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Will WikiLeaks Hobble U.S. Diplomacy?

Authors: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations, and Author, No Exit from Pakistan Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies Thomas W. Lippman, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
Interviewer(s): Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
December 1, 2010

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How will this week's release of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.org impact U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, Pakistan, and elsewhere? Six CFR experts are unanimous in cautioning that WikiLeaks' latest data dump could hurt sensitive relationships and make open exchanges more difficult. Robert Danin notes that some contacts have already refused to meet with U.S. diplomats in the Middle East. He also points out, as does Thomas Lippmann, that the documents prove that concerns about Iran's nuclear program are not simply Israeli but shared by much of the region. Daniel Markey says the United States could lose valuable insights on Pakistan from its neighbors Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, as well as cooperation from Pakistan on counterrorism. John Campbell suspects African leaders will find some of the leaks "hurtful," which will affect their response to U.S. requests for African support in multilateral organizations like the United Nations. In addition to their impact on U.S. foreign policy, the leaks pose challenges for authoritarian governments unused to an open media environment, says Scott Snyder.

Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations, and Author, No Exit from Pakistan

The latest WikiLeaks data dump undercuts U.S. policy in Pakistan in at least two important ways.

First, on the political front, the cables detail critical comments made about Pakistan's civilian leaders by Saudi King Abdullah and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed. The perspectives of two of Pakistan's most influential neighbors do not come as a surprise. But because these leaders have a window into Pakistani politics quite unlike our own, and because they enjoy significant leverage in Islamabad, their blunt and candid statements represent valuable indicators of regional sentiment. Post-WikiLeaks, it could be some time before these leaders--and others--are again willing to share similar views with U.S. officials. That would be a big loss. When the next Pakistani political crisis hits, Washington will sorely miss these regional sources of information and authority.

Second, by unveiling U.S. efforts to reclaim enriched uranium from an aging Pakistani research reactor and by offering details on how U.S. Special Forces have been embedded in Pakistan's own military operations, WikiLeaks may have permanently killed small U.S. nonproliferation and counterterror programs. Because so many Pakistanis believe the United States is out to eliminate their nuclear program and invade their country, Islamabad has always been skittish about this sort of cooperation with Washington. Now Pakistanis--from conspiracy theorists to run-of-the-mill nationalists--have new justifications for those concerns.

The WikiLeaks release offers Americans relatively few reasons to doubt the efforts of their own government, and plenty of reasons to doubt the value of seeing these documents released to the world.

More damaging, the Pakistani army officers who hold the nuclear codes cannot help but doubt Washington's capacity for secrecy in the future. At best, they will accept U.S. security and counterterror assistance, keeping U.S. officials at arm's length from the arsenal as they have in the past. At worst, they will retreat from engagement with American counterparts and rely more heavily on a seemingly more trustworthy ally in Beijing.

At the same time, the WikLeaks' release reveals to the public that U.S. officials are concerned about Pakistani motivations and actions in most of the ways they ought to be. On issues related to Afghanistan, civil-military relations, and nonproliferation, we see that the U.S. government is quietly doing its best to grapple with a huge range of challenging and sensitive matters.

In short, the WikiLeaks' release offers Americans relatively few reasons to doubt the efforts of their own government, and plenty of reasons to doubt the value of seeing these documents released to the world.

Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

I doubt that WikiLeaks' disclosures will have a major impact on U.S. foreign policy, but what impact they have will be negative. At a minimum, these leaks will make our officials even more reticent than they already are to put their candid thoughts down on paper--always an important step in formulating sensible policies. They will also make foreign governments more leery of trusting us--especially governments in places like Yemen and Pakistan, which provide vital assistance to the United States in the "war on terror" but do not want their role publicly acknowledged for fear of inflaming radical sentiment. Worst of all, in some cases the publication of these memoranda could lead to violent retribution against those who have shared sensitive information with the U.S. government. That was more of a concern with the publication of the military documents, but it is not out of the realm of possibility with the diplomatic cables either.

For WikiLeaks and its media enablers--the New York Times, Guardian, etc.--the payoff is obvious in terms of publicity you can't buy. Beyond that, the benefit is harder to see.

