Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A mild evaluation of the latest Wikileaks dump from Timothy Garton Ash

Our Pod Pundits are no doubt disappointed that the Wikileaks cables aren't brimming with sex and current "horserace" political speculation. So much of our proud [gulp!] American press is bitching and moaning about how that naughty Wikileaks is publishing boring news about war and nuclear proliferation and international laws and stuff. Booo-ooooring. By Beltway Village standards, anyway.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash (US embassy cables: A banquet of secrets Guardian 11/28/2010) discusses some of the ways in which the current batch of documents, which will take even experts a while to sift through, is a boon for people who actually may care about the information and the major topics they touch:

The historian usually has to wait 20 or 30 years to find such treasures. Here, the most recent dispatches are little more than 30 weeks old. And what a trove this is. It contains more than 250,000 documents. Most of those I have seen, on my dives into a vast ocean, are well over 1,000 words long. If my sample is at all representative, there must be a total at least 250m words – and perhaps up to half a billion. As all archival researchers know, there is a special quality of understanding that comes from exposure to a large body of sources, be it a novelist's letters, a ministry's papers or diplomatic traffic – even though much of the material is routine. With prolonged immersion, you get a deep sense of priorities, character, thought patterns.
I'm trying to imagine CNN's Gloria Borger trying to get out a line like that last sentence. I picture her sputtering, mouth hanging open in blank outrage at who-knows-what, saying, "Priorities? Thought patterns? Who cares? 'Character', yeah, that's the stuff. What sort of catty things are in there of people insulting Hillary Clinton?"


Don't get me wrong. There's definite entertainment value in seeing fatuous pundits saying impossibly dumb things and reacting in inexplicable ways to trivia. The problem is that this is what US television passes off as "news".

Garton Ash's short evaluation in that piece is that the most recent batch of leaks shows American diplomats in a generally good light, looking competent and perceptive. He does repeat the stock official arguments about how confidentiality in diplomatic communications is important, etc. But he also makes this important observation:

Most of this material is medium-and high-level political reporting from around the world, plus instructions from Washington. It is important to remember that we do not have the top categories of secrecy here – Nodis (president, secretary of state, head of mission only), Roger, Exdis, Docklamp (between defence attaches and the defense intelligence agency only). What we have is still a royal banquet.
As examples of quality work by US diplomats, he offers the following:

As readers will discover, the man who is now America's top-ranking professional diplomat, William Burns, contributed from Russia a highly entertaining account – almost worthy of Evelyn Waugh – of a wild Dagestani wedding attended by the gangsterish president of Chechnya, who danced clumsily "with his gold-plated automatic stuck down the back of his jeans".

Burns's analyses of Russian politics are astute. So are his colleagues' reports from Berlin, Paris and London. In a 2008 dispatch from Berlin, the then grand coalition government of Christian and Social democrats in Germany is compared to "the proverbial couple that hated each other but stay together for the sake of the children". From Paris, there is a hilarious pen portrait of the antics of Nicolas (and Carla) Sarkozy. And we the British would do well to take a look at our neurotic obsession with our so-called "special relationship" with Washington, as it appears in the unsentimental mirror of confidential dispatches from the US embassy in London. ...

More broadly, what you see in this diplomatic traffic is how security and counter-terrorism concerns have pervaded every aspect of American foreign policy. But you also see how serious the threats are, and how little the west is in control of them. There is devastating stuff here about the Iranian nuclear programme and the extent not merely of Israeli but Arab fears of it ("cut off the head of the snake", a Saudi ambassador reports his king urging the Americans); the vulnerability of Pakistan's nuclear stockpile to rogue Islamists; anarchy and corruption on a massive scale in Afghanistan; al-Qaida in Yemen; and tales of the power of the Russian mafia gangs, that make John le Carré's latest novel look almost understated. [my emphasis]
The predominance of military and terrorism concerns is the immediate legacy of the Cheney-Bush Administration, whose dubious legacy in those areas the Obama Administration is largely continuing. But it's also evidence of the corrosive, militarizing effects of Andrew Bacevich's version of "the Long War", which includes the Cold War and the interim between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11, as well as the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) that continues today though the Obama Administration has retired that particular label and acronym.

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