Where's the beef?

Wikileaks'' collection of American diplomatic cables has been on public display for several days. It is not easy obtaining direct access to the raw material, but enough has reached the media to get a feel for the content.

If there is a great revelation that should surprise me, it has not yet come to my attention. The raw material that I have seen looks like typical cable traffic: reporting on conversations that convey opinions and thoughts, but little by way of firm intentions or anything that can be pinned down and presented to a court of public opinion as a great person''s innermost feelings.


The gems that come from journalists'' perusing of much more than I have seen include items that are newsworthy for their apparent drama, but nothing that should upset an observer''s view of international politics. Among the details that would shock only to the most innocent believers in governmental morality are those dealing with American offers of payoffs to countries willing to take some of the prisoners in Guantanamo, Third World officials urging Americans to send prisoners to places where they can be liquidated, and Americans pressing Third World leaders to make the appearance but not the reality of fair elections. 


Bloomberg posted some comments that describes how American officials are dealing with the egg on their face, and how other countries are trying to minimize the damage to them.


According to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates:


“The fact is governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest -- not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. . . Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest. . . . Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve. . . Some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us.”


Secretary of State Clinton was less candid, and sounded more like someone protecting her turf.

“Obviously this is a matter of great concern, because we don’t want anyone in any of the countries that could be affected by these alleged leaks to have any doubts about our intentions,”


Reports of Arab officials asking the United States to attack Iran would appear to upset their countries. We have long known that Muslims are divided on religion (Sunni vs Shiite), ethnicity, and national political interests, but one could wonder about the appearance of Muslim leaders asking the United States to attack another Muslim country.

Against this, however, is the likelihood that the people of Muslim countries long ago decided that they could not trust their leaders. And even those seeking a reason to mount a protest should be wary about security forces that are hardly gentle or respectful of human rights.


Among the comments from officials of Arab countries:

“It is something that is unusual, and embarrassing somehow, but it will pass.” 


. . .  comments reported from leaked cables aren’t actually very secret. . . . information that you have heard here or there . . . don’t know where this is coming from, or how credible this information is.

If there is no material in what has been released until now that seems capable of shaking the world immediately, there are a number of possibilities that cannot be dismissed out of hand. This may be one of those events that ripple for some time through the atmosphere of international politics. 


Effects may not be early and obvious, but more subtle or indirect. Observers should be aware that large organizations are clumsy and do not operate like a Swiss watch. Nonetheless, the leaks do not add to the standing of the United States. And while it would be a stretch to hold Barack Obama responsible, the leaks do not make the White House look any better than did the results of the mid-term elections, or the lack of significant movement on issues like North Korea, Iran, Guantanamo, or Israel-Palestine.


Of potential danger are indications that Chinese officials may be giving up on the North Koreans. Perhaps the North Koreans sensed this. Or the Chinese will claim that Americans fabricated the leaks in order to embarrass them. In a regime as closed as that of North Korea, we can only guess. Hopefully, the news will not cause its leadership to feel so isolated as to throw over the norms of self-preservation and attack South Korea, Japan, or the United States.


Nothing seen so far seems likely to affect Israel or Palestine. The prospects of peace appear to be suffering from problems far more profound than a few conversations. Comments attributed to Benyamin Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas do not differ significantly from what they have said in public. Post-Wikileak Palestinian claims on the Western Wall have brought a tongue lashing from the State Department, but no overt withdrawal from efforts to get the parties talking. Things appear to be on hold until someone comes up with a bright new idea.  


There may be details in the Wikileaks to give historians a leg up on what would have been released from the archives several decades from now. But they may have to wait until the archives open--or the next great leakage--to see enough to provide a more complete story of what they want to study. It is most certain that the leaks have been a bonanza to international journalism, and to those in the audience who crave a reason to say Wow.