Let's start with what the WikiLeaks trove of diplomatic cables is not. It's not a collection of documents whose release will undermine all potential for solving global problems through diplomacy rather than war. It's not a set of shocking revelations of positions or opinions that completely reverse our understanding of global issues. And it's not a bunch of documents providing nothing but new justifications for going to war against Iran.
What it is is two things. First, it is an ineffably sad body of evidence that President Obama's promise to engage with the world in a whole new way still remains unfulfilled, and that continuity, rather than change, still shapes the Obama administration's foreign policy. And second, it is an orchard of exposés over-ripe for cherry-picking.
And cherry-picking they are. If you watched only Fox News or some of the outraged-but-gleeful mainstream pundits, you would believe that all the documents prove the dangers of Iran's nuclear program and world-wide support for a military attack on Iran. If you read only the Israeli press, you would think the documents provide irrefutable proof that "the entire world is panicked over the Iranian nuclear program."
Certainly this first batch of Cablegate includes some seemingly startling remarks on Iran -- the king of Saudi Arabia calling on the U.S. to "cut off the head" of the Iranian "snake," the leaders of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates supporting more aggressive U.S. action against Iran. But those positions are not in fact new. Arab leaders have longstanding hostile relations with Iran; virtually every Arab government supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The significance of the new documents lies far more in their secrecy -- demonstrating once again the huge chasm between the U.S.-armed and U.S.-backed Arab leaders, and the views of the people over whom they rule. N
ot surprisingly, it is Noam Chomsky on Democracy Now! rather than the mainstream press, who linked the new documents to that long-standing gap between the stated views of the Saudi, UAE, Bahraini and other Arab royals and leaders of other pro-U.S. Arab states, and those of their subjects. In the August 2010 Brookings survey of public opinion in seven Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE, 88% of Arabs believe Israel represents the greatest threat to them and 77% chose the U.S., while only 10% identified Iran as the threat. Fifty-seven percent of Arabs believe Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, but 77% still think Iran has the right to its nuclear program -- and indeed, 57% believe that if Iran did obtain a nuclear weapon, the impact on the Middle East would be more positive.
Some of the cables directly contradict the over-heated claims that the trove provides new justification for attacking Iran. In June 2009, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a group of U.S. congressmembers that the window of opportunity to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would end in December 2010. While his goal was clearly to ratchet up pressure for greater U.S. threats, perhaps even a military strike against Iran, Barak went on to admit that after that time, "any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage." The cable documents Tel Aviv's -and Congress's -- knowledge that any Israeli or U.S. military strike against Iran from now on will cause "unacceptable" civilian casualties -- unacceptable even according to the low standards of Israel's notorious rejection of the Geneva Convention's protections of civilians in times of war.
In another cable, then-chief of Israel's Mossad Meir Dagan "urged more attention on regime change, asserting that more could be done to develop the identities of ethnic minorities in Iran. He said he was sure that Israel and the U.S. could 'change the ruling regime in Iran'." That earlier promise may have had something to do with top officials in Tehran blaming Israel for the assassination of an influential Iranian nuclear scientist and wounding of another just the day after the new Wikileaks documents were released.
There are several references to U.S. unease about Iran's role in the Middle East, concerns that Tehran wants recognition as a key regional influence. Again that's nothing new, Iran and Iraq were long understood to be the only two contenders with the all three requisites for indigenous regional power: size of land and population, oil for wealth, and sufficient water. No other country had all three. With Iraq defeated, war-devastated and occupied, it is out of the equation. But in recent years a new contender has entered the scene -- Turkey, whose non-oil economy has soared to 17th largest in the world. It was no surprise, then, that Cable-gate indicates that the U.S. embassy in Turkey sent more documents back to the State Department than any other source.
