Troubling whiff in WikiLeaks crackdown
The WikiLeaks affair says a lot that is good about the United States and the conduct of its diplomacy. But US reaction to the release of so much internal correspondence has also been a worrying reminder of how the power of the state can be abused.
First the good news. On reflection, there is little to date that's particularly surprising, nor anything that is likely to lead to changes in US foreign policy. None of the material is top secret and what mainly comes through reflects better on the US than on several of its allies. Indeed, US diplomats are seen as inquiring minds, competent analysts and well-meaning in their attempts to square US national interests with its commitments to human rights and democracy. Some of the dispatches display descriptive talents similar to journalism at its best.
Of course, one can understand why the US is embarrassed that candid opinions of some of its allies and interlocutors have been revealed and could be a cause for some frostiness in future. But knowing what people think of you is no bad thing, particularly if you are a prominent person in a country where leaders receive nothing but praise and dissembling is the highest art. The comments on the likes of Silvio Berlusconi, Kevin Rudd and Nicolas Sarkozy are accurate enough and more amusing than novel.
I find it reassuring that US Defence Secretary Robert Gates characterises Saudi Arabia as a country that would 'fight to the last American', and also reassuring that Arabs may now recognise that the Saudi elite is far more interested in seeing the US and Israel take on Iran than in leaning on them to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories. It is often forgotten that the feudal/clerical Saudi regime backed Iraq's invasion of Iran but then called in the US to deal with Iraq.
Of course, it is not news that the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan is deeply corrupt and linked to the drugs business. But the texts assure us that the US knows what it is dealing with even if it has no solutions. It is not news, either, that ethnocentric Singaporean leaders have contempt for their neighbours other than China, but seeing it in black and white does provide a record that is more than hearsay. It is reassuring to see what a nuanced view US diplomats have of Burma, of sanctions and of Aung San Suu Kyi, which cannot come across in the sort of brief statements on elections and other issues that emanate from the State Department. Would that more of the US media recognised the importance of nuance in good political reporting.
But given all this, why has the US made such an issue of trying to silence WikiLeaks? By all means prosecute those responsible for illegally leaking documents. But then, to persuade the likes of Visa and Mastercard, Amazon, Google and sundry website hosts to try to cut WikiLeaks off from its readers and supporters is troubling and more a reminder of Beijing's methods. And it will provide support to those in other countries - not just authoritarian ones - who argue that the US abuses its dominance of global internet portals and card payments. That is bad for globalisation.
It was especially damaging to do this at the same time as China was rightly being berated internationally for its response to Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize award and for its incarceration of those who blew the whistle on tainted milk and other scandals. An appeal to 'state secrets' as a way of covering up corruption or just embarrassment is not an example that the US should be following. It is particularly troubling given that so much of the WikiLeaks material has been published by The New York Times. Will it be harassed? The manner of Sweden's treatment of Julian Assange, allowing him to leave after interviewing him about sex allegations, then later issuing an international arrest warrant, also smells - even to those who find Assange sanctimonious and self-aggrandising. It is also a reminder of the Soviet practice of deeming dissidents insane.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator