“Amid the sound and fury of the reaction to WikiLeaks, something is missing. Whether hostile or supportive, politicians and commentators on all sides have managed to miss the real point. The contents of the leaked cables should demand a deep reflection on our foreign policy. That this has not happened tells a sorry story about our very democracy,” writes Carne Ross.
Of the extraordinary cable sent by US ambassador April Glaspie of her last conversation with Saddam Hussein before he invaded Kuwait in 1990, there is nary a mention in any press anywhere, yet this is when — more or less precisely — Iraq tipped from being an ally of the US to an enemy, and thus the point of departure for America’s bloody and expensive involvement in Iraq that lasts to this day, twenty years later. (This cable by the way undermines the accusation that Glaspie gave the nod to Saddam to invade.)
Likewise, where is the debate on reports that show Afghanistan’s President Karzai, for whose “democratic” government young Americans are dying every day, brazenly refusing to reverse the release of cronies imprisoned for corruption?
Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker, amongst many others, has claimed that there’s little that’s new or concerning in the cables, suggesting that his magazine already knew that the US was discussing how the Yemeni President might lie to his parliament about American bomb strikes in his country, that the US is secretly conducting aerial surveillance of Hezbollah positions at Lebanese government request (a highly toxic revelation in that unstable country), or that the British government, to its discredit, assured the US that its interests would be protected in a supposedly-independent public inquiry into the Iraq war.
One reaction has been commonplace but striking, among supposedly liberal as well as conservative commentary, namely that “government and diplomacy need secrecy” in order to function. What is extraordinary about this claim is that it is invariably made in complete ignorance of what it is that government is keeping secret. Nanny knows best.
I worked in government, on Afghanistan, the Middle East, and in particular Iraq, over which I eventually resigned (I was Britain’s Iraq “expert” at the UN Security Council for 4 ½ years). I resigned because my government lied about why it went to war and ignored available alternatives to war.
After the travesties of the last ten years, it is simply staggering that the information and responsibility to decide war is so lightly handed over. This choice — of what we allow government to do in our name — should always be contested, never taken for granted. Government needs far less secrecy than that which we grant it. And it is indeed our choice. And here is the real point.
The reaction that the WikiLeaks episode most deserves has been the least evident. The picture of the world revealed in the cables demands a sober and informed reflection on the realities of policy-making in regions like the Middle East, where any frank observer would conclude that Western foreign policy has not been a great success, to put it mildly.