On the broader Middle East, again lots of interesting points. With the goal of further sidelining any serious efforts towards a just solution on Palestine, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed in one cable that Arab leaders know that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a "bankrupt" narrative and that mobilization against Iran is their most important priority. But in fact Arab leaders provided their U.S. interlocutors with information that could, if the U.S. chose a different path, help craft a new approach. The emir of Qatar, for instance, told Senator John Kerry, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee that Hamas would, contrary to U.S. and Israeli claims, "for sure" accept the 1967 border with Israel, though it would not say so publicly. If Obama envoy former Senator George Mitchell, who famously said the most important lesson of peace talks is that everyone has to be at the table, had used that information, perhaps serious Palestinian-Israeli talks could now be underway. Instead, it will be left to civil society to use the new information as part of pressure campaigns for new forms of real diplomacy.
Other Cablegate documents give the lie to the common Washington claim that U.S. and Israeli interests never diverge. Several conversations repeat Israel's official position that, despite its claimed desire for an Israeli-Arab coalition against Iran, any U.S. arms going to Arab regimes, including those with close ties to Israel, such as the recent $60 billion sales of warplanes and attack helicopters to Saudi Arabia, could turn into a future threat. That's old news. But what's new is an acknowledgement from a top Israeli military official, Maj. General Amos Gilad, who heads the Political Military Bureau of the defense ministry, of the "difficult position the U.S. finds itself in given its global interests." He "conceded that Israel's security focus is so narrow that its QME [Qualitative Military Edge] concerns often clash with broader American security interests in the region," (For more on the Wikileaks' disclosures of the U.S.-Israel military relationship, see "U.S. Security Concerns Often Clash With U.S. Interests" by Josh Ruebner.)
Finally, in this initial batch of documents, perhaps the most shocking, though hardly surprising, were the exposés of State Department efforts, at the highest level, to turn U.S. diplomats into spies. While intelligence gathering in the form of assessments of leaders' ideas, influence, habits has been part of diplomatic work for centuries, 21st century realities are now intruding in whole new ways. It is perhaps no shocker that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demands that her foreign service officers provide credit card information on leaders of Hamas, Fatah and the Palestinian "young guard" both inside and outside the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Personal e-mail and pager information, travel plans, even frequent-flier accounts. Violation of at least the spirit of the Vienna Convention's definition of diplomacy, sure, as well as the usual problem of turning diplomats into spies, but hardly unexpected.
But demanding biometric information? Defined as iris scans, fingerprints, and DNA information? And demanding that same information on high-ranking United Nations officials including UN ambassadors of permanent Security Council countries and top advisers to the UN secretary general? Yes it harks back to 2003 when U.S. and British officials were bugging the missions and ambassadors of the "Uncommitted Six" members of the Security Council who were standing firm against U.S. pressure to endorse war in Iraq. But still. Biometric? Are U.S. diplomats tiptoeing around UN headquarters trying to grab Ban ki-Moon's toothbrush? This is not diplomacy; this is counter-intelligence spying by the striped-pants (or pants-suited) set.
Certainly there are risks in releasing these documents. There are indications that a few (really only about two so far) actual diplomatic efforts could be ended prematurely. And certainly it remains important that the Wikileaks staff and the media outlets disseminating these documents continue to insure that names of vulnerable civilians are redacted; the recent open letters from human rights organizations, urging that all human rights defenders be especially protected from the dangerous consequences of exposure, must continue to be heeded.
But most crucially, the Wikileaks documents demonstrate once again that U.S. diplomacy is not being used to find alternatives to war, but rather pursued in the interests of illegal wars. When diplomatic cables detail discussion between State Department representatives and the president of Yemen over which government will take public responsibility for the U.S. drone attacks causing rising numbers of civilian Yemeni deaths and the inevitable outrage those deaths justifiably evoke, that is not diplomacy. That is war. These documents on their own will mean little except for embarrassing a few diplomats. But as instruments in the hands of rising U.S. and global movements against war, and FOR diplomacy - movements demanding that President Obama make good, finally, on his promise to engage the world in a whole new way - just maybe these documents will help to end wars and change the world.
Phyllis Bennis' books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power and Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer.