11.28.10

Why the WikiLeaks Drama Is Overblown

The new WikiLeaks document dump is fun in a voyeuristic sort of way—a Putin-Berlusconi bromance!—but fails to add much to the public debate about American foreign policy, says Peter Beinart.

The hype-to-payoff ratio approximated Geraldo’s opening of Al Capone’s vaults. “Leaked Cables Uncloak U.S. Diplomacy,” hollered the headline on NYTimes.com. The latest WikiLeaks document dump, instructed the grey lady, offers an “extraordinary look at” American foreign policy that “is sending shudders through the diplomatic establishment, and could strain relations with some countries, influencing international affairs in ways that are impossible to predict.”

Then the Times began summarizing the documents, and the banalities began. Bullet Point 1: The U.S. is worried about loose nuclear materials in Pakistan but can’t do much about it. Bullet Point 2: American leaders are “thinking about an eventual collapse of North Korea” and hoping China will accept a reunified peninsula. Bullet Point 3: Washington is “bargaining [with various allies] to empty the Guantanamo prison.” Bullet Point 4: There are “suspicions of corruption in the Afghan government.” Bullet Point 5: The Chinese regime hacks into foreign computers. Bullet Point 6: Rich Saudis still fund al Qaeda. Bullet Point 7: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are tight. Bullet Point 8: Syria arms Hezbollah, but lies about it. Bullet Point 9: The U.S. tried to get Germany not to prosecute CIA agents accused of kidnapping. Bullet Point 10: Ireland is having financial trouble. (OK, I made that one up).

But maybe this isn’t fair. Maybe the cables, while mundane when taken in isolation, combine to provide a fascinating synthesis of America’s position in the world. Or maybe not. Overall, explained the Times, “The cables show that nearly a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the dark shadow of terrorism still dominates the United States’ relations with the world…They depict the Obama administration struggling to sort out which Pakistanis are trustworthy partners against Al Qaeda…They show American officials managing relations with a China on the rise and a Russia retreating from democracy. They document years of painstaking effort to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon—and of worry about a possible Israeli strike on Iran with the same goal.” Valuable insights—if you’ve been living under a rock all century.

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Oh yeah, and the dump will do real harm. Everybody knows that the Obama administration is worried about loose nukes in Pakistan, but not everyone knew that a U.S. technical team was trying to remove highly enriched uranium from one particular research reactor. Until now. A WikiLeaks cable quotes the U.S. ambassador as warning that “if the local media got word of the fuel removal,” it would scuttle the operation. Consider it scuttled. Similarly, it’s one thing to assume that when a suspected al Qaeda operative gets blown up in Yemen, it was probably the U.S.—not the Yemenis—that did the deed. It’s another to quote the Yemeni president joking with Gen. David Petraeus about how he lies about such operations. Maybe U.S. strikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are a bad idea. Let’s hope so, since they’re going to be a lot harder to carry out now.

The point is that in foreign policy, even more than other aspects of government, secrecy is both necessary and dangerous. It’s necessary because concealing things from your adversaries often requires concealing them from your own people. There’s no way to tell the American people everything Washington is doing to battle al Qaeda without telling al Qaeda as well. But secrecy is dangerous because without public knowledge and oversight, battling adversaries can become a blank check for all manner of self-defeating and immoral behavior. Journalists shouldn’t simply trust government officials to draw the line, since government officials have a professional self-interest in secrecy. But journalists need to draw that line themselves, recognizing that their professional self-interest may tempt them to violate secrecy more than is necessary to keep the government honest. That’s exactly what WikiLeaks does not do—for Julian Assange, virtually everything is fair game. And since Assange doesn’t care one whit about foreign policy secrecy, it no longer really matters if the Times does. People will see the documents no matter what.

The latest WikiLeaks dump is to American foreign policy what the Starr Report was to presidential politics.

For better or worse, this is the world we now live in. But living in it is one thing; celebrating it is another. When journalists gather information that genuinely changes the way we see some aspect of American foreign policy, or exposes government folly or abuse, they should move heaven and earth to make sure it sees the light of day. But that’s a far cry from publishing documents that sabotage American foreign policy without adding much, if anything, to the public debate. The latest WikiLeaks dump is to American foreign policy what the Starr Report was to presidential politics—fun, in a voyeuristic sort of way, revealing, but not about important things, and ultimately, more trouble than it is worth.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.