The Obama administration has condemned Wikileaks for its second release within a year of classified foreign policy documents. And some liberal commentators have backed up the administration’s complaints. And I am not going to argue that the administration doesn’t have a case. Governments rely on candid assessments from their diplomats; and if Americans in overseas embassies have to assume that they are writing for the general public and not for their superiors back home, they are not likely to be very candid. But there is also something to be said in defense of Wikileaks. Or to put it in the most minimal terms, there is a reason why, outside of Washington, most people, and much of the respectable press, have focused on the contents of these leaks rather than on the manner in which they were leaked. (Click here to read all of TNR's obsessive coverage of the juicy State Department cables.)
Many of the cables consist of high-level gossip, or educated but not necessarily insightful opinion, with little bearing on policy. Yet those that do deal with policy reveal contradictions between what the Bush or Obama administrations have been telling the public and what was known inside the State Department and White House. For instance, while the White House was warning Congress that Iran was arming the Taliban in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was assuring the Italian foreign minister that “there was little lethal material crossing the Afghanistan-Iranian border.” (Click here to view a slideshow of the silliest, scariest, and most NSFW Wikileaks revelations.)
Other revelations bear upon what the administration knew or thought it knew about other countries, but was not telling the public. Some of the most significant concern China. The State Department believed that the Chinese government was behind the global computer hacking that affected not only Google in China, but American Defense Department computers. The Chinese have also rebuffed American pleas to stop exporting militarily sensitive equipment to Iran and North Korea.
Should this kind of information be known to the public? The administration says it should not. Referring to the leak about China and proliferation, a “senior administration official” told the Washington Post, “Clearly, you don’t want any information like this leaked illegally and disseminated to the public.” But I beg to differ. I think the public has a right to know about China’s willingness to arm Iran and North Korea. And I applaud Wikileaks for making this kind of material public. I would feel the same way if an enterprising reporter unearthed the relevant documents and published them in The New York Times. If Wikileaks is doing a disservice by indiscriminately airing classified dirty laundry, the U.S. government is doing its public a disservice by keeping this kind of information about China or Iran or about Afghanistan’s government secret.
There is another consideration—one that bears on the history of these kind of leaks. These Wikileaks revelations are the third major episode of this type which occurred during the past century. The first was the new Bolshevik government’s release in 1917 of secret treaties signed by Great Britain, France, and Czarist Russia during World War I. The second was the Pentagon Papers in 1971. They have something in common. Each was—and I use the word advisedly, and will explain how—a protest against great power imperialism.
On November 26, 1917, the new Bolshevik government of Russia released copies of the secret wartime agreements between Russia, France, and Great Britain. The most sensational of these was the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 to divide up the Ottoman Middle East after World War I. The revelations were shocking in the Middle East, but also in the United States, where many blamed European imperial ambitions for the onset of the Great War.
The Pentagon Papers, which Daniel Ellsberg released to The New York Times, laid bare the secret history of the Vietnam war. It revealed that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had consistently lied to the public about the aims and scope of American intervention, which, it turned out, had little to do with professed aim of spreading or protecting democracy in Southeast Asia. The Wikileaks have primarily been concerned with exposing American intervention in the Middle East and neighboring Afghanistan.
Imperialism? Many Americans hoped that World War I would end the age of imperialism that had led to much of Asia and Africa being divvied up into colonies, protectorates and spheres of influence. But as Lenin would correctly note in his wartime polemic, Imperialism, the conflict was in fact a war of imperial redivision. And the Sykes-Picot agreement and what happened after the war proved that to be the case.
After the war, the great powers resorted to various subterfuges (for instance, League of Nations mandates) to maintain their hold over new or former colonies; or they adopted a neo-imperial strategy pioneered by the British in Egypt of fostering client states staffed by locals, but under the quiet control of their embassies. If the locals didn’t do as they were told, the troops were brought in. It wasn’t imperialism in the sense that the word began to be used in the 1880s, but it was a continuation of the age of empire.
These forms of great power intervention lingered in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, as well as Eastern Europe, in the decades after World War II, but they disappeared by the end of cold war, except in the Middle East, where they endured due to the importance of oil to the world economy and to national militaries. When the United States became the principal outside power in the region after the British announced their withdrawal in February 1947, it also assumed a version of the British neo-imperial strategy.
The United States does not have colonies in the region, but it does have client states, or protectorates, whose governments it defends and sometimes sustains in exchange for access to their oil, or in exchange to their acquiescence to American objectives in the region. As the United States demonstrated in January 1991, it will go to war to protect these states. Or as it demonstrated in 2003, it will go to war to punish nations that defy it. American relations with these states, most of which have autocratic regimes, has largely had to be conducted in secret for fear of inflaming the regime’s subjects, many of whom resent their control. So in this respect, secret diplomacy has remained endemic. And the Wikileaks revelations are in the spirit of past attempts to expose the older imperialism and its newer variations.
Is this kind of intervention a worthy target for these kind of leaks—the way that the Sykes-Picot agreement or the war in Vietnam was? After World War II, the United States justified its interventionism on the grounds of cold war necessity; and recently it has invoked the threat of radical Islamic terror. Radical Islam and its war against the United States can in turn be traced to American support for oil autocracies—Al Qaeda was borne out of opposition to American bases on Saudi soil—and America’s extensive support for Israel. Does America need to create client states in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to protect its citizens from Al Qaeda? Or from other threats? I am not going to get into these questions, but the fact that they are questions indicates why so many people around the world have been more focused on the Wikileaks rather than the Wikileaker.
John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic.