Let's start with what the U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks this weekend are not.
They are not, as Hillary Clinton claimed, "an attack on America's foreign policy interests" that have endangered "innocent people." And they are not, as Robert Gibbs put it, a "reckless and dangerous action" that puts at risk "the cause of human rights."
And they do not amount to what the Italian foreign minister, in one of the sorrier moments in the history of hyperbole (or is it hysteria?), deemed the "September 11 of world diplomacy."
They are also not "top secret" since between 2 and 3 million government employees are cleared to see this level of "secret" document, and some 500,000 people have access to the Secret Internet Protocol Network (SIPRnet) where the cables were stored. Maybe they should think about changing the name to the Not-All-That Secret Internet Protocol Network (NATSIPRnet).
What's more, the revelations are not particularly revelatory. As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said: "Much of what we have seen thus far confirms more than it informs."
But here is what makes the leaked cables so important: they provide another opportunity to turn the spotlight on the war in Afghanistan, which, despite the fact that it's costing us $2.8 billion a week keeps getting pushed into the shadows -- even in this deficit-obsessed time. The cables are a powerful reminder of what this unwinnable war is costing us in terms of lives, in terms of money, and in terms of our long-term national security.
They don't deliver the punch in the gut or the chill down the spine that the Afghanistan war logs WikiLeaks released in July did, with their disturbing accounts of killed civilians, dead children, confused soldiers, and mounting chaos.
But the funny thing about tipping points is that you never know what fact, image, or story will bring things to a critical mass -- what small moment will cause a big idea to finally take hold.
Picture a very complicated combination lock, one that requires dialing up eight different numbers to open. And you have seven of the numbers -- but the lock still won't open until you hit upon that final number. 1/8th may not seem as "big" as 7/8ths, but without the final click of the combination, the tumblers won't fall into place.
"We need to prepare ourselves," wrote Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point, "for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen quickly... Look at the world around you. It may seem an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push -- in just the right place -- it can be tipped."
So maybe the tipping point will be the cables' reminder that we have placed our faith in the future of Afghanistan into the hands of a president our diplomats think is "extremely weak" and "driven by paranoia." Maybe it will be the news that President Karzai has freed many dangerous detainees -- including 29 who had been held at Guantanamo -- and pardoned numerous drug dealers. Maybe it will be yet another portrait of the president's half-brother as "corrupt and a narcotics trafficker." Maybe it will be the story of Afghanistan's former vice president being stopped in Dubai carrying $52 million in cash -- money he was allowed to keep. (Here's Dan Froomkin on the many other ways billions in American taxpayer money has gone down the drain in Afghanistan -- money desperately needed for some nation-building here at home.)
Or maybe it will be the bracing honesty of Anne Patterson, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 2007 until last month, who, without spin, sheds light on the complex relationship between our supposed allies in the Pakistan intelligence agencies and the Taliban, a relationship that poses a clear and present danger to American troops in Afghanistan. In the words of Simon Jenkins: "Patterson's cables are like missives from the Titanic as it already heads for the bottom."
If any of these revelations tip the scales, reminding people why bringing our troops home quickly needs to be more -- much more -- than "aspirational" (as the Pentagon recently termed the goal of being out by 2014), then this round of WikiLeaks will have been a very good thing, indeed.
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