Today, I listened attentively, as I try to do each day, to the BBC Newshour program. It was chock-full of reporting on the WikiLeaks controversy, and as always, it featured communications from listeners commenting on the news. I expected that a number of the listeners would express schadenfreude over the leaked American diplomatic cables, and the bind that they may have put the United States into.
Except . . . almost all of the listeners either expressed outrage that the leak took place, and that WikiLeaks published the cables. I believe that only a single commenter whose message was read on the air approved. One commenter even agreed with Rep. Peter King, who stated that WikiLeaks ought to be designated a terrorist organization (more on that in a moment). Another thought that the descriptions of foreign leaders found in the cables were funny and spot-on.
The plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” so I am not going to claim that my story represents some kind of indicator on where the political winds are blowing when it comes to WikiLeaks. Still, it is possible–dare I say, “hopeful”?–that the public reaction to the WikiLeaks controversy is going to be a lot smarter than I thought that it might be. The public may well understand that frankness and the ability to express oneself clearly can be as important in diplomacy as is the art of subtlety. The public may well understand that the actions undertaken by WikiLeaks will only serve to prevent frank and open exchanges from taking place, and that this will serve to dilute analysis, and harm the policymaking process, as will a potential newfound reluctance of foreign governments, and foreign sources to give valuable information to the United States, for fear that private conversations may become public.
Additionally, the public may well understand what Daniel Drezner points out (if not, they should). When it comes to the analyzing the substance of the leaked cables:
. . . There are no Big Lies. Indeed, Blake Hounshell’s original tweet holds: “the U.S. is remarkably consistent in what it says publicly and privately.” Assange — and his source for all of this, Bradley Manning — seem to think that these documents will expose American perfidy. Based on the initial round of reactions, they’re in for a world of disappointment. Oh, sure, there are small lies and lies of omission — Bob Gates probably didn’t mention to Dmitri Medvedev or Vladimir Putin that “Russian democracy has disappeared.” Still, I’m not entirely sure how either world politics or American interests would be improved if Gates had been that blunt in Moscow.
If this kind of official hypocrisy is really the good stuff, then there is no really good stuff. U.S. officials don’t always perfectly advocate for human rights? Not even the most naive human rights activist would believe otherwise. American diplomats are advancing U.S. commercial interests? American officials have been doing that since the beginning of the Republic. American diplomats help out their friends? Yeah, that’s called being human. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but it strikes me that these leaks show other governments engaged in far more hypocritical behavior.
In addition to their being no big lies, there are also no surprises–at least, no surprises for anyone paying attention to foreign affairs. Anyone really surprised by the fact that in private, Arab leaders are just as worried about a nuclear Iran as is Israel? Anyone really surprised that Nicolas Sarkozy has been said to have an authoritarian streak, that Silvio Berlusconi is too much of a party animal for his (and his country’s) own good, that democracy is dead in Russia, and that the Chinese are sick of the antics of the North Koreans? Oh, sure, the cables are very interesting, and informative. But are they all that shocking in their content? Hardly; we all are familiar with the storylines found in them. The titillating aspect of the cables is that they confirm what many have suspected regarding the opinions that are held by American diplomats, and that many of the cables make their points in interesting and colorful language.
As for how one might respond to WikiLeaks, it is probably much too much to label it a terrorist organization, as Peter King would want to do. But using the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to punish the organization certainly seems like a viable option, though I want to have more information concerning the option before fully committing to it. Of equal note is the possibility that disrupting WikiLeaks’s efforts may count as “covert action” for oversight purposes, or that perhaps being “a foreign-based political organization, not substantially composed of United States persons,” qualifies WikiLeaks as a “foreign power” under FISA.