released by WikiLeaks tell a sad story. They depict the fall of the American empire, the decline of a superpower that ruled the world by dint of its military and economic supremacy. President Barack Obama emerges from the cables as a weak, flimsy leader, whose good intentions and lofty visions dissipate like dust in the wind in the face of the conservatism and stubbornness of his Middle Eastern counterparts.

The days when American ambassadors were received in world capitals as “high commissioners” are long since gone. The diplomats who wrote the WikiLeaks documents are tired bureaucrats: Nobody rises in their honor and clicks their heels when they enter a room. They spend their days listening wearily to their hosts’ talking points, never reminding them who is the superpower and who the client state that needs military or financial aid from America.

One might add, that, besides being `tired bureaucrats’,  with few exceptions, that the U.S. diplomats who wrote these communiques tend to be poorly informed and in some cases down right ignorant of the realities unfolding in the countries where they are serving. This should not come as much of a surprise as so many ambassadorships these days are bought by campaign contributions with the number of professionally trained diplomats holding such posts dwindling all the time. Lacking is a professional diplomatic corps, highly trained in international relations, with an area specialization and foreign language skills. Instead US ambassadors are just as likely to be some bimbo businessman whose campaign contributions just happened to help elect a president.

Some general thoughts on the Leaks: The Emperor With No Clothes, Embarrassing But Not Serious…

Although the Obama Administration and many members of Congress are beside themselves, in something approaching collective apoplexy, their anger strikes me as overdone,

The emperor has no clothes...

downright silly. It is true that some of the revelations are new and might have mild political consequences, but overall, the revelations do not merit the near-hysterical reaction they seem to have triggered. With a few exceptions, most of the stuff I’ve seen so far one could have gleaned from the foreign press or a decent google search. Here and there a genuine `revelation’…like how the Tunisian president’s family basically took over the country’s most successful private bank, but so far, not much that is new, just stuff that verifies the overall sorry direction of U.S. (and other nations’) foreign policy.


It is more a case of the emperor with no clothes. Much of the rest of the world has known just how disingenuous is US foreign policy, the degree to which the U.S. is `an empire in decline’. This is nothing new except for a few neo-con true-believers, and those who get their news from FOX or USA Today, carefully cultivating the illusion that this is the best of all possible worlds and that U.S. foreign policy is conducted in an honorable manner. Illusion punctured. Again.

As one Tunisian commented on Facebook:

On n’avait pas besoin d’attendre wikileaks pour nous le faire savoir. A part les quelques anecdotes croustillantes sur Sidi el Materi et son futur Mac Do, ces fameuses fuites ne nous avancent pas d’un iota.

(Translation: We didn’t need WikiLeaks to tell us what is going on. With the exception of a few crumbs of information on Materi (a Tunisian wheeler-dealer), we haven’t learned much from these famous exposes)

Uri Avnery, former Israeli legislator and political commentator is even less impressed:

There is nothing really new there. The information only confirms what any intelligent person could have worked out already. If there is anything new, it’s exactly the confirmation: the world is really managed the way we thought it was: how depressing

