At this stage, WikiLeak's publication of 250,000 U.S. State Department secret documents is not a disaster for America. It is not the end of secret diplomacy, but it will have repercussions for how the weakening superpower can steer its foreign policy.
First of all, there is no need to be a computer expert to understand that at a time when every child and grandmother has to go through a revealing body scan at every airport, a country that cannot secure sensitive data about its allies has gotten its priorities wrong.
Second, the episode proves something most of us have known for quite a while - so-called sensitive diplomatic intelligence is often no more than a version of what appears in the press. This is perhaps an extreme example, but if the U.S. ambassador reports in detail (and with relish ) on the Azerbaijani first lady's many plastic surgery procedures, maybe the man should be working for a tabloid, not an embassy.
At a more serious level, some of the assessments from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin of key German figures do not go beyond barbershop chatter.
Which leads us to the third point: Some of the expert diplomatic assessments have proved baseless and wrong. For example, some of the assessments of the American ambassador to Israel about the Olmert government look like they came from Friday night living room conversations.
Fourth, in the near future, anyone who speaks with an American diplomat will watch his tongue, and it is hard to imagine the usual diplomatic channels will provide any sensitive information (there are of course other channels that have not had massive leaks, for the nonce ).
Fifth - and this directly concerns the Middle East - U.S. President Barack Obama's policy in the Middle East has had two focuses: first, the belief that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the key to bringing the Arab world closer to the United States, and second, that the solution to the Iranian nuclear threat will lie in diplomacy and repeated attempts to negotiate.
On these two issues Obama deviated from his predecessor's policy and has therefore won considerable support both in his own country and in Europe. After nearly two years, though, it is clear he has failed at both: Not only has the Palestinian-Israeli conflict not been resolved, the sides haven't even made it to the negotiating table. Moreover, the generous openness toward Iran has not yielded results, nor have the sanctions - which have been far milder than their supporters suggest.
What the documents reveal is the fact that this policy was based on a serious mistake in assessing the Arab countries' stances. Statements by the king of Saudi Arabia and the president of Egypt, as well as from leaders from the Gulf emirates, indicate that what really is scaring the heads of the pro-Western Arab countries is not the conflict with Israel (which of course they want to resolve in a way acceptable to the Palestinians ) - but rather Iran.
Sometimes they see this strategic threat as a continuation of the long-standing Arab-Persian conflict. The Obama administration is completely impervious to these strategic, religious, cultural and historical dimensions, and uncritically bought the Arab propaganda without being sufficiently attuned to the Arabs' strategic considerations. The documents show that when the American policy of engagement with the Iranians began, Washington should have reassured Arab rulers who thought this damaged their interests.
Everyone knows statesmen say different things in public and in private. However, in the Saudi case, the matter goes much further: For years the Saudis have been leading public - and secret - diplomacy painting Israel's policy as a strategic threat to regional peace and as the reason for the harsh anti-Americanism in "the Arab street." However, in their secret contacts with the Americans, the Saudis revealed what it is that really worries them on the strategic level - Iran is the threat and the enemy, not Israel.
On the one hand, there are elements in Israel that welcome this - Israel isn't the only one afraid of a nuclear Iran, and we have allies, even if they aren't prepared to come out of the closet. Yet on the other hand, this has broader implications that should perhaps be keeping Israelis awake at night.
Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose fathers were both assassinated directly or indirectly by Syria, are now embracing the Syrian president. Saad Hariri declared in Tehran that he knows Hezbollah had nothing to do with his father's assassination. The Saudis, who are conducting a harsh campaign against Israel, are actually afraid of a Shi'ite Persian threat. In this world, what weight do truth, alliances and agreements have when an enemy so easily becomes a friend and a friend an enemy? This is a bit too reminiscent of the relations between Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union - initially bitter enemies, then allies in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact and then bitter enemies again.
This must not diminish Israel's commitment to an agreement and to peace, but we are looking at a political culture a bit different from the kind taken for granted by us and the Western democracies. We desire peace with our neighbors, but this isn't exactly a world into which we want - or need - to integrate in terms of morality or values. It isn't pleasant to say this, but it should be acknowledged.
And last but not least: The motivations and modus operandi of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. We all know he is an Australian with a colorful career and a difficult childhood, and that he is a computer genius. But it is naive to think he just wanted to bring about more transparency. Clearly he has political aims, and it has to be admitted he has caused more damage to the United States than any other single individual has.
This has to raise the question of his political agenda. The fact that Assange packages his actions in a language of political correctness that appeals to many people should not deceive us: This is a person with clear aims - although no one has managed to figure out exactly what they are.
The tape he sent recently from his hiding place only raises further doubts and puts Obama in the crosshairs: Someone who characterizes Barack Obama as "an enemy of the freedom of the press" really does hate the United States. The international press has not investigated this seriously; meanwhile, it benefits from what he is providing (apparently gratis, but I wouldn't be surprised if this is a bit more complex ).
A press that does its job properly must also try to ascertain whether it is conceivable that a single person could discover and crack on his own, with the help of a single private first class, such an enormous number of documents. Thus far, no security service has achieved something similar of this scale.
Even people who aren't paranoid and don't believe in conspiracy theories must ask a simple question: Are we certain there isn't a security service behind him and his efforts? This should be on the public agenda in the next few weeks.
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