US & Canada

Analysis: Impact of Wikileaks' US cable publications

Man points at the Wikileaks memos shown on a TV screen at a shop in Karachi, Pakistan

The US cables released in stages by Wikileaks and several newspapers have caused a stir around the world. Anatol Lieven, professor in the War Studies Department of King's College, London, examines the impact.

Wikileaks are like peanuts - absolutely addictive, but in the end curiously unsatisfying.

In truth, not much has emerged that had not already been leaked to the media in one form or another by US diplomats, to serve either US agendas or battles over policy in Washington.

It is hardly news that US officials privately despise Hamid Karzai and believe that his family are deeply involved in the heroin trade, nor that they see the Russian administration as profoundly corrupt and criminal - nor that the Pakistani government, while denouncing US drone attacks on its territory in public, acquiesces in them in private and even welcomes them when they target rebels against Pakistan.

Some of the detail is, however, fascinating, even if it only extends what we knew already.

For example, the fact that Pakistan's President Zardari wants his sister to succeed him if he is assassinated emphasises still further the profoundly dynastic character of most of South Asian "democracy".

The biggest single revelation is that the Arab Gulf monarchies would prefer a US or Israeli attack on Iran to the possibility of that country developing nuclear weapons (though they would never of course publicly support an attack).

Their deep fear of Iran and Iran's nuclear programme was of course well known, but many analysts (including myself) had believed that their fear of Iran's reaction to a US attack, and of unrest among their own peoples, would outweigh this.

This news endorses the arguments of neo-conservatives in the US, who always argued that the Arab monarchies themselves privately favoured attacking Iran.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (r)shakes hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, 4 december 2010
Not much emerged that had not already been leaked

On the other hand, it also emphasises the deep gulf between these monarchies and their own peoples, who - according to opinion polls - strongly oppose an attack on Iran, and the extremely two-faced approach of these states to their relationship with the US and Israel, and indeed to the world in general.

Here, Wikileaks may be of real importance: partly by increasing Iranian hostility to the Gulf States - though the Iranians were already aware of the Gulf princes' fear of them - but even more importantly by increasing Arab popular contempt for the Gulf monarchies.

Striking dislike

On other issues, US disappointment with the British performance in Helmand is deeply depressing for the British, but was already known and indeed echoes condemnation of the planning and resourcing of the campaign from within Britain's own military.

Much worse - though also well-known - is the fresh evidence of obsessive British grovelling in Washington, which even US officials find ludicrous.

Britons can moreover comfort themselves with the fact that US disdain for us is as nothing to their contempt for another close US ally, namely Italy.

US dislike of Berlusconi (a close US ally over Iraq) is striking, as is the belief that Berlusconi and his cronies may be profiting personally from close relations with the Putin administration in Russia.

Here however a note of caution is in order. Despite the impression given by much of the media, just because US diplomats believe something and report their views in private does not necessarily make it true.

This is above all true of course where the officials concerned have strong personal views, which in turn reflect those of the establishment in general.

This is true, for example, concerning the comments about Russia. The general picture of a highly corrupt and brutal state is unfortunately true.

However, the portrayal of a complete merger between the state and organised crime is exaggerated.

The attribution of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London to the Russian secret service is highly plausible. The idea that it was personally ordered by Putin is not. That is not how these things work, even in Russia.

I happen to have listened on a number of occasions in public and private to one of the US officials who is extensively quoted in Wikileaks.

Vladimir Putin
In the cables, US diplomats expressed strong personal views

I'd believe what he says about Russia if he had a supporting statement signed by St Peter and at least seven other apostles - not otherwise.

Sensibilities

Finally, there is the wider question as to whether such leaks are a good or bad thing. After careful thought and with certain reservations, I'd have to say that on balance they are good.

On the security threat which has so often been cited as an objection, it seems that Wikileaks have taken care to exclude anything that can endanger specific US agents or actions.

Another objection is that for the need for confidentiality in diplomacy - so that diplomats can express candid views to their home governments without fearing that they will be spread all over the media.

This is a much stronger argument, but in the end it is outweighed - in the West, not obviously in Russia - by the fact that we are after all supposed to be democracies, and our electorates have the democratic right to know more than they have done in recent years about the conduct of their government's foreign policy.

Far too much misinformation and outright lying has surrounded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Overall, we in the West now live in an atmosphere of security hysteria and obsessive secrecy that would have filled our ancestors with horror.

If the threat of more Wikileaks releases makes this less likely in future, so much the better.

As to the effects on the tender sensibilities of Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin and Hamid Karzai of private US official opinions of them - well, how very tragic.

The more these people know of how the outside world regards them the better for their countries. From this point of view, Wikileaks might almost be seen as rather a good way for a US administration to pass on candid messages that it could not possibly deliver officially.

Anatol Lieven's next book Pakistan: A Hard Country, is to be published in April 2011.

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