Many here in the United States have been quick to dismiss the significance of the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks as little more than foreign policy gossip. Unfortunately, this is not how it’s playing in the rest of the world, particularly in the Middle East. In that conspiracy theory-rich region, nothing the Americans do is by accident.
For instance, the Iraq war and the subsequent sectarian fighting was seen in some precincts of the Levant as the consummation of a project to divide and conquer the Arabs at the behest of Israel—a plan allegedly laid out in a letter written by Henry Kissinger in 1976. Never mind that no such correspondence ever existed—just two weeks ago Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah cited the three-decade-old fictional memo to dishearten his Lebanese rivals in the pro-American camp.
With WikiLeaks, then, it’s hardly surprising that these same U.S. adversaries have turned an intelligence dump into an opportunity for disinformation. According to one rumor consistent with Hezbollah’s propaganda campaign, a soon-to-be-leaked diplomatic cable will show that senior American envoys have tried to scuttle the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The message coming from Hezbollah and its allies is loud and clear: The Americans’ deep plan is to betray their Arab allies, not protect them.
Hence, WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, the soldier who downloaded the cables and shared them with Assange, have handed America’s enemies in the Middle East another weapon in their war against U.S. citizens, interests, and allies.
If every American action in the region is seen as part of a carefully choreographed campaign, friendly Arab regimes must be wondering why Washington is looking to embarrass them by “leaking” these cables right now. Yemeni president Ali Saleh probably no longer thinks it’s funny that he offered to take credit for U.S. air attacks on al Qaeda militants in his country. Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman must wish that he had chosen his words about Hamas a bit more carefully. Saudi King Abdullah likely would have found less provocative imagery than his description of the Iranians as snakes.
Presidents, kings, and intelligence chiefs of hard security regimes can protect themselves, but other U.S. allies are in a much more precarious position. For instance, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri might have avoided telling the Americans to bomb Iran had he known his counsel would be revealed during his trip to Tehran. Current and former U.S. allies among the Lebanese are particularly vulnerable since the Bush administration played an active role there, encouraging local actors to stand up for democracy. From the perspective of the Iranian-led resistance bloc, this amounted to taking sides against Hezbollah, Damascus, and Tehran, and siding with the United States and Israel. Some of these cables will substantiate that charge, and Washington has shown little inclination, or ability, to protect its own.
One cable reports that Lebanese defense minister Elias Murr explained how his country’s armed forces would stay out of the way if Israel wanted to take a shot at Hezbollah. In another, acting commander of the Lebanese army Major General Shawki al-Masri asked for attack helicopters to confront Hezbollah.
The Murr and Masri cables were leaked to a pro-Hezbollah Beirut daily, one of the local papers that WikiLeaks has been feeding on the sidelines of its primary campaign in the Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel. While the leaks coming from these major European papers are getting most of the attention, it is in these smaller, local markets around the world where U.S. interests are likely to be hit hardest, and where American allies, like Murr and Masri, are most vulnerable. Some of our allies will surely lose their lives thanks to the adolescent self-righteousness of Assange and Manning.
What may be worse for Washington than our regional allies’ thinking the leaks were part of a clever, vicious intelligence operation, is the prospect that they will conclude it is not intentional, that rather, this massive dump is just the result of American incompetence. Our European friends will forgive us after they have had a laugh at our expense. But in the Middle East, our lack of seriousness and resolve, and our inability to stop a cyber-Chomsky from undermining our foreign policy, will entail a loss of prestige and honor. These abstractions may mean little to the newspaper editors who discount the importance of the leaks while plastering them across their front pages, but they are concepts for which others are prepared to kill and die.
Former U.S. government officials are divided over how long the damage will last. “All of the [governments] will say that WikiLeaks is not important,” says Ambassador Eric Edelman, envoy to Turkey in 2003-05. “They will put it behind them for a simple reason that they would be loath to admit, which is that we are still the world’s remaining superpower, and they will work with us.” Individuals, though, says Edelman, will probably not soon forget. “It is hard to imagine any senior government official anywhere in the world, human rights activist, private citizen, military officer, academic, or anyone else who might be a well-informed source having any faith that a confidential discussion they have won’t be showing up in the New York Times within a few months.”
If there is any upside to what Edelman calls a dark day for American statesmanship, it’s that the cables show Foreign Service officers for the most part to be honest, buoyant, and clear-eyed observers of the Middle East. It is peculiar then that rather than commend U.S. diplomats for doing their jobs, the president and his secretary of state have extended their apologies to world leaders, including Turkey’s. After Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “crush” the American diplomats who dared to raise critical issues, the administration was silent.
That American diplomats in the Middle East relay their findings back to Washington faithfully and accurately may come as a surprise to those who primarily think of the State Department as a pro-Arab government bureaucracy famous for its ambivalence toward Israel. But regardless of State’s political inclinations, good accurate reports are Foggy Bottom’s meat and potatoes, says Elliott Abrams, who worked at State during the Reagan administration. “One of the things you learn at the State Department is reporting,” says Abrams. “It is absolutely essential, probably the single skill that is most rigorously taught there.”
However, one former official in the George W. Bush White House who requested anonymity maintains that much of the State Department’s reporting is considerably less accurate than what has been released to date. “We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg of some 200,000 cables,” he explains. Some are likely to show a different side of the Foreign Service, one that uses the information it controls to win Washington policy fights. “Journalists will elicit quotes from sources to get the story they want,” says the former official. “And some Foreign Service officers do the same thing, with the difference being that with journalism there is a certain limit to how far you can play with reality. That problem is multiplied many times with classified documents.”
The WikiLeaks episode then might best be understood in a broader context, encompassing the media as well as a foreign policy establishment in which leaking has become an accepted, even encouraged, method of arguing one’s case. Leaking by the foreign policy bureaucracies to undermine Bush administration policy was epidemic over the course of his two terms. During that time, leaking to the national press became commonplace, and because so many had a stake in fighting Bush—from his own secretary of state to the New York Times—it offended the sensibilities of very few. Indeed, after Bush’s reelection in 2004, W. Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official said of the CIA, “Of course they were leaking. They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t reelect this man.’ ”
The WikiLeaks dump is ultimately more than an escalation of this trend, however. The massive size and indiscriminateness of the cable dump bespeaks not a fight over a specific policy, but a shapeless outpouring of anti-American animus. It is no use trying to understand Assange or Manning’s exact motives, just as attempts to interpret Osama bin Laden’s precise goals on 9/11 seldom repay the effort. What they have done is an act of cyberterrorism that will aid those waging war against U.S. citizens, interests, and allies. If the Obama administration has failed to respond commensurately, it is only partly because the president and his attorney general are still trying to convince themselves, and the American public, that our wars should be left largely to the police and civilian trials. It is also because for too long now our press corps and policymakers have collaborated in a naïve and foolish game that, as we have seen, and will unfortunately continue to see, gets people killed, including American citizens. Our allies in the Middle East will only be the first to pay the price.
Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.