Is it happenstance or harmonic convergence that the first reports on the Wikileaks cache of State Department cables hit the newsstands alongside stories about the fresh political salience of “American exceptionalism”? Something about the content of the diplomatic missives and, more to the point, the furor over their release in November 2010 seems peculiar to the United States.
What species of envoy but an American, at the early millennial stage of evolution, could wire the following from Madrid?
The combination of the anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom with the fervor of the Spanish campaign season led to a brief flurry of anti-US rhetoric from public figures associated with the government. Magistrate Baltasar Garzon wrote an op-ed on March 20 that proposed an investigation into “criminal responsibility” for the war. Socialist Party (PSOE) secretary Jose Blanco hopped on the bandwagon in a TV SIPDIS interview that evening. The Ambassador immediately contacted National Security Adviser Casajuana to express concern. Casajuana promised to take the message to President [sic] Zapatero. Casajuana called the Ambassador late on the night of March 21 to follow up after speaking to Zapatero. He said that Zapatero understands the USG’s concerns and will try to bring moderation to PSOE political operatives. Zapatero said that he appreciated the USG’s efforts to stay out of the political arena and will work to enable the US to continue staying out.
Perhaps the author is a closet ironist, who discerned the middle finger the Spanish official must have held up to the phone as he assuaged the US ambassador’s anxieties. Perhaps the spare reproduction of Prime Minister Zapatero’s deliciously sarcastic rebuff was intended to warn Foggy Bottom to lift its heavy hand. Sadly, this possibility seems unlikely, since the cable goes on to say, “In short, the message was that Zapatero ‘will not add wood to the fire.’” The note then promises that the ambassador will convey to the Spaniards that further hot-blooded outbursts on the campaign trail “would be viewed negatively” by Washington. It seems far more likely, therefore, that the embassy staffer is simply tone-deaf.
This cable, after all, did not concern the 2004 Spanish elections. That season took place when the Bush administration was riding relatively high in the unilateralist saddle. The right-wing government of José María Aznar had sent troops to Iraq, and Abu Ghraib was notorious as a site of torture overseen by Saddam Hussein rather than the White House. No, this cable was composed in March 2008, almost four years after Abu Ghraib, Haditha and all the rest, and most important, a bit more than four years after the close of the 2004 campaign, when bombs ripped through the Madrid train system, killing 191 and unseating Aznar, who unctuously pretended the terror attacks had to do with Basque separatism rather than radical Islamist revenge upon Spain for its participation in Bush’s invasion. Zapatero assumed the premiership having campaigned on a pledge to withdraw the Spanish troops and having said of Iraq, “The occupation is a fiasco.” The surprise in this note is not that the left-leaning politicians would speak of US “criminal responsibility” in the Iraq debacle, but rather that the Spaniards’ ardor was so dim.
From the evidence supplied by Wikileaks, it appears that US foreign service officers are rather like most American commentators receiving the news that, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commanded US representatives at the UN to collect the credit card and other personal data of fellow diplomats and UN staffers. For the right wing, the scandal is that such a sensitive order would be stored in the widely accessible government Internet archive that Wikileaks’ source or sources could view. For the liberal editors of the New York Times, the shame lies in Clinton assigning tasks to diplomats that are “best left to the spies.” A few voices on the left have asked why on God’s green earth the US would want the frequent flyer account numbers of Ban Ki-moon or the Botswanan delegation at Turtle Bay and what in the world gives the US the right to gather them. It goes without saying that a foreign government shown to have engaged in such intrusive snooping at the UN, or even on US personnel in its own capital, would be accused of having the worst intentions.
Across the political spectrum that matters, though, Americans are much less interested in others’ opinions on international affairs than in America’s self-image. The New York Times, in a hilariously self-parodying editorial, breathed a sigh of relief that (the spying notwithstanding) Wikileaks has revealed an “absence of any real skullduggery” in the Obama State Department as compared to its Bush-controlled predecessor. Thank goodness America’s world standing remains restored! William Kristol worried in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard that the document dump “leaves us looking like a pitiful, helpless giant.” What calamity will ensue if Washington can no longer shock and awe? For sheer solipsism, no one has outdone Hillary Clinton herself, however. She proclaimed the UN spying and other revelations to be not only “an attack on America’s foreign policy interests,” but also “an attack on the international community.” An injury to number one is an injury to all; a poke to the pride of the global hegemon is a punch in the global gut.
