Utter the word “WikiLeaks” in the Obama White House or the Pentagon, and you are sure to witness a sense of growing disillusionment among policymakers. The self-proclaimed whistleblower website has caused the administration a number of thumping headaches over the past year.
Take last summers release of over 70,000 military field reports in Afghanistan. The first hand reports captured the essence of war in a country that few in the world seem to understand. The reports painted American and NATO troops as the middlemen in a seemingly endless confrontation from all sides, including not just the Taliban but also Hamid Karzai’s embattled regime.
Not to be outdone, the organization’s disclosure of over 400,000 documents about the Iraq War also caused officials in the White House to bow their heads in embarrassment, albeit for a short time. Raw reporting from American officers on the ground described the frequent mistreatment and torture of detainees at the hands of the Iraqi security forces, in addition to Washington’s lingering distrust toward Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Yet while both of those document dumps were indeed damaging to the United States, at least in terms of its international image, most of them could be contained with a bit of political damage control. After all, most of the content unveiled in the Afghan and Iraq War leaks occurred during President George W. Bush’s tenure, giving Obama staffers a “that was then, this is now” defense. In fact, this is exactly the type of defense that was used by White House spokesmen. Press secretary Robert Gibbs told the White House press corps a few days after the first release that the documents didn’t cover Obama’s post-surge strategy in Afghanistan and where therefore irrelevant.
That argument proved effective. The media firestorm died down and President Obama was somewhat vindicated, since the leaked memos were largely remnants of the Bush era.
But the latest wave of classified material that was published over the weekend by WikiLeaks (and disseminated to The New York Times, the British Guardian and Der Spiegel in Germany, among others) may prove to be much more damaging to American foreign policy. Rather than concentrating on war related exposés, the new trove of documents covers a wide range of issues, all of which the United States government would rather keep secret. All of the leaks are within the purview of the State Department and thus encompass private, candid and blunt conversations within America’s diplomatic establishment. So unlike previous wikileaks disclosures, the 250,000 State Department cables cut to the core of official American policy.
As one can imagine, 250,000 leaked cables is an unprecedented amount of material. The Pentagon and the State Department are skimming the documents to make sure that names are redacted and sources are protected. And bloggers are combing through the communiqués to determine what exactly are the most controversial findings.
Courtesy of The New York Times and The Washington Post, here are a few highlights:
American and South Korean officials are planning for an eventual North Korean collapse.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia desperately wants the United States to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities before the situation becomes intolerable.
Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh acknowledges that his regime will continue to cover up American airstrikes in his country.
American officials believe that North Korea has exported long range ballistic missiles to Iran, some of which may be able to reach targets in Western Europe.
The State Department orders diplomats to spy on foreign dignitaries at the United Nations.
Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani tells Senator John Kerry that Egypt is the main problem in Middle East peace talks.
This is just a sample of the explosive material that can be found in the latest collection of leaks. Whether the content will have negative implications for American diplomacy is the subject of the next post, but at this short juncture, it may be safe to say that the Obama Administration is going to have some more headaches in the next few days.
On a side note, one wonders whether these cables influence the decisionmaking process of other powers as well? Many of the leaks expose the suspicions, rivalries and personal disagreements that are often held by world leaders. For instance, Saudi king Abdullah is said to not trust Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak regards the Iranians as nothing but a bunch of “big fat lairs.” The ties between all of these countries are strenuous to begin with but one can assume that revealing this strong rhetoric to the public won’t help smooth over the relationship. Expressing frustration in private is pure diplomacy, but having those frustrations disclosed for the other side to see is just bad business.