“THERE’S no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face,” King Duncan says while reflecting on the treachery of one of his closest associates. “He was a gentleman on whom I built/ An absolute trust.”
At this point in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the eponymous protagonist enters the stage, dramatically signifying that the betrayal of Duncan is going to be repeated, this time with considerably more dire consequences.
Latter-day diplomats are, of course, supposed to finesse the art of concealing the mind’s construction from the face in most of their interactions abroad. But their genuine thoughts are thereafter usually communicated to their employers. These employers, as well as the employees, have an obvious interest in preventing these candid assessments from becoming public knowledge.
If by some chance they do, efforts at damage limitation inevitably follow. Hence the folk at Foggy Bottom have lately gone into overdrive if efforts to pre-empt the effects of the quarter of a million diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks began publicizing this week.
It would have been extremely entertaining to overhear some of the conversations representatives of the US State Department have been having with foreign governments in recent days. However, notwithstanding the intermittent embarrassment, the likelihood of serious ructions between the US and any of its allies is fairly small.
This is partly because it’s hardly a revelation that a great deal of hypocrisy goes into relations between nations in a world where pragmatism is a common weasel word for sidestepping principles. Besides, the WikiLeaks contain no information that is classified as top secret. Up to three million Americans reportedly had access to the electronic database from which the leaked cables were extracted. And, furthermore, the media organs that are collaborating with WikiLeaks in publishing the information have been careful to hold back, in consultation with the US government or its allies, anything that could be deemed as detrimental in the context of national security concerns.
The leaking is likely to go on for weeks, but chances are the more sensational revelations have already been made. And in most cases they serve only to confirm existing suspicions. Is there any serious cause for surprise in the fact that Iran’s Arab neighbours are wary of its intentions and potentially supportive of military action against it? It’s hardly a wise stance even if their sole concern is self-preservation, given that Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states are hardly likely to remain unscathed in the event of yet another regional conflagration. But that’s another matter, as is the fact that even Iran’s token democracy is anathema to the despotic potentates to its southwest.
Similarly, while it’s interesting to know what US diplomats think of Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin and their suspiciously close relations, such concern is no more shocking than the fact that it doesn’t tend to be publicly aired.
Candid character assessments are, for the diplomats and the political personalities concerned, among discomfiting aspects of the leaks. The easiest escape route is denial, as in the case of the Pakistani spokesman deriding the veracity of King Fahd’s purported opinion of Asif Ali Zardari. Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has opted for the same path, dismissing the revelations about Fahd and other Gulf leaders calling for American attacks on Iran as part of a psychological warfare campaign.
At the same time, many of those critical about WikiLeaks are not hesitating to cite them selectively in attempts at self-justification. Ahmadinejad relishes the implication that all too many US diplomats double as spies, while Pakistan feels that the cables relating to its refusal to allow Americans access to its nuclear facilities and particularly its processed uranium kind of exonerate Islamabad from the charge of unquestioning servitude to Washington.
And, back at Foggy Bottom, even Hillary Clinton, while excoriating the leaks and the motives behind them, doesn’t mind capitalizing on the implication that US diplomats are dutifully doing their best to keep their employers informed about what’s going on in various parts of the world. Similarly, Israel – one of the only close US allies not to have been wrongfooted by any of the leaks thus far, which has inevitably sparked spurious conspiracy theories – has little objection to the reminder that its concerns about Iran’s nuclear capability are shared by a number of Arab leaders.
A number of right-wing American commentators, meanwhile, have expressed the view that anyone associated with WikiLeaks ought to be treated as an enemy combatant or even as a terrorist. No one associated with the Obama administration has gone quite that far, but there’s enough hostility towards the man behind WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, for the rape charges against him instituted in Sweden to be looked upon with suspicion. It doesn’t follow that he’s innocent, of course, but a great many influential people would be gratified were he to be arraigned on criminal charges rather than political ones.
Given the high moral ground he has sought to occupy, it would no doubt be disappointing were he to be found guilty, but that would hardly detract from the value or the validity of all that WikiLeaks has revealed during the past year, including huge tranches of intermittently fascinating information about the misguided wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The significance of the latest leaks has been exaggerated by proponents and detractors alike. But their availability is nonetheless fascinating. Far too many nations frequently wait decades before releasing even ostensibly unclassified information. In a world constructed mainly on falsehoods and half-truths, occasional outbursts of relatively unvarnished verity deserve to be welcomed – even though the likely consequence is greater secrecy rather than less dishonesty.
I haven’t had the opportunity to peruse former Anne Patterson’s dispatches from Islamabad, but The Guardian’s columnist Simon Jenkins compares them with “missives from the Titanic as it already heads for the bottom”, and the analogy doesn’t sound particularly far-fetched.
On the other hand, when the queen of Foggy Bottom attacks the leaks as “an attack on the international community, the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity” – without, mind you, questioning their veracity – the lady does protest too much, methinks.