Please note: The original version of this article ran on my al-Jazeera column on December 9, available here, with links to other relevant articles: http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2010/12/2010129102245193184.html.
For professional historians, the publication of the vast trove of diplomatic cables is a bittersweet affair. No one outside of the Washington establishment and the myriad foreign leaders shamed by revelations of their penchant for hatred, hubris and pedestrian peccadillos can seriously argue that the release of these classified documents has done anything but good for the cause of peace and political transparency. Whether about Iraq, Afghanistan, or the minutae of American diplomacy, they have shed crucial light on some of the most important issues of the day and will make it much harder for Western or Middle Eastern governments to lie to their people about so many aspects of the various wars on/of terror in the future.
Indeed, if there's anyone who deserves the next Nobel Peace Prize more than the courageous American soldier, Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have given the documents to WikiLeaks in the first place, I'd like to know. At the very least, given what a mockery President Obama has made of the principles for which the prize is supposed to stand -- evidence of which, like pressuring Spain to drop criminal investigations into Bush administration torture, have only come to light thanks to the latest WikiLeaks release -- the Nobel Committee should demand his medal back and give it to Manning or whoever the leaker is.
A New Approach to Diplomacy: Honesty and Transparency
Already, thanks to the WikiLeaks, citizens in the West and Middle East know more than they were ever supposed to about how corrupt, misguided, incompetent and mendacious, are their leaders and the policies pursued in their name. As each new revelation comes to light, I can't help thinking, why was this secret in the first place? Wouldn't it be better if American and other diplomats shared their concerns openly rather than hiding them from the public?
How about everyone telling the truth for once and letting the people decide? Aren't Italians better off knowing that the American Ambassador thinks Berlusconi is too old to party like a rock star and too corrupt to be trusted with his country's leadership? Shouldn't Americans know that the Saudis continue to funnel huge sums of money to militants and Pakistanis are refusing to hand over nuclear fuel they long ago promised to give up? Wouldn't Mexicans be better off knowing just what the US thinks of their anti-drug efforts, and Americans better off knowing just how badly the drug war is proceeding? And certainly the news that Saudi Arabia, at least, supports attacking Iran has already led Iran to tone down its rhetoric and seek to reassure its neighbors of its peaceable intentions.
As far as I can see, the best development that could come out of WikiGate would be that diplomats around the world begin tweeting their previously secret observations on a daily basis, so that everyone knows where everyone else stands and governments can no longer hide behind diplomatic courtesy to continue with the all-too-often reprehensible "business as usual." The world has never needed honesty more than it does today.
Looking for Shelter in an Increasingly Dangerous World
If there's anyone who doesn't think the world -- and particularly the United States -- desperately needs WikiLeaks, I offer you "Exhibit A" of why this is the case: the star-studded official trailer for the Call of Duty: Black Ops first person shooter video game. Regular readers of this column might recall my November 16 article, "Nowhere Left to Run," where I discussed the cultural implications of "Black Ops" after spotting a poster for the game in a Berlin subway around the time of its release.
Since then I have seen the trailer, whose slogan is "There's a soldier in all of us" and features both ordinary people -- a secretary, fry cook, hotel concierge, and the like -- along with celebrities like Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and late night American talk show host Jimmy Kimmel.
After watching the trailer, I was so exasperated I emailed a colleague at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies here at Lund and asked him, "Where is Ice Cube when you need him?" His reply stunned me: "LoL you don't know where Ice Cube is? He's doing the voice of Bowman in 'Black Ops'..."
In case you're not a hip-hop fan, once upon a time Ice Cube was the terror of law abiding white citizens across America as a member of the highly political gangsta rap group NWA. In fact, their song "F*** Da Police" almost got them into as much trouble with the US government as Julian Assange is in today.
But those days are long forgotten. Today Mr. Cube spends his time, when not playing secret service agents in movies, providing the voice for one of the lead characters in "Black Ops." Just another sad example of how, with too few exceptions, hiphop has gone from being the "CNN of the streets" to the "ho'" of the corporations.
But it's not just hip-hop that's prostituted itself to violence and big corporations. The rock 'n' roll establishment has equally shamed itself, as none other than the Rolling Stones allowed their song "Gimme Shelter," one of the most important anti-war songs of the Vietnam era, to be used as the soundtrack for the trailer, which shows Kobe Bryant smiling widely as he and innumerable other "ordinary" people blast away an unseen enemy in a clearly Middle Eastern landscape (not surprisingly, digital sales of the song and other Stones hits spiked in the wake of the trailer's release).
A Chilling View of American Culture and Values
The "Black Ops" trailer makes for chilling viewing, as it tells viewers -- successfully, apparently, given the record-breaking sales of the game -- that they can derive great pleasure from taking a break from life to pretend to kills people half way around the world. Perhaps most troubling, the colors and landscape of the trailer are eerily reminiscent of the infamous killing of a dozen Iraqis by a US helicopter crew, some of whom are laughing as they fire missiles at their targets. Not surprisingly, the only reason we know of this event is because WikiLeaks put the classified video, dubbed "collateral murder," into the public domain last April, in one of the releases that first made the organization (in)famous.
Apparently Bryant, Kimmel, Cube, the Stones and the designers of "Black Ops" are all either ignorant of, or more likely unmoved, by the reality that ordinary Americans -- fry cooks, secretaries, concierges and other working class people -- have been forced to answer the "call of duty" for extended tours in Iraq and now Afghanistan during the last decade, where many have been forced into precisely the life and death situations of extreme violence that Bryant and his famous friends were no doubt paid handsomely to pretend so thoroughly to enjoy. (If you think it's so much fun, Kobe, why not quit basketball -- do you really need another championship ring? -- join the marines, and go to Afghanistan where you can do this for real for the next four years? Let's see if you're still smiling while you shoot after a few weeks of actual combat. Maybe you'll be lucky enough not to get killed by friendly fire like former pro-football player Pat Tillman.)
This is the mindset, at all levels of American society, against which the truths revealed by the hundreds of thousands of WikiLeak documents must stand. And the potential for changing peoples' minds is clearly disturbing enough to the US government that it has begun, when not calling for Assange's arrest and worse to warn students at elite institutions like Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs that they risk never being hired by the State Department if they even mention the WikiLeaks documents on any social media sites in which they participate. Like the corrupt law firm that hired innocent newbie attorney Tom Cruise in the movie The Firm, the last thing the Government wants is for prospective employees to understand what it's really up to until they're sucked in too deep to change it.
Truths that Must Be Learned -- the Sooner the Better
Chances are, if your government is telling you not to read something, you should be reading it twice as closely. The detailing of all the problems the Bush and Obama administrations have had in executing policies in the Muslim world have done an invaluable service to any citizen who wants to understand whether the government's claims as well as aims in the war on terror are both reasonable and feasible on the ground (sadly, it seems more often than not, the answer is they are not).
Certainly, I will urge my own students to read the various WikiLeak documents and compare them with documents we have from wars past, to gain greater insight into the continuities and changes in war-making, diplomacy, and the motivations behind both over the course of modern history.
But if the release of over countless classified documents has given the world a "banquet of secrets" to feast upon (as Timothy Garton Ash put it in the Guardian), historians might be tempted to wonder what scraps we will be left to scrounge over when it comes time to write histories of the events covered by the various WikiLeaks documents with the nuance and perspective that only comes from a certain amount of historical distance from the events in question.
And it's not merely professional jealousy by people used to having largely exclusive access to the historical record (after all, who but historians is willing to sit in dusty archives for years searching through hundreds of thousands of documents for a few gems that can advance the state of knowledge on a topic?). With easily searchable data bases, now -- Heaven forbid! -- anyone can be an historian, rendering judgment on events and motivations that members of the previously closed historians' guild normally have to wait decades to get access to.
Or can they?
Despite the huge volume of cables and documents released by WikiLeaks, they only offer a very partial account of the realities they discussed. The often unguarded and even eloquent language of the writers of the dispatches does not change the fact that they were written by US government employees (whether soldiers or diplomats) for their superiors, addressing issues from an American perspective and a set of interests that can't be assumed to match those of the myriad other actors in the dramas these documents reflect.
History's Lesson: Multiple Perspectives Provide the Best View
Historians are trained never to trust one source, no matter how reliable or convincing is the information it provides. I am presently researching a book on the history of the Istanbul-Baghdad railroad and its impact on the communities through which it passed. And while the records in the individual archives can approach the voluminous (a friend was informed that the Ottoman archives has recently located 100,000 documents on the Railway that haven't even been cataloged yet), it is only in the interplay between the sometimes conflicting knowledge and narratives they contain that a relatively full accounting of the history of the Railway can be offered.
Ottoman documents offer detailed analysis by administrators in Istanbul as well as provincial governors of the sometimes painful modernization the Empire's Syrian and Mesopotamian regions. German sources offer crucial evidence for the "benign Orientalism" that motivated the German Kaiser to push for the Railway as a means of challenging British power and building an historically unprecedented alliance between East and West."
The French Diplomatic Archives furnish "worrisome" accounts of the rise of "Pan-Islamism" across the Levant that would spread even faster with the spread of modern means of transport, while British consular reports reveal the details of conflicts between tribes and Ottoman officials, local elites and recent arrivals to southern Iraq, whose combination of pettiness and complexity bear striking similarities to the situation a bit over a century later, in America's Iraq.
These rich sources don't even include the local Arab and Kurdish voices, who left far fewer documents behind than their imperial counterparts (and therefore require even more urgent efforts to help document their histories). They are complicated even further by the changes in orientation and identities that occurred after World War One, independence, and the post-colonial revolutions that occurred in successive generations.
No matter how much we think we can learn about the realities of the Af-Pak, Iraqi or larger Middle Eastern conflicts from WikiLeaks, the limited perspective of the documents WikiLeaks has been able to obtain reveals that there is still an incredible amount to learn before we come close to having the full picture of the history-making events of the last decade. And unless there are British, French, Iraqi, Afghan and other soldiers with a similar access to classified documents and a reckless disregard for their own future, it is likely that the full accounting of the "WikiWars" will likely wait until the historians of tomorrow are finally allowed to peruse the far larger volume of documents that governments will work even harder than before to keep out of the public domain.