Uncomfortable Lessons From the Reaction to WikiLeaks

The reactions to WikiLeaks share one characteristic, so obvious that it can easily be overlooked, namely an unwillingness to address with any sophistication or seriousness the complex and ever changing world that the US must now deal with.
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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.

On the right, and indeed center, the reaction has been hysteria. Politicians have lined up to decry the threat to US national security and even American lives, without offering a shred of evidence to confirm this claim.

Virtually no one, save the admirable Ron Paul, has stood up for free speech and the public's right to know what government is up to in its name, or defended Bradley Manning's right to the presumption of innocence, but whose involvement in the leaks is unquestioningly assumed by everyone.

On the left: blind support for Assange and WikiLeaks, despite the feckless irresponsibility of leaks that include detailed information on the defenses of nuclear sites, of minimal public interest but considerable interest to potential terrorist attackers. Meanwhile, many have confused the issue of free speech by supporting Assange's transparently self-interested claims that allegations of sexual misconduct are part of a CIA plot. In Sweden? Come off it.

The press has largely followed this lead, with a paparazzi focus on Assange, which he clearly revels in (the book deal has now been signed), or a tediously black-and-white debate -- press freedom or security? -- about the rights and wrongs of the WikiLeaks phenomenon itself.

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.

This is a difficult discussion, because it entails a careful weighing of risks and probabilities -- summed up in the perpetual conundrum of whether to support unpleasant and repressive regimes (Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc) for fear of something worse. I think this policy has been clearly shown as counterproductive, exacerbating the very threat -- jihadist terrorism -- it is supposed to suppress. But it is complicated to design alternatives, and it is this complexity and respect for realities that has been more or less totally absent in the WikiLeaks debate.

That the necessary reaction has been all but invisible tells a disquieting story about our very relationship with government and indeed our democracy. The revelation that government is doing something in private other to what it is claiming in public should be met not by indifference or complacency, but outrage. Enduring national security does not demand secrecy, except where strictly necessary; it demands above all reaffirmation of the most fundamental values that underpin democracy -- transparency, accountability and, perhaps most importantly in this case, participation.

The reactions to WikiLeaks share one abiding characteristic, so obvious that it can easily be overlooked, namely an unwillingness to address with any sophistication or seriousness the complex and everchanging world that the US -- and all of us -- must now deal with. The prevailing and lazy assumption is implied but all too clear: that the foreign policy élite, and government, should be left to get on with the job, with whatever secrecy that they demand.

If the last few years tell us anything, it should be that foreign policy and war are too important to be left to government alone. The world and its dramas are complicated and difficult, traits that do not suggest secretiveness and élitism as their solution, but instead the opposite. But it is us, those who currently absolve ourselves of responsibility, who need to decide to take it upon ourselves.

So far WikiLeaks has produced a reaction all too symptomatic of our troubled democracy. Instead of informed debate, hysteria and told-you-so complacency. This reaction is perhaps the most important -- and devastating -- consequence of WikiLeaks, and the one that should give us the most pause.

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