Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What the Pentagon Papers have wrought

The blogosphere has been fairly active over the latest Wikileaks document dump. Active, but hardly hyperactive. First, it is not the first such release by them. Secondly, an email from US Secretary of Defense Gates to a prominent blogger-war journalist (Michael Yon) has picked up something very important:
First of all, I would say unlike the Pentagon Papers, one of the things that is important, I think, in all of these releases, whether it's Afghanistan, Iraq or the releases this week, is the lack of any significant difference between what the U.S. government says publicly and what these things show privately, whereas the Pentagon Papers showed that many in the government were not only lying to the American people, they were lying to themselves.

The US has not been exposed as conducting some secret foreign policy. It certainly has not been exposed as exaggerating dangers. If anything the other way. The release has led to quite a lot of the more hawkish commentators to argue it supports their concerns and provides a base for criticising the Obama Administration for being far too passive and sanguine about the problem of Iran. Michael Ledeen's response seems indicative of this sort of response: likes the information (since it supports what he has been saying), but the release itself is shameful.

Another version of this is Heather Macdonald's response: the release is damaging, but the diplomatic traffic's evidence of the rationality of Arab governments is comforting.

Then there is the ruminative, "yes but where do we strike the balance?" response. Timothy Garton Ash provides a good example of such. He sees the document dump as a treasure trove that makes the US State Department look better:
There is a public interest in understanding how the world works and what is done in our name. There is a public interest in the confidential conduct of foreign policy. The two public interests conflict.
Though not so much with their security measures:
One thing I'd bet on, though: the US government must surely be ruing, and urgently reviewing, its weird decision to place a whole library of recent diplomatic correspondence on to a computer system so brilliantly secure that a 22-year-old could download it on to a Lady Gaga CD. Gaga, or what?
Thinking along such lines even leads to Jonathan Powell wondering whose interests are served:
On the whole it is surprising how few real surprises seem to be contained in quite such a huge amount of material. To that extent we can feel reassured that the US is not in fact conducting a secret policy around the world that we knew nothing about before. …
While I accept there are good public interest reasons for individual leaks – even though I used to hate them when they made my life more difficult in government – I find it hard to see what public interest there is in a leak on this industrial scale. Even if individual cables reveal individual duplicity, the great mass do not. Their release simply makes the job of government harder and potentially puts the lives and careers of innocent individuals in countries other than the US at risk for no very good reason other than political voyeurism.
It is a reasonable question, being asked by a range of commentators.
There has inevitably been a fair amount of focus on Julien Assange himself. My favourite is Michael Totten doing the wicked thing of simply quoting him. Michael Totten also points out that there is not a lot of embarrassment for the US in all of this, but potentially quite a lot for others.

Which seems to me to capture the striking thing. There is a real sense in which we are in the world the Pentagon Papers have wrought. Not in the sense of what the latest Wikileaks doco dump suggests about the digital online revolution and the operation of politics. Though that is certainly a worthy topic for thought and discussion. But in the sense of a modern democratic polity of the openness of the US simply cannot conduct a seriously and continuously duplicitous foreign policy. Actors at all levels are aware that "secret for now" does not mean "secret forever" and may in fact not even mean secret for very long at all.

The Wikileaks document dump did allow the putting together of a very funny, and very biting, critique of the Obama Administration's Middle East policy. It allows us to see that, really, Israel and the "Jewish lobby" do not, in fact, run US Middle East policy. It provides good information on, for example, awareness of just how fraudulent the last Iranian Presidential election was. But there has been nothing which is all that much of a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.

Indeed, if anything, we get an insight into sanity and rationality in operation. I loved this story in Jonathan Powell's piece, for example:
Following 9/11, Tony Blair had regular fortnightly video conferences with President George Bush. On one occasion, after a series of leaks of letters from the British side recording previous sensitive discussions, Bush stopped in mid-sentence, looked down the camera at the young official taking notes at the No 10 end and said: "Write that down carefully. I want to read it right when it is leaked."
This is the President of the US understanding the world in which he is operating. As do, it appears from the cables, lots of folk who are in the business of diplomacy.

But for sustained, clear-eyed sanity, it is hard to go past the email to Michael Yon from the US Secretary of Defense:
When we went to real congressional oversight of intelligence in the mid-'70s, there was a broad view that no other foreign intelligence service would ever share information with us again if we were going to share it all with the Congress. Those fears all proved unfounded.
Now, I've heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think -- I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. 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. Many governments -- some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.
So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another.
Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.
These are the words of the man who is second in command of all US armed forces. Does it give you comfort that he comes across as a very empirically-minded, very rational (these things tend to go together) guy?

It does me.

The Iranian regime is a menace: lots of highly informed, and powerful, folk in the Middle East think so. We might conclude that the Obama Administration is being too sanguine about it. But we are not confronted with either a deeply duplicitous, or a hyper-aggressive, SuperPower. Just one which has a lot of good information available to it that may be erring on the side of passivity.

The Wikileaks document dump may well pose dangers for particular individuals. Which is shameful, and an implication of the nastiness of much Middle Eastern politics. But, regardless of what one might think of Julian Assange and his actions, what he has actually revealed is a fairly sane, and fairly well informed, diplomatic world. Far more so than what the Pentagon Papers revealed. And, we may well consider, it is like that, to a significant degree, because of the Pentagon Papers being revealed. If there is a hero in any of this, perhaps his name is Daniel Ellsberg.

ADDENDA Further sensible comments on the Wikileaks revelations here (on the US policy being the same in public and private), here (on the debunking of conspiracy theories) and especially here (on being informative, but not all that surprising and not remotely transformative).


  1. There is something of the shoot the messenger at work here. I say give Assange the Nobel Prizes in peace and economics.

  2. Peter, I am not quite that pro Assange, but that the effect is likely positive, even for the US, is a position that more than one sensible person has been making.