Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WikiLeaks: Friends, enemies
and frenemies of the state

In the universe of the Facebook social messaging experience, it’s possible to gain a following, some loose confederation of fellow travelers who are interested in your exploits and insights, people who are presumably in your corner on your journey through life. These are your “Friends,” and just as easily as they’re acquired, they can be ignored, dissed or dismissed. In the world of Facebook, you can even “unfriend” someone.

Another coinage — “frenemies” (which dates to the 1950’s) — is a portmanteau of friend and enemy, and of their contrasting emotional states (love and hate, trust and suspicion). It’s a foundational experience of the business world, the social-media universe and our emotionally splintered society. Your Facebook frenemy, for example, might be the cheerleader you detest, the one you need to Stay In Touch with because she helps decide who gets on the squad — the same one you want to join.

The scope of Sunday’s mammoth release of secret and confidential U.S. government diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks organization — the first of 251,000 U.S. government cables spanning more than forty years of American foreign policy — has the editors and analysts scrambling for descriptors. Some have latched on to the phrase “security theater,” but it’s more than that.

As much as anything, The WikiLeaks power dump (aided by publication in The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and other top papers) shows how global foreign policy and our own have evolved, or devolved, into a matter of identifying friends, enemies and frenemies of the United States, employing snap assessments and asserting narrow self-interests, and navigating the ever-changing distinctions between them. It’s not security theater, it’s diplomacy as scuttlebutt — anti-social media.

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We’ve come to expect a certain amount of duplicity from our diplomats like we expect it from everyone else’s (diplomatic immunity wasn’t invented for nothing). But with the WikiLeaks action, we’re finding that diplomacy takes many forms — from snarky suspicion to character assassinations to frightening speculations about rogue states and bad actors, their capabilities and intentions — and that the United States has no monopoly on the arrogance of power.

You can’t, as they say, make this stuff up. Thanks to the WikiLeaks dump, we discover that the secretary of state once ordered diplomats to engage in high-tech spying on functionaries of the United Nations; that one Middle Eastern leader wanted the prisoners at Gitmo microchipped like pets to mark their whereabouts by GPS after release; that the president of Afghanistan may be mentally unhinged; that the ego of one Russian leader may be no match for another one; that the moves and countermoves and counter-countermoves we’ve long suspected (and often seen played to one degree or another in any number of espionage movies) are action items for heads of state and their subordinates in the field.

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The debate over the WikiLeaks action has been swift and fierce.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and now a professor at College of William & Mary, told Keith Olbermann on MSNBC: “It’s lamentable that these things leaked, but I don’t think there’s been any major damage done ..."

True enough. Some of the cables the media has focused on (let’s call them “WikiLeaks Greatest Hits”) are more sensational than seditious, a geopolitical version of TMZ. Vladimir Putin is an “alpha dog,” while Russian President Dimitri Medvedev appears “afraid, hesitant.” There are concerns over the stability of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (nicknamed “Teflon” in the cable) “avoids risks and is rarely creative.”

The characterizations of major world leaders are subject to the same flattening, the same uniformity as everyone else in a 24/7 media environment. For all the rhetorical fire and political outrage brought against WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange, some of the cables released so far are the diplomatic equivalent of “girrrl, let me tell you what that fool did today.”

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The Obama White House is obviously not pleased, condemning the WikiLeaks disclosures in the “strongest terms.” At Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder said an “active, ongoing criminal investigation” into WikiLeaks is underway. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, more than a little hyperbolically, that “WikiLeaks has put at risk … the cause of human rights.”

James Rubin, former State Department spokesman under President Clinton, and something of a point man for that agency’s reactions, took a reliably pro-government view Monday on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

“What I make of it overall is that somehow an organization [WikiLeaks] that was originally intending perhaps to affect the debate in this country about the Iraq war, say, or the war in Afghanistan has somehow morphed into an anti-American organization whose very purpose appears to be to weaken the ability of State Department diplomats to do their job.”

Rubin said the State Department’s greatest asset “is the trust it develops with foreign governments, diplomats in those countries, human rights workers in those countries, or others who are sharing information based on trust. And no matter what any of [WikiLeaks’] proponents will say about this … in one way or another, the trust between the United States and many foreign governments has been weakened.”

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Rubin’s admonishment is true enough, in many respects. But the underlying question arising from the erosion of trust he says has taken place is: Who do you blame for that?

