Monday, November 29, 2010

History In the Raw

Since everyone else out here in the blogosphere is talking about the latest WikiLeaks dump, I might as well throw in my $0.02.

The biggest news is that what goes on behind the scenes in diplomatic dealings between the United States and different countries as they deal with their enemies and each other is not the smooth and polished art of diplomacy where everyone is nice and polite and courteous. It’s actually rough, manipulative, competitive, mean-spirited, gossipy, distrusting, and dangerous. That’s the way things go in most large-scale and complicated endeavors, and anyone who is shocked, shocked to find this going on is either naive or has a lot to learn about human interaction. That, or they never went to high school.

The massive release of over 250,000 pages of diplomatic cables and other background information is going to cause a lot of embarrassment for a lot of governments and administrations around the world, including our own, present and past. The New York Times says it has gone to great pains to insure that no sensitive classified information got out and that they consulted with the State Department on what was released. Critics will say that the decision of what’s classified and what’s sensitive shouldn’t be left up to a newspaper, but in a country where freedom of the press is elemental — and prior restraint is unconstitutional — we have to expect that the editors of the media outlets do have the nation’s best interest in mind. That’s one of the risks we take when we embrace democracy, and so far it seems to have worked.

I have neither the training or the experience to evaluate the information contained in the documents, so I will leave that to those who do. People who are looking for political dirt to dish on the Obama administration and its dealings with foreign governments will find it, as will those who are looking for dirt and missteps on the part of the Bush administration. In that respect, the news is an equal opportunity dump. And there will probably be a lot of phone calls from one embassy to the next with the conversation going something like, “I’m sorry it got out that I think your leader is a pompous asshat,” with the requisite reply, “Quite all right; I’m sorry the news leaked that we think your president is a ninny,” and so on. It’s not really news that everyone in the world thinks that the government of Iran should be taken out, and it’s not really news that everyone thinks that the United States should do it so that when it goes to hell we can get blamed and they can move on to the next party.

Things are going to be a little bumpy for our relations with other countries for a while, and in that way I think the dump from WikiLeaks could be harmful. In previous cases where sensitive materials have been leaked to the press, it’s usually done with an objective in mind; for example, the Pentagon Papers revealed, among other things, that the distrust of the government of South Vietnam and the lack of support for it by the United States went back decades. The release was meant to show that the war was being fought for our political agenda, not for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, and that the Johnson administration had lied about the war on a systematic basis. In what we’ve seen so far from WikiLeaks, there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan other than to throw everything they’ve got against the wall and see what sticks. From what I understand in the shadowy world of leakage journalism, the objective is to release selected information to inform the public rather than overwhelm it. In that respect, the people behind the WikiLeaks have yet to show any reason as to why they’re doing it other than that they can. If that’s meant to serve a purpose other than just show history in the raw and get a lot of pundits their ten minutes on Hardball and Fox, it’s not very apparent.