01/17/2011 01:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons of WikiLeaks

It is time for some dispassionate appraisal of what the WikiLeaks affair has taught us. Lessons fall into three categories: foreign policy substance, diplomatic process, and political reaction. Let's take them in reverse order.

The first feature of the reaction that jumps to mind is the impulse to label it the Assange affair. That of course conforms to the frenzied, celebrity-scandal syndrome that is our fatal attraction. That cultural illness attaches itself to anyone in the public eye where there is the slightest hint of something salacious. We are a society that cannot rid itself of its Puritan fascination with the prurient. We also grasp any excuse to avoid focusing on those distasteful bits of public business that trouble the serenity of the Republic.

More consequential is the rage that the latest leaks have aroused in some circles. This is not the case of the howling mob imposing the vox populi on otherwise level-headed public officials. It is the political class that has been dyspeptic. That includes our leaders from the White House on down who are blowing a gasket - or, at least, pretend to be steaming. Vice President Biden bandies about the term "electronic terrorist" with the vehemence of the guy at the bar attacking his pet hate as a 'bastard,' and with the same disregard for its literal meaning. (By the way, aren't prejudicial comments by an interested public official on a pending judicial proceeding supposed to be inappropriate and a possible basis for disqualifying the prosecution?) Attorney General Eric Holder sternly mobilizes the Justice Department in a well-publicized search for some charge or other that the ever obedient British will accept to extradite him to the United States - and which will not inculpate the New York Times. Holder is going so far as to subpoena the entire corpus of the Wikileaks Twitter account (and possibly its Facebook account) to gain information on all the 1.6 millions who have supported WikiLeaks in any way. A dragnet operation aimed at destroying the organization/movement? Assange himself, this supposed enemy of the state (and the world according to Hillary Clinton), will be flung into a dungeon similar to that which Pvt. Bradley Manning has endured. Let the crime fit the punishment has become a motto of American justice in the 9/11 decade; or, more exactly, let the alleged crime fit the impulse to punish.

Where is the New York Times in all this? Not a peep. If its editors were as interested in protecting the freedoms of information as they proclaim to be, they by now should have declared themselves ready to assist in the legal defense of WikiLeaks and should have denounced Obama's extralegal campaign of harassment. That would have raised the political stakes for the administration. It won't happen.

Yes, the illicit release of 400,000+ diplomatic cables is a serious matter that calls for legal review. The assault on Assange is not that, it is a madcap riding to the hounds. A lust for revenge of the kind that has had us rampaging around large sections of Islamic Asia for the past nine years. As for the treatment of Manning, it violates the deliberate judicial processes whose high standards are supposed to be America's pride and to exemplify how our mature democracy deals with alleged criminal actions. Most of the world sees us as having lost our bearings as a consequence.

Equally telling is the flight from responsibility of those senior officials who set up and maintained a recklessly operated non-system for distributing these 'secret' cables. What it reveals is the feckless process for organizing and conducting the serious business of managing national security pertinent information within the government. I've done a quick survey of some people who have served in positions, at various levels, where they have dealt with this sort of cable traffic. Adding my own assessment, a rough estimate as to the number of people who have any serious reason to access material of this kind, in a given policy area, is 250 - at most. That is to say, 1 in 10,000 of the 2.5 million who have had access to the entire trove of 400,000+ documents. The lesson: if you institutionalize stupidity bad things are going to happen. Yet that is too dull a subject for our titillated media to examine. It is too embarrassing a subject for our rulers to acknowledge.

We may also keep in mind the 845,000 persons with top secret clearances. I presume that their access is compartmentalized. But nothing is impossible in today's wide and wonderful Washington world where weekly we learn of things inconceivable at times within living memory.

I might add that 80 - 90% of the cables' contents can be acquired by any respectable researcher on the Washington think tank and coffee shop circuit who also has a few interviews in relevant agencies. That is, their substance on a particular subject of interest. I've done it.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about the WikiLeaks exposes - for obvious reasons. We should make a distinction between the revelations on Iraq and Afghanistan, on one hand, and the recent mass disclosure of all manner of diplomatic cables, on the other. On balance, I believe that the former were beneficial. The systematic deceit that has marked every aspect and every phase of those two misadventures is toxic for the body politic. It continues to this day, both in the disregard of a need for an accounting for the past and the Obama administration's current dishonesty about stakes, risks, and what actually is happening in AfPak to this day. When the implications are profound - the discrediting of every public institution at home as well as the enduring damage abroad - cutting through the layers of self-serving secrecy and lying becomes a requisite for the recovery of a political system that is in more parlous shape than we are ready to admit.

As to the most recent episode, this indiscriminate dumping of that mass of files indeed jeopardizes the conduct of foreign policy in general for relatively little public benefit. Of course, for historians and policy analysts it is like being given the free run of a chocolatier. Beyond that selfish indulgence, I found most illuminating the mindset of American officials that they collectively reveal: the sense of entitlement, the simplistic Manichean categorizing of all others, the presumption of American intrinsic virtue and selflessness. That is something that I referred to before the holidays. Reflection leads to a few additional ideas about the workings of American policy-making and diplomacy.

--Running the American 'empire' demands a heck of a lot of work. Micro-managing every enterprise in which we're involved, keeping all our friends/partners/allies in line with current policies on just about everything happening in the world, pressing ahead with active engagements on six continents, and relentlessly straining to cultivate 'pro-Americans' and to forestall 'anti-American' persons and forces is a Herculean job. One inference: we should scale back commitments, expectations and the range of things we define as important national concerns wherever reasonably possible. Do we really have to track the doings of every Iranian national in Paraguay and every drug dealer in Turkmenistan? Should we really spend time and effort squeezing the New Zealand government to restrict publicity for Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11?

The system is incapable of digesting all this material (and let's remember that the yield of our immense intelligence apparatus is a quite separate source of 'data'; as is the Pentagon's own network; and the newly revealed global operation of the Drug Enforcement Agency). I've known people at mid-level positions in the State Department who say that they only occasionally bothered to look at the dense reports emanating from the European embassies and, surely, the U.S. representative to the EU although the last is first rate. They don't have the time. When it comes to the EU, there admittedly may be an element of mental self-protection against the mind numbing volume and nature of what is sent. Let's bear in mind that at State we're talking about relatively small number of people.

--It's the analysis and interpretation that counts - above all getting it to attentive and responsive policy-makers. On many important matters that simply does not occur, as witness Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those structural flaws are quite another story independent of how cable traffic is handled.

--The U.S. is bad at developing deep regional expertise among its diplomats. For the most part, it has dedicated people assigned abroad. Almost all are highly professional. Those in State Intelligence (INR) in particular have an excellent record of prescience. And some of the cables are composed by very perceptive, and brave people, e.g. Amb Ann Patterson from Islamabad. Yet, some indicate embarrassing ignorance, e.g. misunderstanding totally how the Turkish AKP views the Islamic Republic of Iran -- in fact, off by 180 degrees; not realizing that radical Hindu fundamentalist movements are a far greater threat to India's stability than its quiescent Muslim community (something I've known since I was in India many years ago and is common knowledge for anyone who's had the slightest acquaintance with Indian affairs); ascribing the Indian Foreign Minister's stated aversion to being bossed around by Washington solely to the ruling coalition's dependence on the Communist Party's tacit support in parliament. This level of performance is incompatible with our presumption to run the affairs of the planet. From any strategic perspective, the practice of routinely shifting persons from one region to another, from one policy sphere to another, is based on an institutional dogma that badly needs to be questioned. It's just not very smart.

Imagine the fate of the British enterprise to build and sustain the Raj in India had they rotated key officials every year or three from Canada, the Gold Coast, Australia and Ireland; and if the Raj's administration and security was largely outsourced to contract consultants out for a quick killing.