Many tens of thousands of classified American diplomatic cables were released by WikiLeaks this weekend, an international forum for whistleblowers. The releases have been condemned by the Obama Administration and are humiliating because of the blunt assessments of foreign governments and leaders they contain. But even if WikiLeaks claims otherwise, they contribute nothing to the public’s understanding of international relations and certainly won’t encourage authorities to be more transparent.
Among the most embarrassing and potentially most harmful of cables released by WikiLeaks are reports of Middle Eastern governments from Israel to Saudi Arabia pushing the United States to undertake military action against Iran before it builds a nuclear weapon.
Any observer who has been paying attention could have known that nearly all countries in the region are dreading the prospect of a nuclear Iran. It is why other states along the Persian Gulf have been buying American arms and modernizing their own weapons arsenals and it is why countries as Jordan and Turkey have been trying to act as middlemen in negotiations. Their role, and that of Saudi Arabia as well, may be harmed by the release of their confidential communications with the United States. Why would Iran sit down with them if it knows that behind closed doors, its neighbors are simultaneously recommending airstrikes?
The “Cablegate” files, as the release has been dubbed by WikiLeaks itself, further include reports on European national leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, who is criticized for her lack of creativity; French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is said to be prone to authoritarian behavior when under siege; and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who, like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is suspected of maintaining ties with organized crime. Anyone who has ever read a European newspaper could have told you that but it is embarrassing for the United States for such assessments of their allies to be in the public domain now. Berlusconi, for one, is said to have had a “good laugh” over reading the reports though.
The most — or only — serious allegation that has surfaced from the leaked reports so far involves American ambassadors and personnel at the United Nations who were told to spy on the organization by the State Department.
Five media — The New York Times, the Guardian in the United Kingdom, the French Le Monde, the German Der Spiegel and Spanish newspaper El País — were granted access to the documents before they were published at WikiLeaks Sunday. All have released only a selection and the Times said to have verified certain information with the White House before putting the cables online.
Even if the leaked documents cover a period of more than forty years (only a portion of the cables stems from the period after 9/11 and relates to current international relations), the impact, even according to some of the aforementioned newspapers, is supposed to be gargantuan. “The impression is of the world’s superpower roaming helpless in a world in which nobody behaves as bidden,” according to the Guardian‘s Simon Jenkins. Der Spiegel lambasted that the leak constitutes “a political meltdown for American foreign policy,” one that leaves “the trust America’s partners have in the country […] badly shaken.”
That may be overstated but it is not without an element of truth. The White House’s chief spokesman agreed that the releases could compromise discussions with foreign leaders in the future. “When the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only American foreign policy interests but those of our allies and friends around the world,” said Robert Gibbs today.
WikiLeaks obviously begs to differ and defends its actions in the name of transparency. The website’s real and self-proclaimed goal however is to constrain if not outright undermine American power and influence. In doing so, it doesn’t shrink — as it has demonstrated with the release of classified military files in the past — from putting people’s lives at risk. Publishing information indiscriminately is not how journalism should work.
Newspapers including The New York Times have fortunately chosen to exclude sensitive details when the White House asked them to. According to Le Monde, the different publications worked together to edit out the names of people to whom the releases could be dangerous. WikiLeaks makes no such distinctions.
While the latest collection of leaked documents does not appear to include anything too dramatic, it does affect American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. WikiLeaks may not care and retort that the United States should not interfere in other parts of the world to begin with but as long as there are American troops stationed in the region; as long as Israel is an ally and other countries worry about Iran’s brinkmanship, such arguments should be confined to sensible political discussion and not be pressured with the illegitimate release of confidential information.