Monday, November 29, 2010

Wikileaks Does Its Damage

I sit here writing this in San Francisco, which is pretty much ground-zero for people who believe that technology has revolutionized life so much that old rules, old ethics, old ways of thinking don't apply – and in so doing, they prove that old ways of thinking never die.

We're in Day Two of the latest Wikileaks caper. As everyone – and I mean everyone – knows by now, numerous news organizations around the world have sifted through about a quarter-billion private (and many secret – some even extremely secret) communications from the U.S. State Department.

I think of this caper as Project Open Drawers. Many people seem to be approaching it as if it's a delightful opportunity to root through the private filing drawers (yes, those were the drawers I meant, what did you think I was referring to?) of the government to learn juicy secrets.

Some of what we're learning from these illegally obtained communications is mundane, such as the world-shocker that German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is considered a foreign-policy lightweight. Well, Inspector, it took a secret diplomatic cable to tell you that?

Other tidbits are likely to be world-shakers. For example, the information that Eqypt, Saudi Arabia, and nearly every other Middle Eastern country's leaders are scared witless about Iran having nuclear weapons and many of them have been urging the United States to attack Iran to destroy the nuclear program.

Now, anyone who has followed Middle East reporting for years knows that the governments there are privately much more supportive of American aims in the region than they let on to their people. Their people, on the other hand, tend to be much less supportive of American policies than are their governments, yet the people tend to be much more positively disposed to Americans themselves (perhaps because the Middle Easterners know all too well that a government's policies don't necessarily reflect the will of the governed). Naturally, if the leaders let on to their people how much they want stable oil prices, U.S. military protection, and Western bombs falling on Tehran's military facilities, their streets could explode with popular outrage. The world might not weep too much for some of the region's authoritarian regimes being swept aside by popular outrage, but as we learned in Iran, these thugs could easily be replaced by something even worse.

The short-, mid-, and long-term fallout from the release of these is likely to be significant, and all bad.

Over at German public news service Deutsche Welle, the negative impact was put mildly:
Ruprecht Polenz, the chairman of Germany's Foreign Committee, was of the opinion that "considerable damage" had been done. "The partners of the United States are under the assumption that what is discussed with them remains confidential. Now, certainly, doubts have been raised. Our American partners will have to work to dispel these doubts," Polenz said on German public television on Monday.
Former U.S. ambassador to NATO Rober Hunter put it, well, the most diplomatically: "[H]ere I think is the most serious problem: Many foreign leaders will be more reluctant to say things to U.S. diplomats if they worry that these things will show up in public. And as a result, the methodology of communication may have to adopt different ways and means in order to minimize the risks. That's the real problem that people will perhaps be less candid in the future and the way of communicating that back to Washington will have to change."

Foreign leaders will not trust that their most candid statements to American diplomats will remain confidential. If you were a foreign leader who had important opinions or suggestions you wanted to pass along but knew that it could lead to your overthrow or death if they were known, would you talk candidly to an American diplomat anytime soon? I sure as hell wouldn't.

And if you were an American diplomat at any of the thousands of places around the world where you are supposed to be asserting American interests and passing information back to Washington, are you going to think twice, maybe thrice before writing something controversial?

As a result, American leaders will get less candid information about the rest of the world in an era when the international situation is moving rapidly – and not necessarily in our interests. Even the parts of diplomacy that involve petty spying are crucial to learning the true motives of other countries. In the Cold War, having spies in Soviet countries did much to decrease tensions, because they mostly helped us understand the real motives of Soviet bloc leaders and undercut the wild fantasies of paranoiacs in Washington think tanks and in government.

As I've said before, America has never suffered from too much information and knowledge. Now we'll have even less – plus we have a lot of angry and distrustful allies around the world. Way to go, Wikileakers.

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