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America's Facile, Self-Congratulatory Response to Wikileaks

Nothing in the Wikileaks saga has been more typically American than the search for a good-news angle on the whole depressing story. Merely keeping a stiff upper lip is not enough, it seems. We need to assure ourselves that what looks like a disaster is really a victory.

There may eventually be a revisionist backlash, but two weeks into the affair the dominant trend among commentators has been what you might call Wiki-triumphalism. Here’s the argument that’s taking hold. The cables show that in private the United States is committed to the same interests it espouses in public, and that’s a clear plus for our image. American diplomats emerge in these documents as a corps of talented, hard-working professionals—and that also helps our standing. Some of our Foreign Service Officers are even shown by the leaks to be masters of humorous storytelling. The resulting comparisons to Evelyn Waugh provide another collective ego-boost.

Other governments, we’ve also learned, support our goals even if they won’t come out and say so publicly. They want to keep working with us because it’s in their interest to do so. Embarrassing disclosures aside, the United States is just too powerful to ignore.

When smart people like Les Gelb (at the Daily Beast), David Rothkopf (at Foreign Policy), and Fareed Zakaria (in Time) say such things, you have to pay attention. Rothkopf has been particularly enthusiastic: On his early list of Wikileaks winners, he awarded first place to “The United States of America.” In second place: “American Diplomats.”

Well, I’m not convinced. “We’re good, we’re smart, we’re strong—we’re America!” Not so long ago, these very same people would have seen such talk as the kind of overeager self-congratulation that blinds a nation to its own mistakes and vulnerabilities. When it came from George W. Bush, we called this boosterism. Now centrist pundits say the same thing and pass it off as hard-boiled realism?

The most serious claim the feel-good analysts make is that because America is so strong, no one can afford to stop talking to us. Certainly a small country that suddenly had a quarter of a million of its diplomatic cables turn up at The New York Times would have to close down its embassies. (Who would talk to them?) But the immense power of the United States makes us different. Here’s how Bob Gates, the secretary of defense, brushed off the matter: “Some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us.”

Being big enough to take care of yourself does, of course, allow you to make a lot of mistakes without having to pay for them. But it shouldn’t keep you from seeing the mistakes for what they are. These days, after all, we hear that American power isn’t what it used to be, and that we have to step up our game. Otherwise, our friends and allies—even our adversaries—will see that it’s just too big a pain to do business with us.

In areas other than diplomacy, we have no trouble seeing this. Mere days after his list of winners and losers, for example, Rothkopf had an excellent blog post picking up on recent reports about how Chinese high school students are eating our lunch on standardized tests. And he cleverly linked the poor performance of our students to Republican rhetoric about “American exceptionalism.” His point: You can’t just brag about having once been exceptional, you have to be exceptional. Exactly.

The case for confidentiality in diplomatic communications doesn't make exceptions. Most negotiations can’t be successful if every move—every embarrassing concession in which you compromise a point today that you declared sacrosanct yesterday—is made in public. By and large, because the United States is so powerful, we actually gain the most from confidentiality. Secrecy can shield the concessions that others make to us. Without it, they are more stubborn, more fearful, less able to act.

The triumphalist view makes light of this problem—first, because the incentives to work with us are so great and, second, because we weren’t guilty of the disclosures ourselves, merely the victims of Mr. Assange and Private Manning. Our super-competent diplomats were exposed against their will. All this is easy to argue in The Daily Beast, but what matters is whether other governments agree.

Take two of the most important cables. In one, the king of Saudi Arabia is reported to have told General Petraeus that America has to “chop off the head” of the Iranian “snake.” In the other, Yemeni officials blithely told the American ambassador that they would just pretend our drone strikes were their own. These were highly sensitive conversations, and the diplomats who classified the cables at a relatively low level showed not high professional competence but exceptionally bad judgment. Both messages, by the way, carry what the State Department calls a “caption” that determines how widely they are distributed. Each one was an obvious candidate for a restrictive caption, but instead both were given one—known as “SIPDIS”—that the State Department’s own manual says should be applied when the document is “intended for automatic Web publishing.” (How true!)

It’s possible, of course, that the Arab leaders in question will be unfazed by this unexpected exposure. Perhaps the king of Saudi Arabia is a relaxed, flexible, worldly guy who laughs off little kerfuffles like this. Somehow I don’t think so. My guess is, he and his retinue are still in shock.

In poring over these documents, many commentators have nostalgically recalled past masterpieces of diplomatic reporting. In this connection George Kennan’s name comes up again and again. Fewer people recall his famous judgment about how readily Americans explain away our own mistakes. “A nation,” he wrote almost 60 years ago, “which excuses its own failures by the sacred untouchableness of its own habits can excuse itself into complete disaster.”

Stephen Sestanovich is a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.

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