Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wikileakspalooza: the New York edition

After some congratulatory back-slapping over the filters his employer put in place that governed which wikileaks were published, Brooks gets down to what was damaged the most, perhaps, by Mr. Assange:

Yet it might be useful to consider one more filter. Consider it the World Order filter. The fact that we live our lives amid order and not chaos is the great achievement of civilization. This order should not be taken for granted.

This order is tenuously maintained by brave soldiers but also by talkative leaders and diplomats. Every second of every day, leaders and diplomats are engaged in a never-ending conversation. The leaked cables reveal this conversation. They show diplomats seeking information, cajoling each other and engaging in faux-friendships and petty hypocrisies as they seek to avoid global disasters.

Despite the imaginings of people like Assange, the conversation revealed in the cables is not devious and nefarious. The private conversation is similar to the public conversation, except maybe more admirable. Israeli and Arab diplomats can be seen reacting sympathetically and realistically toward one another. The Americans in the cables are generally savvy and honest. Iran’s neighbors are properly alarmed and reaching out.

Some people argue that this diplomatic conversation is based on mechanical calculations about national self-interest, and it won’t be affected by public exposure. But this conversation, like all conversations, is built on relationships. The quality of the conversation is determined by the level of trust. Its direction is influenced by persuasion and by feelings about friends and enemies.

The quality of the conversation is damaged by exposure, just as our relationships with our neighbors would be damaged if every private assessment were brought to the light of day. We’ve seen what happens when conversations deteriorate (look at the U.S. Congress), and it’s ugly.

The WikiLeaks dump will probably damage the global conversation. Nations will be less likely to share with the United States. Agencies will be tempted to return to the pre-9/11 silos. World leaders will get their back up when they read what is said about them. Cooperation against Iran may be harder to maintain because Arab leaders feel exposed and boxed in. This fragile international conversation is under threat. It’s under threat from WikiLeaks. It’s under threat from a Gresham’s Law effect, in which the level of public exposure is determined by the biggest leaker and the biggest traitor.

Many years ago, we shared some candid and rather unflattering thoughts regarding a friend we truly did admire and respect to another person. What we said got back to our friend. Words cannot describe how mortified we were. It took years to rebuild the trust and friendship we had originally so we can understand where Brooks is coming from.

John Podhoretz, writing for the New York Post sees the myth of the ugly American exploded by the Wikileaks:

That ineptitude is not the only aspect of the US government revealed by the Wiki dump. One also gets an overpowering sense of just how well-intentioned the United States is. The cables I've read so far show our diplomats trying to make sense of a Bizarro World in which the United States tends to say what it means while almost every other nation is essentially allergic to candor or straight talk.

Arab potentates say exactly the same things the Israelis say about the Iranians and their intentions -- but won't say them out loud in public, nor lift a finger themselves. The Chinese whine about oil and Iran, and we help them with the Saudis.

Our diplomats must cope with Khadafy's lunacy, the solipsistic nihilism of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and the shifting allegiances and gamesmanship of Vladimir Putin.

If the pop-culture version of the US government had any basis in reality, it would be revealed in these documents. These are, after all, written for a tiny audience of governmental high-ups, and are supposed to be frank and unadorned. If we were plotting to overthrow governments, or figure out ways to divert precious resources for our own use, such things would appear in these cables.

They don't, because that's not what really goes on -- at least not so far as the United States is concerned. From the bits I've been able to read, the WikiLeaks documents open a window onto a US government trying to keep weaponry out of the hands of bad actors, to help bring peace and stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, to figure out the constitutional basis of a coup in Honduras.

This isn't the Ugly American. It's the Smiley-Face American.

And both Brooks' and Podhoretz's columns, in turn, reminded us of a post by B-Daddy while doing some guest-blogging at BwD, stressing the critical importance that a functioning republic have a loyal, dedicated and competent civil servant work force that runs the government and continues with their respective duties and responsibilities regardless of which party is in the Oval Office or roaming around Capitol Hill.

This is both a strength and a weakness of our system. Because the Federal Agencies operate under the laws passed by the Congress, they move out, slowly perhaps, to execute the mission given to them by law. When a new administration is in power, the mission doesn't change. Except for the actual war fighting execution, where the President is in charge as Commander in Chief, even if he doesn't want to face up to that, even the Defense Department cruises along building systems and training forces without huge changes.

"Left full rudder." "Aye-Aye Captain, but the rudder is already left full."

And, of course, what would be a New York edition without directing your attention to Thomas Friedman fantasizing leaked cables from the Chinese embassy in American sounding an awful lot like Thomas Friedman Op-Ed columns.

1 comment:

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