A menace to civilization

    After many months of pondering, I have come to believe that WikiLeaks maestro Julian Assange is a menace to civilization. Wait, let me amend that. He’s a very naive menace, which, in some respects, is even worse.Undoubtedly, there are some nuggets of value in the latest WikiLeaks document dump – notably, the Obama team’s decision to continue the Bush policy of directing U.S. diplomats to virtually spy on foreign officials – and, undoubtedly, The New York Times has at least helped to contextualize the material it deemed fit for publication. But Assange’s wholesale release of 250,000 classified State Department documents is a fundamentally reckless act that impedes the everyday work of our Foreign Service people and imperils our highly sensitive relationships with other nations, particularly in tinderbox regions of the world. As someone who has spent more than three decades in the press corps, I’m obviously bullish about freedom of information – or, as we now call it, “transparency.”  It’s a basic democratic value. But there is another basic value: our need for a functioning government, one that can forge effective relationships abroad, in the interests of keeping the peace.Contrary to what Assange seems to think – and we’ll get to him shortly – not everything that diplomats say or do in private should be considered grist for public consumption. Effective statecraft has always required back-channel communication; diplomats and other foreign policy officials need to be able to speak their minds, swap gossip, and explore scenarios without fearing that their raw verbal data will be exposed to the world. If that fear predominates – as may well be the case now, thanks to WikiLeaks – our people abroad might decide that self-censorship is the only prudent course. Inhibition is no way to conduct foreign policy.And perhaps more importantly, if our would-be allies conclude that speaking their minds in private will ultimately embarrass them in public, they may be less willing to deal with us. I winced at the leaked revelations about certain Arab leaders – King Abdullah of Saudia Arabia, fearing Iran’s nuclear program, has privately urged us to “cut the head off the snake,” and the king of Bahrain has seconded the idea – because, given the dicey politics in that region, Arab leaders may well decide that it’s no longer prudent to extend us their private cooperation.Don’t just take my word for it. (Nor would you.) Heather Hurlburt, a foreign policy specialist (someone whom I have approvingly quoted in the past) nails it today online: “I spent almost a decade working at the State Department and overseas. After reading through these files, I cannot stop imagining just how hard it will be for Foreign Service officers to do their jobs. One former officer, Alex Grossman, summed it up for me nicely: ‘fear of publication will only prevent people from voicing frank and honest opinions, assessments and recommendations.’ And it’s not just that U.S. officials will have to be careful about what they say or write. It’s that they’ll be dealing with foreign officials living with the same fear of exposure….Arab leaders may already be dealing with blowback in their own countries, for offering the US frank assessments of one another. Russian leaders are likely to get skittish about continuing the depth of intelligence-sharing they’ve moved to under the current Administration….”But Assange doesn’t dwell in the real world. He lives in his head, where naivete is king. He’s crowing about this document dump, which, in his words, “reveals the contradictions between the U.S.’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors.” He says that “every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington, the country’s first President, could not tell a lie,” which means that today’s American diplomats are failing to live up to GW’s standards.Putting aside Assange’s laughable claim about American education (the GW cherry tree yarn was widely dismissed as apocryphal even back when I was a schoolchild), let us simply consider ourselves shocked, shocked that there are “contradictions” between what we sometimes say in public and what we say behind closed doors. This has been the case, like, forever. Not just in America, but everywhere. Given the intricacies of forging relationships with bad guys, and shoring up relationships with slippery good guys, diplomacy frequently requires expedient deviousness; there’s even an old quip about how U.S. diplomats are “honest men sent abroad to lie for their country.”It ain’t pretty, but it’s how the world keeps turning. And there’s no better example than Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose devious nature has been well explored by his biographers. After the Nazis precipitated World War II in 1939, FDR called Congress into special session and declared that America would remain isolationist: “Our acts must be guided by one single, hardheaded thought – keeping America out of war.” Yet, behind the scenes, he had already begun secret correspondence with Winston Churchill, the future prime minister, whose whole aim was to draw America into the war.During his re-election bid in the fall of 1940, FDR stressed on the stump, “Your president says this country is not going to war.” Yet, behind the scenes, he was laying the groundwork for secret American-British talks, to be conducted by the respective foreign policy staffs in early 1941. All the correspondence was kept secret; the talks themselves were concealed from Congress.You see where I’m going with this. FDR made all those private moves because he feared that going public would inflame the prevailing isolationist sentiment and set back his efforts to help the British fight Hitler. If WikiLeaks had been around back then, Julian Assange would surely have trumpeted his FDR document dump as proof that American leaders say one thing in public, and another in private. But today, how many of us accept the necessity of FDR’s Machiavellian maneuvers?In fact, how many of us believe that World War II was a just cause – as opposed to what Assange apparently believes? Last summer, in the wake of another document dump, he said that he wants to “change our perspective on not only the war in Afghanistan, but on all modern wars” by exposing their “everyday brutality and squalor.” This might be news to Assange, but World War II was also replete with everyday brutality and squalor. Does he make no distinctions between just and unjust wars? The irony is that the freedoms he enjoys today were preserved in part by U.S. diplomats and foreign policy officials who practiced all kinds of backstage deviousness during the early ’40s. It’s a relief that nobody was around to expose them.One last irony: Thanks to WikiLeaks, the U.S. government now has no choice but to severely tighten the dissemination of diplomatic cables and intelligence information. In order to foil leakers from within, a lot more stuff will be stamped classified, and access to the Pentagon’s Secret Internet Protocol Network will be far more restricted. In other words, there will be a lot less governmental transparency going forward – which means that truly newsworthy revelations are more likely to remain swathed in secrecy. And for this, we will have Julian Assange to thank. Nice going, pal.

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