Nearly two months after State Department memoranda began dripping out of the Wikileaks faucet, the initial outrage has not so much subsided as pooled, ready for re-release every so often into the flood plain. The right bays for actual blood, playing to xenophobia by focusing its anger on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who as a non-American cannot (they regret) be tried for treason, rather than the alleged leaker, Pvt. Bradley Manning, who could. Robert Kaplan, the itinerant chronicler of anarchic hot spots, adduced the deluge of documents as proof that the world needs a more penetrating and self-assured US empire to collar miscreants of all stripes. Mainline Democrats are content to applaud the less dramatic, but equally aggressive punitive actions taken by the Obama administration to shut down Wikileaks by threatening its bankers and Internet service providers with secondary sanctions. An astonishing range of liberal columnists, from Eugene Robinson of MSNBC and the Washington Post to Susan Douglas of In These Times, has adopted the weak-kneed stance of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA): The hounding of Wikileaks raises no First Amendment issues because, unlike the New York Times, which printed the Pentagon Papers in 1974 to help Daniel Ellsberg stop the Vietnam war, Assange has no discernible motive save “nihilism” or an adolescent urge to “tear down as many curtains as possible.” If the right to publish is contingent upon motivation, it is meaningless.
The question therefore hinges not on freedom of the press, but on the right of the government to conduct its affairs in secret. Here the liberals’ unease with the odd Assange, deepened by the troubling rape charges against him in Sweden, makes sense prima facie. If the US government cannot be trusted to keep only the right secrets, for the right reasons, there is no logically necessary reason why a group of unelected private individuals should merit such trust. But this dilemma, too, is easily resolved by consulting the respective records of Wikileaks and the US government with regard to the public’s right to know.
As for the ballyhooed physical dangers of Wikileaks’ so-called prurience to Americans and others, the Pentagon rang this alarm bell upon the earlier releases of field reports from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon journalists’ subsequent inquiries, however, Defense Department spokesmen could not cite a single example of a person who was harmed because of the leaks. The only persuasive point against publication of the State Department cables in full came from human rights organizations, which worried that pro-democracy activists in police states who had met with US diplomats might be named and subsequently maltreated. Again, this concern seems readily addressed by editorial discretion: In the State Department archive’s case, moreover, Wikileaks has so far outsourced the decisions about which cables to print and what data to redact entirely to the newspapers participating in the project.
Meanwhile, the trove of diplomatic missives contains many treasures for those who primarily distrust the government. It turns out, for example, that US Special Forces have been operating for years inside Pakistan, acting as spotters for drone strikes and engaging in firefights with Islamist militants alongside the Pakistani army. An October 9, 2009 cable from US Ambassador to Islamabad Anne Patterson noted that these joint operations take place with the explicit approval of Pakistan’s top generals, despite their strident denials. But the Pakistani government, with its need to placate anti-US opinion at home, is not the only actor to have fibbed about this matter. “People think that the US has troops in Pakistan,” said the Obama administration’s South Asia envoy, the late Richard Holbrooke, in July 2010. “Well, we don’t.”
The US has been equally tight-lipped about its military role in Yemen, another irksome battlefield of the post-September 11 war on terror. Cables supplied by Wikileaks thus far confirm what professional Yemen watchers have presupposed but not been able to footnote: President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih covets armed helicopters and other US-manufactured weapons partly as insurance for his regime as it battles rebels in both the north and south of the country. Messages from 2009, including one entitled “helicopters, helicopters, helicopters,” indicate that “Salih agreed to Gen. David Petraeus’ proposal to dedicate $45 million of 2010 security assistance funds to help establish and train an aviation regiment” and that “Salih also requested that the US equip and train three new Republican Guard brigades.” The economic officer who wrote the notes does not mention that the Republican Guard answers to the president’s son Ahmad.
Salih obtains these armaments, of course, under the guise of battling al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but the Wikileaks information shows that the US embassy in Sanaa knows him to be diverting US-supplied resources to quell the rebellions, particularly in the north. A December 2009 cable reports on conversations with Yemeni military officers in which the Yemenis openly admit to the transfer. The US diplomat recounts the repeated admonitions from Washington that US arms not be used against a “domestic insurgency,” but notes that these warnings have “clearly not resulted in a significant change” in the Salih regime’s behavior. Most sensational is a January 2010 cable in which Salih appears to joke with Petraeus about ongoing US-Yemeni collusion in concealing the provenance of air raids on “al-Qaeda” targets: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” Given the Yemeni regime’s penchant for labeling all of its armed opponents “terrorists,” the exact identity of these targets should not be taken for granted.
