This week's WikiLeaks release of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables lifts the veil that cloaks the seemingly prim and proper world of international diplomacy.
The massive leak includes 243,270 reports sent by U.S. embassies around the world to the State Department, and 8,017 directives sent to them by the State Department. A vast mix of political assessments, reports of private talks with foreign officials, hearsay and gossip - including unflattering comments about leaders allied with the U.S. - the leaked cables have become a major embarrassment to the U.S. and especially Hillary Clinton's State Department.
WikiLeaks provided the documents to six major world newspapers: the New York Times, the UK Guardian, Spain's El Pais, France's Le Monde and Germany's Der Spiegel. As with previous WikiLeaks document "dumps" about Iraq and Afghanistan, we have to rely on analyses by journalists at these publications for much of the information about what the mass of documents contains.
Among the most widely noted revelations so far is the extent to which some leaders of Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, have, behind the scenes, pressed for a U.S. military attack against Iran.
The hostility of Saudi and other Arab rulers to Iran is not news. However, an analyst at Tehran Bureau, associated with Iran's domestic opposition movement, says the cables show "the amount of pressure the United States has to resist from its allies who see a military strike as the answer to their concerns."
BBC world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds says what the documents show "is not that the U.S. secretly wants to go to war with Iran but that the U.S. has resisted pressure to do so from Israel and Arab leaders."
A former Israeli national security official said, as quoted by Der Spiegel: "These leaks show that Arab countries like Saudi Arabia are far more interested in Iran than they are in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Some suggest Israel and reactionary Arab regimes are satisfied to have each other as silent allies against Iran.
More embarrassing to the U.S., but also likely to produce further turmoil in Yemen, an emerging Middle East flashpoint, is documentation that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to conceal controversial U.S. air strikes in Yemen, which have killed civilians, by saying his government was doing the bombing. The leaked cables quote Saleh as saying, "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."
On another global hotspot, leaked files report on conversations among U.S. and South Korean diplomats discussing the possibility of North Korea dissolving and the two Koreas reunifying. There are also reports of comments by Chinese diplomats indicating dissatisfaction with provocative North Korean actions but also insisting on calming tensions there. Some of these reports are second-hand, although Chinese officials in Europe have confirmed their essence, the Guardian reported yesterday.
The most explosive WikiLeaks revelation may be a classified July 2009 State Department directive, under Hillary Clinton's name, that asked U.S. diplomatic staff at the United Nations to obtain credit card numbers, computer passwords and encryption codes, frequent-flyer account details, even "biographic and biometric information" (such as DNA, fingerprints, etc.), for UN officials, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Security Council representatives, and also for personnel of nongovernmental agencies.
UN officials and other diplomats were taken aback by the "unusual extent" of the U.S. intelligence efforts, but also said "espionage does not come as a surprise here," the Guardian reported.
Carne Ross, a former British diplomat at the UN who resigned in the lead-up to the Iraq war, speaking on the Democracy Now show, called the effort to collect diplomats' DNA "extraordinary," saying, "I can't quite myself see how your saliva on a coffee cup is going help you learn the intentions of the UN or the government of country xyz."
Nevertheless, he said, "Everybody is spying on everybody else at the UN, including on Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The British Development Secretary Claire Short, who also resigned over the Iraq war, has said publicly that the UK authorities were bugging the phones of Kofi Annan when he was Secretary-General. So I don't think that this will come as a great revelation to people at the UN. It will, however, be rather embarrassing for the U.S. diplomats currently practicing at the UN."
Certainly the revelation of over-the-top U.S. spying at the UN is an embarrassment for the Obama administration, which has emphasized its desire to close the door on the Bush era and make the U.S. a cooperative member of the world community.
Overall, the Guardian said, the leaked cables "reveal how the U.S. uses its embassies as part of a global espionage network."
Those who recall the Cold War and more recent history realize this is nothing new, and it's not just the U.S. who plays this secret game.
So far these files do not reveal much about top-level U.S. foreign policy strategy, nor point to any shattering scandal.
Perhaps the most interesting take comes from Der Spiegel. In an article titled "A Superpower's View of the World," the paper's staff suggests that from the thousands of documents "an image emerges of a superpower that can no longer truly be certain of its allies," is consumed by fear of terrorism, no longer has "the world on a leash," and is often "reduced to becoming a plaything of diverse interests."
Over the next few weeks many tidbits will be coming out as researchers go through the documents. It will take months and probably years to see what it all really means.
Photo: AP/Oliver Lang/dapd