WikiLeaks only released these cables; they had nothing to do with creating them. The ones who originated the cables — with their offhand assessments, their rushes to judgment, their over-the-backyard-fence repartee — are the first violators of the trust Rubin soberly says has been breached.

Rubin, and other critics of the WikiLeaks release, have reflexively adopted the convenient position of shooting the messenger, of faulting WikiLeaks for revealing the foundational deceptions of those diplomats, deceptions that make that lack of trust possible in the first place; and in some instances, revealing observations and perceived character quirks that aren’t so much classified information as they are common knowledge.

Case in point: In one cable, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is described as "feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader."

Well, hell, how long have we known that? This characterization, a fact known around the world, is the subject of a hush-hush diplomatic cable? The fact that such relatively benign character assessments were ever under the broad rubric of a “confidential” State Department communication is to lower the bar on what such confidentiality means, and what threshold of importance government documents should cross to get that status.

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Rubin went on "Hardball" on Tuesday and revealed, without meaning to, the biggest problem for opponents of WikiLeaks’ action: simply put, in many cases, there’s not much there there.

“The irony here … is that there are no great revelations,” he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “After Watergate, after Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, we’ve learned that the private American policy is much like the public American policy.”

And this statement of fact clearly undercuts his previous argument. American foreign policy often derives directly from our populist sensibilities. President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall mounted the Berlin Airlift, a towering achievement of global rescue, animated as much by enlightened geopolitical self-interest as by their personal sense that it was just wrong to watch Berliners starve to death.

If “there are no great revelations,” then what’s been compromised when people can see for themselves how little daylight there is between public and private foreign policy — the policies we enact and the ones diplomats talk about before they’re enacted? If, as Rubin suggests, there’s already no substantive difference between the two (on the weight of 40 years of historical observation), what’s the big damn deal?

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It’s true that some of the WikiLeaks disclosures could jeopardize delicate balances of power in the Middle East and in Africa. The cable that indicated the United States made a secret attempt to remove uranium from Pakistan will only entrench anti-American sentiments that are high enough there already.

And it won’t be helpful in the Middle East that the King of Bahrain apparently said privately that Iran’s nuclear program “must be stopped,” or that the King of Saudi Arabia asked the United States to militarily stop Iran’s adventures in isotopes and “cut off the head of the snake” — unilaterally attack the Islamic Republic of Iran. When you talk trash about the neighbors, the neighbors tend to react badly. There may be unfriending going on in the region real soon.

And other considerations aren’t easily dismissed. Speaking Tuesday after arriving in Astania, Kazakhstan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced an important concern related to the possible dangers of the WikiLeaks move:

“I particularly worry about the human rights activists, the religious leaders, the critics of governments who speak to members of our embassy about abuses in their own country, [people] whose names may either be in a reported cable or who may be identifiable because of the description of the person.”

But other disclosures are way less earth-shattering: We find that the United States and South Korea have developed a contingency plan to address any possible collapse of the North Korean government. However inflammatory it might be in Pyongyang, that fact would seem to reflect a logical surmise: that the precarious living situation for the nearly 24 million people in the North can’t go on forever. A plan for such an event isn’t so much confidential or secret intelligence as it is an application of something we don’t see often enough: forward thinking.

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In a world made increasingly smaller by the relentless intrusions of the Internet, diplomacy has in many ways failed to keep up. Diplomacy may be working with 21st-century technology, but the WikiLeaks action shows diplomacy, and not all of it American, is thinking with a 20th-century sense of the United States’ place in the world. The U.S. as global military guarantor, as strategist and tactician, as eager but bewilderingly headstrong suitor ... as frenemy.

Friends and enemies change places all the time. Julian Assange knows this for sure, right now. Hours ago, Interpol issued a worldwide “red notice” for his arrest on rape and assault charges. The wikivisionary who was hailed as a free-speech hero for WikiLeaks’ July release of docs related to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is, at this writing anyway, a man literally on the run, a fugitive from international law.

He’s certainly talking to his lawyer. Maybe he should contact his embassy.

Secretary Clinton seemed to know it, too. Engaging in damage control at a news conference on Monday, Hill made light of the latest WikiLeaks documents and at least some of their fallout, tossing off the revelation that is no great revelation: diplomatic deception is an equal opportunity employer:

“In my conversations, at least one of my counterparts said to me, ‘well, don’t worry about it. You should see what we say about you.’”

Image credits: WikiLeaks logo: WikiLeaks. George Marshall: public domain. Julian Assange: Espen Moe, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. All other still images: Al Jazeera English.

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