To review: No one can point to damages done by Wikileaks’ handling of protected information, while a mere two examples show the US government to be misleading the public systematically. And official secrecy has a recent history of being enormously destructive — witness the farrago of half-truths and wild exaggerations about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction in 2002-2003. Any rational assessment thus puts the lie to the liberal argument against what Assange has done. Even conceding, arguendo, that private individuals have subverted the legitimate business of a democratically elected government, the quality of their decision-making on secrets is superior. Something is accordingly very wrong with the American system of democracy, its subordination to the national security state and the relationship of both to the Fourth Estate. Jay Rosen, the smart press critic at New York University, has it right: Without a truly independent mainstream media, Wikileaks is what we have got. The chattering classes ignore this prior failure, whether or not they judge the secrets disclosed to warrant public attention.
Censorious liberals, in fact, want to have it both ways: Even as they decry the encroachment of irresponsible Wikileaks upon the security domain, they claim that very little of consequence has been unearthed. Its self-defeating logic aside, this assertion is also untrue. The pilfered State Department papers reveal facts that have reverberated around the globe.
The most salient case is surely Tunisia, where the self-immolation of an under-employed youth in December has sparked a month of furious popular demonstrations and a brutal police crackdown. Mohamed Bouazizi, who died of his severe burns weeks after he set himself alight, embodied the consequences of the miserable failures of post-colonial states, particularly in the oil-poor regions of the Arab world, in socio-economic development and equitable distribution of wealth. A university graduate who was selling fruit for a living, he was like millions of young men and women in Tunisia and elsewhere who cannot find jobs commensurate with their education and have vanishingly little hope of doing so. These youths are further frustrated by nearly impenetrable class divisions that, even in countries that have not removed the word “socialist” from their charters, direct the benefits of any economic growth disproportionately toward elites tied snugly to the state. The state is a hostile force in most citizens’ lives, ossified at the top and violently protective of the assets the rulers have seized in their years in the presidential palace.
Enter Wikileaks, which in early December released a sheaf of documents concerning the eye-popping corruption of Tunisia’s “First Family,” President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his progeny. In January 2008, and using rather undiplomatic language, US Ambassador to Tunis Robert Godec relayed the widespread knowledge among Tunisian elites that Ben Ali’s family uses “its long arm” to muscle into lucrative real estate deals, contracts for services and most everything else promising quick profit. Those in proximity to Ben Ali’s clan, Godec wrote, scare off business rivals by dropping the requisite hint of retribution. “Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of ‘the Family’ is enough to indicate which family you mean.” The ambassador drove home his point a few paragraphs later: “One Tunisian lamented that Tunisia was no longer a police state; it had become a state run by the mafia. ‘Even the police report to the Family!’ he exclaimed.”
Though such sentiments are widespread among the populace as well, Tunisians have reportedly been agitated to read of them, expressed so baldly and in such baroque detail, in the internal correspondence of one of Ben Ali’s primary international backers. They have been angered, for example, by Godec’s observations of a fancy dinner at the mansion of Ben Ali’s son-in-law and rumored heir apparent, Mohamed Sakher al-Materi, where the host served ice cream and frozen yogurt imported from, of all places, Saint-Tropez. The popular protests in Tunisia are rooted in decades-old political and economic grievances, not an ambassador’s musings, but the cables have rubbed salt into Tunisians’ wounds and thus contributed to the demonstrations’ intensity. (At press time, the protests continued to grow and Ben Ali had just fled the country.)
Liberal commentators are apt to find in such tales proof that US emissaries are genuinely sympathetic with oppressed Middle Eastern populations, but powerless to lessen their burdens. Godec’s cables reprise an old and cherished narrative of the innocent American abroad. But toward the close of the ambassador’s second tour d’horizon, penned in July 2009, he gives away a different game afoot:
Notwithstanding the frustrations of doing business here, we cannot write off Tunisia. We have too much at stake. We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold here. We have an interest in keeping the Tunisian military professional and neutral. We also have an interest in fostering greater political openness and respect for human rights. It is in our interest, too, to build prosperity and Tunisia’s middle class, the underpinning for the country’s long-term stability. Moreover, we need to increase mutual understanding to help repair the image of the United States and secure greater cooperation on our many regional challenges. The United States needs help in this region to promote our values and policies. Tunisia is one place where, in time, we might find it.
