From the hilarious web comic, Get Your War On
I was reading ‘Why Wiki Diplomacy Fails‘ in the NYTimes. It starts, like many American opinions on WikiLeaks, from a completely faulty premise. I quote, “WikiLeaks’s justification for releasing confidential State Department materials is that the more the public knows about how our government conducts its foreign relations, the better the outcome will be”. This, like many opinions, assumes that the US government is somehow ‘our government’. I, however, am reading from Sri Lanka. The leaks concerns the lives of Germans, Iraqis, Afghans and Brazilians, among others. They have been published in German, British and Indian papers. Julian Assange is an alien. The US is not ‘our’ government, as much as it acts like it. Paul W. Schroeder is laboring under the misconception that the rest of the world wants US diplomacy to succeed.
In defense of diplomatic secrets between elites, University of Illinois historian Schroeder cites, rather insanely, the closed-door negotiations behind the Treaty of Versailles. That ended World War I… and gave us Hitler. So not the best example. The rationale for leaking, he posits, is that it serves some power’s strategic interest – Otto von Bismarck’s or Margaret Thatcher’s. In this increasingly globalized world, he doesn’t touch on what’s in the interest of people on the whole.
He compares WikiLeaks to amateurs using dynamite, but it’s really not clear that we should trust the demolition experts more. American elites have given the world Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. At least two of those wars would have never been gotten into if the elite had not been able to keep secrets. Schroeder’s argument is based on trust, that US citizens should trust their democratically controlled foreign policy and (implicitly) that the rest of the world should trust that these actions are for the greater good. Neither premise, however, is true.
US government is unique in that their President can be a Prime Minister at home and a dictator abroad. Bush, for example, couldn’t (and didn’t, for a while) call in the National Guard to aid Katrina victims, but he could take over a foreign country, kill a bunch of people, and run the place through an Ambassador. As Julian Assange has said.
The U.S. saw the French Revolution and it also saw the behavior of the U.K. and the other kings and dictatorships, so it intentionally produced a very weak President. The President was, however, given a lot of power for external relations, so as time has gone by, the presidency has managed to exercise its power through its foreign affairs function. If we look at what happened with Obama and health care reform, we see this extraordinary situation where Obama [indecipherable] can order strikes against U.S. citizens overseas but is not able to pass, at least not easily and not in the form that he wanted, a health reform bill domestically.
If you look at the US budget (cool infographic) the biggest amount of discretionary spending goes to Defense, which is under the President as Commander In Chief. In this capacity, he has little congressional or democratic oversight, and the US press, as it has shown, is both unconsciously and consciously biased towards the US in this regard. Thus, there is minimal oversight on US foreign relations. The President – especially post 9/11 – can be a dictator abroad. Like any authoritarian rule, this is justified in terms of the stability it brings, but it is not just in the sense that America’s founding fathers thought of justice.
To that end, I a reading of George Washington’s farewell address is very interesting (around the middle). He covers why blind support for Israel and blind rejection of others is counter to US interests, saying “nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded, and that in place of them just and amicable feelings toward all should be cultivated”.
He was actually remarkable prescient:
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?
However, after US intervention in World War II went so well, Hitler down, Germany, Japan and South Korea successfully rebuilt, they began to drift away from non-interventionism into a sort of global police. However, latter military and rebuilding adventures have not gone so well. Which brings us to
Uh, You Guys Are Dicks Sometimes
Schroeder and many American critics of WikiLeaks generally talk about how America is a force for good in the world and should be trusted. I’m reading books by Robert Kaplan and Ian Bremmer now and they both (I think needlessly) put in how the issues they’re discussing affect American interests. I grew up in America and I get where they’re coming from, but I’m not there anymore. America is generally a force for good in the world but, specifically, they’ve been fucking up big time.
In one of the more shocking stories revealed by the WikiLeaks cables, it was confirmed that the US abducted a German green grocer, beat, starved and tortured him and kept him for months, all because they confused his name El-Masri with al-Masri, a terrorism suspect. This case has been documented, but what the cables revealed was that the US government then pressured Germany not to allow a local investigation into his illegal rendition and torture. The rendition was obviously illegal, unjust and purely incompetent, but it was part of US policy at the time. This, however, is a secret the US tried to keep, just as no one has been punished for the the policy of torture and murder under President George W. Bush. Even under Obama, many of these policies continue.
More broadly, the US has waged wars of choice in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq while backing proxy wars all over the world. They have also propped up horrible regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, bad ones in Pakistan, supported Karzai stealing elections in Afghanistan, given people to torturers in Morocco, etc. At the same time they have decried medium bad regimes like Sri Lanka, decried vote stealing in Iran and called for human rights in other governments. This type of duplicity is not necessarily bad in foreign relations, but it does show the disconnect between America’s internal democratic ideals and the fairly conventional power projection they do around the world.
What the WikiLeaks cables have shown is that duplicity, which everyone has always known. And that is important to get out there. Perhaps not for ‘us’ as in ‘US’, but for us as in human beings living in this increasingly interconnected world.