Uncomfortable lessons from the reaction to WikiLeaks

“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.

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3 thoughts on “Uncomfortable lessons from the reaction to WikiLeaks

  1. Frigga Karl

    Never has the policy making of governments a great success. Neither after WWI, nor WWII because after WWI the Versailles treaty was so unjust that it led to WWII. In WWI millions of people died without reason. In WWII Germany and Russia wanted to stop the War in 1943 and demanded the claims, but England and USA did not want to stop the killing and bombing! Millions of people died because of the cynical and arrogant behaviour (Churchill, Roosevelt) Saddam Hussein tried a peace treaty with the USA in 1992 but wikileaks did not exist at that moment. Every time the dominant side has shown inhuman arrogance. People’s life is not the question of the ruling power. This we should know for the sake of our life! The powers in place are taking our money and do not hesitate to kill us whenever it seems necessary for them. Nice, is’n it?

  2. Christopher Hoare

    While I have little to argue with in his conclusions, I find the two throwaways at the start to be completely unhelpful.

    He directs two accusations at Wikileaks without any backup. That the ‘revelations’ of Spanish nuclear power stations having security checks, which actually are very slight generalizations, is a breach of their security. Having served in an artillery unit where we had nuclear weapons stored for immediate use, I’m aware that a similar account, that we had guards from two armies and lots of barbed wire entanglements would have told a potential sabotage force nothing they couldn’t already guess. In the Spanish case, the presence of security cameras and electric fences, etc, doesn’t tell potential attackers the details, such as where they are – which would require visual inspection or a copy of the site plan to facilitate an assault.

    As for the Saddam – April Glaspie dialogue, it only presents her chosen assessment of the meeting, not what Saddam took from it. It gives no contextual evidence such as her body language, and it seems, too conveniently leaves out an exchange that was reported subsequently by almost every media outlet in Europe – whether the US had any interest in the fate of Kuwait. If the exchange was pure fabrication, a link to the proof in his article would have been useful.

  3. Norman

    Goodness, the above story & comment seems to be right on the mark or almost. Unfortunately, with power, comes madness, so until those in power are brought to bay, then we will continue to experience the destruction of the human race. The failure of the West in the Middle East, is out in plain sight, yet, because of the Wests tunnel vision, they can’t see the forest from the trees. What a pity, that others have to die, because of the short sightedness & greed that’s prevalent in the Governments today.

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