That is to say, no measure of regime wrongdoing in enriching itself and impoverishing the Tunisian people, no display of conspicuous consumption, ought to distract Washington from the imperative of regime stability. For 60 years, to paraphrase a Bush administration mantra, the US has believed that regime stability is the sole guarantor of its overriding security interests as a superpower, while watching the growth of authoritarianism generate the security threats of radical Islamism and utterly disenfranchised masses. The Bush administration, Godec implies, discomfited Tunisian officials with its occasional forays into forthright talk of political reform and respect for human rights. It would be best, he concludes, to “dial back the public criticism” and voice these concerns behind closed doors — because there, 60 years of contrary experience notwithstanding, they will be heard. (Too late for Ben Ali, though, it appears.)
In the end, though its subject matter is foreign affairs, the Wikileaks episode offers the keenest insights into the United States itself — how its political culture is at once overheated and anodyne and how its international dealings are at once crassly self-regarding and infused with abstract moral certainty. In the gaps lie the best answers to why the leaked State Department cables aroused a months-long chorus of condemnation when the previous sallies passed with little notice. Certainly, there is hardly anything in the available documents to justify the Obama administration’s hunt for ways to silence the Wikileaks operation, let alone the calls for Julian Assange’s head. The State Department, by and large, is portrayed in somewhat mundane terms, a bureaucracy staffed with people of varying intelligence and initiative, charged with representing in far-flung capitals the prerogatives of the United States, a state like any other in its relentless self-interest, only mightier than any state the world has ever known. In the implementation of this task, there is no lack of the hypocrisy and horse trading that marks, to some extent at least, the diplomacy of every country.
And that, one suspects, is what the political class and the pundits find so disturbing: Americans should not see the normalcy in US affairs of state, the smudges all over the shining city on the hill. As Slavoj Zizek wrote in the London Review of Books, “The real disturbance was at the level of appearances: We can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know.” American elites may be cynics at heart, but they believe strongly (certainly more than those jaded Europeans) in the appearance of virtue. In late 2010, flailing about for faux populist themes on which to campaign for the White House in 2012, Republicans fixated briefly upon “American exceptionalism,” a phrase with several meanings, but which to lead attack dog (and one-time history professor) Newt Gingrich means “our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God.” The Republicans feigned shock that President Barack Obama, when asked by a journalist if he saw the US as “uniquely qualified to lead the world,” did not simply say yes. Obama, being somewhat professorial himself, rather replied, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” The Washington Post understood Obama’s words as a balm for those foreigners who hear “worrisome jingoism” in talk of American uniqueness. But it seems just as likely that Obama was simply stating a historical fact, minus verbs in the past tense: States that dominate their surroundings develop ideologies to convince themselves and others that their dominance is deserved.
For the likes of Gingrich, such circumspection is seditious. The Wikileaks disclosures are likewise contemptible because they display America’s exceptional diplomacy in mid-motion, before it has arrived at its eventual and morally unimpeachable destination. For the editors of the New York Times and other liberals, the leaks are occasion to reflect upon the sins of conservative presidents (and, yes, some liberals in the past) while cheerily proclaiming that America is exceptional again because the adults are in charge. As for the Obama administration, the revelations are a prod to plug the holes in the national security state, so to be invulnerable to Republican assault, and to repeat a mantra of its own: Look forward, not backward. Back in Madrid on April 1, 2009, a junior diplomat cabled Washington to update superiors on reports that a renowned Spanish judge, the aforementioned Garzon, would shortly issue indictments of Bush administration officials for their complicity in establishing the law-free zone at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Indeed, the writer acknowledged, the judge was serious in his plans, but — not to worry — the US embassy had conveyed the proper disapproval of this untoward Spanish interference in US domestic politics: “We suspect the Spanish government, whatever its disagreements with the policies of the Bush administration, will find this case inconvenient. Despite the pro forma public comment of First Vice President Fernandez de la Vega that [Spain] would respect whatever decision the courts make in this matter, the timing could not be worse for President Zapatero as he tries to improve ties with the US and get the Spanish public focused on the future of the relationship rather than the past.”
UPDATE: After this issue went to press, it was learned that Mohamed Bouazizi was not a university graduate.