The Scarlet Pimpernel of Cyberspace
They seek him here, they seek him there, The G-Men seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven, or is he in hell? Where's that damned elusive Pimpernel? (with apologies to Baroness Orczy)
The famed fictional Pimpernel, Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart., enraged revolutionary France by snatching aristocrats from the jaws of the guillotine. Our modern version, a curious Australian name Julian Assange, has outraged the United States and given its citizens a chance to see its government at work abroad — and it's not a pretty sight.
Ignore all the screams from official Washington and angry Republicans about violations of security. Bureaucrats the world over hate like crazy to see their blunders, double-dealing and incompetence exposed to public gaze.
But far from the "9/11 of diplomacy," as Italy's overexcited Italian foreign minister proclaimed, so far the WikiLeaks revelations don't offer much that is new — at least to this veteran journalist and intelligence observer. Lots of amusing gossip, yes, but no bombshells — yet. And a rather melancholy view of an empire that seems on its way out.
Decent people may be shocked by reading about Washington's heavy-handed treatment of friends and foes alike, its bullying, use of diplomats as junior-grade spies, narrow-minded views, and snide remarks about world leaders. But more Americans seem annoyed by the leaks than by the imperial diplomatic hubris of their elected government.
The 19th century American cynic Ambrose Bierce aptly defined diplomacy as, "the patriotic art of lying for one's country."
WikiLeaks has given the public a badly needed sharper view of Afghanistan as a cesspool of corruption and drug-dealing. Americans who believe government agitprop about building democracy and human rights in Afghanistan, should be particularly shocked and dismayed.
It was also interesting to see US diplomatic cables showing many of Pakistan's politicians and senior generals as little better than obsequious house servants for Uncle Sam. More Pakistanis will now believe their nation has indeed been virtually occupied by the United States.
The new anthem of Pakistan's government should be the old calypso song, "Working for the Yankee dollar!"
For cynical professionals, WikiLeaks showed business as usual in US foreign policy. They reaffirm that great powers really want obedience, not international cooperation or improved relations.
Even the British came across looking more like Jeeves the Butler than our equal partners in the hallowed — and quite spurious — "special relationship." The French will take special delight in this embarrassing portrait of "perfide Albion."
Having almost joined the US State Department many eons ago, I understood that the cables released by WikiLeaks were written by career diplomats who invariably follow the State Department's current party line. These cables are official bureaucratic reporting, not independent fact, as most people wrongly believe. They tell Washington exactly what it wants to hear.
Gone for good are the days when outspoken senior diplomats used to advise Washington it was badly mistaken, or present a very different view of events.
For a diplomat, telling Washington it's wrong is a surefire way to get transferred to the US Embassy in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, or Monrovia, Liberia. Or face the end of one's career. That's why I decided not to take up a job offered me on State's Mideast desk.
I've seen US and British diplomats fired or sidelined who dared speak the truth or oppose the party line. When Hillary Clinton tells you Uzbekistan is a flowering democracy, you better believe her and keep repeating this canard.
That's why so far there have been no big surprises from WikiLeaks. Note the total absence of any criticism of Israel in spite of the fact that it is so deeply involved in making US Mideast policy. In fact, we have seen Israel's viewpoint, particularly towards Iran, woven through WikiLeaks — and no dissenting opinions.
Sound foreign policy should be built on the productive conflict of thesis, antithesis, and the resulting synthesis. When every diplomat sings from the same script, something is very wrong.
US Arab allies were also treated with kid gloves. Not a peep to date about rigged elections in Egypt, human rights violations by Israel, torture by Morocco or about Algeria's exceptionally brutal regime that even proudly called itself, "the eradicators."
The Saudis were depicted as snarling in private about Iran's nuclear program. In fact, the Gulf Arabs do not fear Iran's nuclear policies so much as the threat of Iranian-style Islamic revolution that would sweep away the corrupt Arab oil monarchs, our local satraps, and replace them by populist Islamic regimes that would not jump to Washington's tune or buy tens of billions of American arms they cannot use.
But what we get is all Iranian nuclear threat, all the time. The Arab oil monarchs do not speak for their people, any more than Egypt's US-backed dictator, Husni Mubarak, represents his heavily-police people. Note there was not a peep of protest from Washington over this weekend's crudely rigged "election" farce in Egypt.
Leaks about Turkey being a "terrorist state" were absurd. Turkey is fast emerging as a major power under the most effective democratic government it has ever had and should remain a key US ally.
So was the claim that China favorably views a US-South Korean takeover of North Korea. This is either arrant nonsense or a devious Chinese ploy to confuse US policy makers.
There's also something about WikiLeaks that smells nasty to me. I sense the leaks have been heavily censored, or cherry-picked before the public saw them. Much seems to be missing. But what these missing pieces are remains an unknown.
For example, the New York Times, one of the recipients of the entire leak package of thousands of cables, appeared to use them selectively to push its pro-war position in Afghanistan and press for war against Iran. The "revelations" brought cheers from the war party.
But where was information about involvement of Afghanistan's Tajik-Uzbek Northern Alliance, the key US ally there, in running the drug trade? Or the influential Afghan Communist Party?
Call them the dogs that didn't bark.
The US media and Congress have been blasting WikiLeaks for "treason" or "terrorism," and demanding it be silenced — while gleefully using parts of the leaks to promote war against Iran. US media and Congress seem to have forgotten about free speech. Or the right of Americans to know what their government is really up to around the globe.
Some of America's dimmer Republican politicians called for charges of "terrorism" against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Terrorism has become America's catch-all charge for annoying or rebellious activity, much as the Soviets used to charge people with being "enemies of the state."
Any people or groups forcefully opposing US policy abroad is now branded "terrorist" and added to Washington's blacklist. I refuse to use the term, "terrorist," preferring instead, "anti-American," which is far more accurate. President George W. Bush made the US detested or scorned around the globe. After a surge of hope, President Barack Obama failed to ameliorate America's battered image.
Lots of anti-Americans out there, but we can't brand them all "terrorists" or we will be fighting the world in a hopeless struggle.
The uproar over WikiLeaks may also well spur efforts by the hard right to impose censorship on the Internet, which has replaced the fawning corporate media as the people's tribune.
Interestingly, the WikiLeaks furor comes as the combined 16 US intelligence agencies are reportedly preparing to release a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) unanimously concluding Iran is not building nuclear weapons. Quite a coincidence, to say the least.
Washington sources say this latest NIE reconfirms the previous 2007 NIE finding that Iran had ceased all development of nuclear arms four years earlier. Before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, CIA and UN reports that Saddam Hussein's regime had no weapons of mass destruction were ignored or covered up by the Bush White House, which was racing toward war.
Now, a fierce struggle over the next NIE is raging in Washington between groups urging war against Iran and the US intelligence community and elements in the Pentagon. There are still officials in Washington who put America's national interests first and resist bending to political pressure or financial inducements.
The upright Adm. Dennis Blair, the last US national intelligence director, was reportedly ousted because he refused to endorse claims Iran was making nuclear weapons.
President Barack Obama appears to have ducked this explosive issue. Politically wounded and unable to fully control all the levers of presidential power, Obama seems unwilling or unable to stand up to the pro-war party.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks is at least doing in part what America's elected leaders and supposed free media should have been doing: telling citizens what's really going on.
December 7, 2010
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.