For starters…

  • very few of these cables are that secret or even that interesting. As an article in the British newspaper, the Guardian points out, as many as 3 million Americans associated with the federal government have had access to them, rendering them something less than `top secret’. Indeed, for the most part, it seems the category `secret’ is overused. The ones that I have seen and studied are, for the most part, trite and superficial
  • secondly, with a few exceptions that I will detail below, virtually all the information in the cables I studied is already public knowledge, in the public record. One could glean virtually all of it from good investigative journalism, from Google searches etc.
  • there is – at least, again, from what I have seen – virtually nothing of what might be called `geo-strategic’ value, nothing about the role of the U.S. Joint Special Operating Group (the guys who kill people, engage in extraordinary rendition and operate outside the aegis of the embassies and State Department), the integration of countries into NATO, now becoming something of a global U.S. led military strike force against the Third World, nothing, or nearly nothing about the different global regional US Commands. One senses here a kind of separation between the intelligence/information gathering of the U.S. military on the one hand and the State Department on the other.
  • the most interesting stuff I have seen essentially re-enforces hypotheses already in circulation such as, that the U.S. was not particularly serious about engaging Iran diplomatically over its nuclear program, that the administration has no evidence that Iran is making nuclear weapons, that Israel is champing at the bit for either the United States to attack Iran or for the U.S. to give it the green light to do so. Concerning the Tunisia cables, it is clear that the US has been au courrant all the time concerning that country’s deplorable human rights record and that its much touted economic miracle is not – nor has it been – that much of an economic miracle. etc. etc.
  • indeed what stands out from these cables is how much in the dark are the different U.S. embassies. In Tunisia and Yemen (two countries I am currently researching) they seem to have hardly much of a clue as to what is going on.  This is in large measure because they seem to be getting much of their information from official sources and these days, official sources are simply not telling U.S. embassies or State Department reps very much that is valuable. There is little effort or interest to get information beyond the official sources.
  • In a piece by Robert Fisk, cited below, entitled `Now We Know: America Doesn’t Really Care About Injustice In The Middle East‘, Fisk argues that the U.S. doesn’t especially care about human rights violations in the Middle East. True? yes. News? hardly. Still the piece, classic Fisk, is excellent, puts stuff in perspective the gulf between the p.r. about human rights concerns and the reality.
  • One could conclude here, that despite appearances, that the role of the State Department in US foreign policy has declined, that it is not all that important other than putting a bit of make up on the corpse that is the old worn image of U.S. foreign policy. Emphasis has shifted in serious intelligence gathering, insights, to the Pentagon and that array of private security firms. Their stuff remains largely secret…or for sale at high prices. The little that I have seen of it, its intelligence is not much better than the State Department’s…

I could go on, but the main point being, from what I can determine, so far, the information released by these cable disclosures is less than meets the eye. That it is embarrassing – mostly to see how uninformed are the different ambassadors – is certain, that these are serious leaks that impact the deeper themes of U.S. global strategy, hardly…They do reveal a pathological level of secrecy that permeates the government. They also expose – to those willing to consider them – the degree to which governments chronically lie to their own people and the world, and how corruption, torture and repression are just par for the course.

Something Else To Think About: NY Times cable leaks were OK’d by the U.S. State Department, Pentagon…

Of course it is possible that with so many documents and so little time to go through them, that some of them could be quite revealing. Still to date, the public has had access to a very small selection of the 250,000 cables. As Paul Wolf writes:

Despite public perceptions, Wikileaks does not make the material it receives available directly to the public. It sends the documents to newspapers, which decide what news is fit to print. As of this writing, Dec 2, 2010, four days after the New York Times and other newspapers began publishing scores of articles; Wikileaks has only posted 623 of the 250,000 documents they claim to have released to their website. (2) Neither the New York Times, the Guardian or the other newspapers apparently in possession of these materials have published them either.

Worse, these 623 ‘leaks’ were apparently cleared by the State Department itself. According to noted American civil rights attorney Michael Ratner, “In the recent disclosure, Wikileaks has only posted cables that were reviewed by the news organisations and in some cases redacted. The news organisations showed them to the Pentagon and agreed to some of the government’s suggested redactions.” (3)

While written a few days ago, these comments help put the leaks in perspective, very few of them have actually been released.  More accurately, 250,000 cables were released to a number of media outlets in different countries. For the most part, these outlets have sat on the overwhelming number of those, only releasing a pittance of what they have.

Those released by the New York Times were first `cleared’ by the State Department and Pentagon, before publication, more or less insuring that those released would amount to little more than political gossip. It is not clear if The Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais went through similar screenings with their respective governments prior to publishing their troves of the cables. Such procedures permit each country, through what it releases and holds back, to manipulate the information at hand, and to give it a convenient and self serving spin.

Thus, the documents released on US-Tunisian relations suggest that both the Bush and Obama Administrations are concerned with the suppression of human rights in that country, despite the fact that neither administration has lifted a finger to do anything about it. In a like manner, it explains, as Wolf points out, why it is that as of today, the leaks revealed by the New York Times tell us much more about Pakistan than about Israel, etc.

(note: this entry is `in progress’…I’ll develop it over the next few days)


Relevant Links

Robert Fisk: Now We Know: America Doesn’t Really Care About Injustice in the Middle East

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 6, 2011 11:03 am

    Sometimes I just think that people write and dont really have much to say. Not so here

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