The American Response to the WikiLeaks Fiasco

TNR: America’s Facile, Self-Congratulatory Response to WikiLeaks

Nothing in the Wikileaks saga has been more typically American than the search for a good-news angle on the whole depressing story. Merely keeping a stiff upper lip is not enough, it seems. We need to assure ourselves that what looks like a disaster is really a victory.

There may eventually be a revisionist backlash, but two weeks into the affair the dominant trend among commentators has been what you might call Wiki-triumphalism. Here’s the argument that’s taking hold. The cables show that in private the United States is committed to the same interests it espouses in public, and that’s a clear plus for our image. American diplomats emerge in these documents as a corps of talented, hard-working professionals—and that also helps our standing. Some of our Foreign Service Officers are even shown by the leaks to be masters of humorous storytelling. The resulting comparisons to Evelyn Waugh provide another collective ego-boost.

This is a valid point I want to recognize – that is – the leak of the cables makes it rather evident that we maintain, for the most part, a very skilled diplomatic corps abroad, and that these people, the Foreign Service Officers, are doing their jobs. But perhaps it’s simply because I want to be one of them haha. Still, I think the release of the cables demonstrates that we do indeed have an informed cadre of people who are working tirelessly around the clock to construct U.S. foreign policy.

Well, I’m not convinced. “We’re good, we’re smart, we’re strong—we’re America!” Not so long ago, these very same people would have seen such talk as the kind of overeager self-congratulation that blinds a nation to its own mistakes and vulnerabilities.

Indeed. I agree with this…

Being big enough to take care of yourself does, of course, allow you to make a lot of mistakes without having to pay for them. But it shouldn’t keep you from seeing the mistakes for what they are. These days, after all, we hear that American power isn’t what it used to be, and that we have to step up our game.

The case for confidentiality in diplomatic communications doesn’t make exceptions. Most negotiations can’t be successful if every move—every embarrassing concession in which you compromise a point today that you declared sacrosanct yesterday—is made in public. By and large, because the United States is so powerful, we actually gain the most from confidentiality. Secrecy can shield the concessions that others make to us. Without it, they are more stubborn, more fearful, less able to act.

This is the essence of the art of diplomacy.

Take two of the most important cables. In one, the king of Saudi Arabia is reported to have told General Petraeus that America has to “chop off the head” of the Iranian “snake.” … It’s possible, of course, that the Arab leaders in question will be unfazed by this unexpected exposure. Perhaps the king of Saudi Arabia is a relaxed, flexible, worldly guy who laughs off little kerfuffles like this. Somehow I don’t think so. My guess is, he and his retinue are still in shock.

I can somehow picture the Saudi King in front of Petraeus with a drawn scimitar gesturing imperiously to cut of the head of the Iranian snake in Arabic haha. Kerfluffles is is also a great word.

In poring over these documents, many commentators have nostalgically recalled past masterpieces of diplomatic reporting. In this connection George Kennan’s name comes up again and again. Fewer people recall his famous judgment about how readily Americans explain away our own mistakes. “A nation,” he wrote almost 60 years ago, “which excuses its own failures by the sacred untouchableness of its own habits can excuse itself into complete disaster.”

Explaining away our own mistakes is also an art we practice here in America. I’m certainly not saying its right or offering my approval of it. While the Administration’s response has largely made sense from a political angle, in terms of trying to paint a sheen over the whole thing, there should be some recognition that the whole scandal has dealt a serious blow to our credibility, in terms of keeping information secure. Foreign nations will not be so trusting of the U.S. in the future. Sure, they may still have to do business with us, no doubt, but that’s not the point. In terms of the ability of our Foreign Service to gather and report information, it may not be as forthcoming in the future.

I guess the real point here is that yeah, our diplomats are doing their jobs as they should, though perhaps classifying cables as revealing as the one from the Saudi king reveal some serious errors in judgment on their part – well – the point is that the current perspective geopolitical impact of the cables by the administration is somewhat misguided. Yes Secretary Gates is right; countries have no choice to deal with us given our political, economic,  and military clout, but the way in which they deal with us has the potential to be transformed by the cables. No longer will countries be so trusting (as if they already were) and frank with us about their true intentions. Our diplomats will now have to be even more skilled at discerning the truth. If it is expected that the U.S. diplomatic establishment will leak like a bag of water full of holes, whose to know if false trails of information might be laid with the hope that they might determine a different course of direction for U.S. policy?

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