WikiLeaks Shows the Skills of U.S. Diplomats

Diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks show the skills of American diplomats, not their failings

  • Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

    A remarkably broad consensus has formed that WikiLeaks' latest data dump is a diplomatic disaster for the U.S. While there are debates over how the Obama Administration should respond, everyone agrees that the revelations have weakened America. But have they? I don't deny for a moment that many of the "wikicables" are intensely embarrassing, but the sum total of the output I have read is actually quite reassuring about the way Washington — or at least the State Department — works.

    First, there is little deception. These leaks have been compared to the Pentagon papers. Which they are not. The Pentagon papers revealed that the U.S. engaged in a systematic campaign to deceive the world and the American people and that its private actions were often the opposite of its stated public policy. The WikiLeaks documents, by contrast, show Washington pursuing privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly. Whether on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan or North Korea, the cables confirm what we know to be U.S. foreign policy. And often this foreign policy is concerned with broader regional security, not narrow American interests. Ambassadors are not caught pushing other countries in order to make deals secretly to strengthen the U.S., but rather to solve festering problems.

    The cables also show an American diplomatic establishment that is pretty good at analysis. The British scholar Timothy Garton Ash concurs, writing in the Guardian , "My personal opinion of the State Department has gone up several notches. [W]hat we find here is often first-rate." It is also often well wrought. The account of a wedding in Dagestan filed by William Burns, now the No. 3 person at the State Department, is — as Garton Ash writes — straight out of Evelyn Waugh. When foreigners encounter U.S. diplomats and listen to their bland recitation of policy, they would do well to keep in mind that behind the facade lie some very clever minds.

    The most significant revelations in the trove are those relating to Arab views of Iran. We now have official confirmation of something many of us have been saying for years: Arab regimes share Israel's concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, since they do not have the massive nuclear deterrent that Israel possesses, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are probably even more nervous about an Iranian bomb. It's one thing to have diplomats expressing these sentiments in private, quite another to have the direct and explicit words of the King of Saudi Arabia.

    I understand that these revelations embarrass the Arab regimes, which publicly speak only of the Palestinian cause but privately plot against Iran. But why is that bad for the U.S.? The WikiLeaks data powerfully confirms the central American argument against Iran's programs: that they are a threat to regional stability and order, not merely to Washington's narrow interests. (Israel's Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu quickly pointed this out.) In fact, the simplest confirmation of the fallout can be found in Tehran's reaction to WikiLeaks. Alone among world leaders, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims that the documents were actually leaked by Washington. After all, they expose as an utter lie Ahmadinejad's constant claim that he has befriended all Arab states and that, if not for Washington, Iran would be beloved by all in the region.

    If we're looking for bad government policies, perhaps the place to look is not in the cables but in the new data-sharing craze. The leaks are, in some ways, an unintended consequence of Washington's finally getting its information act together. For more than a decade, one often heard complaints that the U.S. government was a dinosaur in the information age. The 9/11 commission charged that various departments' computer systems could not share information. Well, the government solved that problem, allowing Defense Department computers to reach into the foreign service's cable traffic.

    Turns out, that may not have been such a great idea, especially when this information-sharing ethos was taken one step further during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "We should be providing soldiers with all the intelligence and information possible," the argument went (and no one can ever say no to the Pentagon in Washington). So we have ended up with a private at an Army base in Iraq able to download secret readouts of conversations between the Secretary of Defense and the French Foreign Minister. If Private Bradley Manning had not gone to WikiLeaks, he would have found some other outlet to disseminate the data. Our anger at WikiLeaks should not obscure the fact that it is Washington's absurd data-sharing policy that made this possible. That's the scandal here that needs fixing.