Weighed against these deleterious consequences, what is the benefit of publication? For WikiLeaks and its media enablers--the New York Times, Guardian, etc.--the payoff is obvious in terms of publicity you can't buy. Beyond that, the benefit is harder to see. The documents generally confirm what most careful consumers of the news already know: Arab states are worried about Iran's nuclear program; Syria supports Hezbollah; Berlusconi and Putin are buddies. The news value is negligible, consisting mainly of gossipy tidbits such as Qaddafi's relations with a "voluptuous blonde" nurse. There is nothing here that would justify the harm done to U.S. diplomacy by exposing these secret reports.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange seems to revel in the harm he is doing to the United States. Are the editors of the Times, the Guardian, and other supposedly reputable news organizations also happy about this? Or do they just not care?

John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies

WikiLeaks' release of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic documents will set back U.S. foreign policy goals. Effective diplomatic partnerships require free communication and trust. WikiLeaks undermines both. At least in the short term, WikiLeaks likely means that U.S. diplomats will find their partners more guarded and less willing to share ideas and information. In particular, African leaders place special value in their personal relationships with leaders and diplomats from other countries. The personal assessments of African leaders contained in the WikiLeaks' documents are likely to be hurtful and will influence their response to bilateral U.S. requests for African support in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations or the World Trade Organization.

That diplomats are "spies" or "hypocrites" is an old saw. Much of the press commentary on WikiLeaks alleges U.S. diplomats engaged in "espionage-lite" activities, such as collecting cellphone numbers and assessing the personalities of international actors. Because the WikiLeaks provides little or no context for the released documents, and because casual readers are unlikely to be familiar with what diplomats actually do, these canards are likely to become more widespread, especially among those who do not wish the United States well.

The personal assessments of African leaders contained in the WikiLeaks' documents are likely to be hurtful and will influence their response to bilateral U.S. requests for African support in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations or the World Trade Organization.

Some Americans dislike "secret diplomacy," seeing it as antithetical to an open society where transparency and accountability are national values. Yet, our diplomacy's ultimate purpose is to advance the interests of the United States and preserve our national security, as defined by a freely elected government.†Those who leak classified documents are asserting that they know better what is in the United States' collective interest than the government that was elected by the American people. WikiLeaks is truly unaccountable.

Not that diplomatic secrets continue forever.†The U.S. government publishes a series called The Foreign Relations of the United States that is an exhaustive compendium of diplomatic documents. But these records appear in public only after thirty years when their appearance has little impact on current diplomatic activities. In a world deformed by Tehran, Pyongyang, or Khartoum, and dependent on multi- and bilateral negotiation, that is as it should be.

Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies

U.S. diplomats throughout the Middle East have already felt the immediate effect of the release of some quarter-million diplomatic cables: their regular contacts are refusing to meet them.

Embarrassing revelations that emerge in the days and weeks ahead will further silence America's contacts and make them even more reluctant to talk to U.S. officials. If private exhortations by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for Washington to "cut off the head of the [Iranian] snake" cannot be relied on to remain in confidence, then lower-ranking Middle Easterners are not going to risk engaging in candid discussions with U.S. interlocutors. This will rob the United States of critical insights into the leaders and societies about which national security decisions must be made. In a region where the United States is already at war, and where further military action may not be far off, the stakes could not be higher.

Middle Eastern leaders genuinely see Iran as the greatest strategic threat to the region today, even if their publics do not.

While no "smoking gun" revelations about the Middle East have surfaced so far that fundamentally alter our understanding of the region, the leaks highlight two fundamental and stark Middle Eastern realities. First, Arab leaders' comments in private are fundamentally different from what they often say in public. Officials' memoirs often say this. Now we have ample proof that it is true. Some commentators claim that what Arab leaders say in public is all important, and that these private messages are flourishes tailored to please their audience. Yet, were these confidences mere flattery, would so many Arab leaders throughout the Middle East urge the United States to employ force against an ascendant and intrusive Iran? There is a reason that U.S. officials put considerable credence on those confidences and why these documents were labeled secret.

This points to the second reality: Middle Eastern leaders genuinely see Iran as the greatest strategic threat to the region today, even if their publics do not. The WikiLeaks' revelations put a stake through the heart of conspiracy theories that posit that a nuclear Iran is largely an Israeli conceit, promulgated in the West by a nefarious pro-Israel lobby. We now know that from the Atlantic to the Gulf, Arabs and Israelis alike are looking to Washington for firm leadership to handle the growing Iranian challenge. As a result of these leaks, the willingness of leaders in the region to have candid conversations about Iran and other critical threats will be enormously diminished.

Yet, the greatest damage from WikiLeaks will likely be in the way that U.S. officials will share sensitive information with each other. Cables will be denuded of anything controversial (and possibly important) before they are dispatched. Information in the national security bureaucracy will become further stove-piped, with the most sensitive and important information channeled into highly restricted person-to-person classified emails. The ability of our public servants to hold informed internal debates about a part of the world which we already poorly understand, yet are so deeply involved in, has been rendered infinitely more difficult.

Thomas W. Lippman, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute

In one of the diplomatic documents made public by WikiLeaks, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Smith, informed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last February that King Abdullah had told the White House national security adviser that if Iran acquired or developed nuclear weapons, "everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia."

The cables reveal sharp divisions over Iran policy within the Saudi leadership, and in reality Saudi Arabia would face powerful disincentives and probably insuperable obstacles if it were to succumb to the nuclear weapons temptation.

That would seem to be a definitive answer to the question that has hung over the Gulf for the past several years as evidence mounted that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons: What would Saudi Arabia do if Iran, its historic and religious rival, acquired nuclear weapons? But it should not be taken at face value, or as a policy statement that reflects a consensus among the king and senior princes. The cables show that the king had been ratcheting up his rhetoric for some time in an effort to persuade the United States to take a stronger posture on the Iran issue, even urging that the United States "cut off the head of the snake" in Tehran. The cables reveal sharp divisions over Iran policy within the Saudi leadership, and in reality Saudi Arabia would face powerful disincentives and probably insuperable obstacles if it were to succumb to the nuclear weapons temptation.

Already short of electricity and committed to an ambitious industrial expansion that will exceed its hydrocarbon fuel outputs, Saudi Arabia is banking on nuclear energy for its future. Lacking the engineering and metallurgical expertise to pursue nuclear power unassisted, the Saudis are counting on help from their friends, especially U.S. suppliers. They know that any suspicion that they were flirting with nuclear weapons would preclude a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. The $60 billion weapons purchase agreement recently negotiated with the United States would be cancelled. As a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Saudi Arabia would face international sanctions that would undercut its economic aspirations. Now a member of the G20 group of wealthy nations and of the World Trade Organization, Saudi Arabia would be cast out as an international outlaw. And its security would be undermined rather than enhanced because it would rise to the top of Israel's potential target list.

As advocates of a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction, the Saudis have refrained from pursuing nuclear weapons even knowing that Israel had them and that a hostile, threatening Iraq under Saddam Hussein was seeking them. They are extremely uncomfortable at the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, but despite Abdullah's comments they are more likely to continue their reliance on U.S. protection than to seek a nuclear arsenal of their own at such great potential cost.

Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy

The WikiLeaks' exposure of secret U.S. foreign policy cables for public view is an embarrassment that will make it harder for dedicated foreign service professionals to do their job. For instance, the knowledge that private conversations on sensitive issues such as Korean unification have been made public will inhibit future conversations on a serious issue that will require careful advance coordination. Interlocutors will be more circumspect, and fears of public exposure may chill written assessments. The majority of revelations show U.S. foreign service officers doing their job.

The national security damage from the leaks lies less in the contents than in the fact of the release, which dramatizes the difficulty facing all governments of ensuring secrecy while conducting foreign policy in a globalized, open information environment. It means that there are few true secrets contained in a trove of documents that usually await the scrutiny of historians a generation removed from the issues at hand.

The national security damage from the leaks lies less in the contents than in the fact of the release, which dramatizes the difficulty facing all governments of ensuring secrecy while conducting foreign policy in a globalized, open information environment.

Aside from its impact on U.S foreign policy, the WikiLeaks' revelations will pose challenges primarily for authoritarian governments less acclimatized to an open information environment. The exposure of assessments by diplomats from those countries may have direct career consequences. U.S. assessments of authoritarian leaders may yield potential grist for political opposition. Revelations from countries where private views are at odds with public positions will receive greater scrutiny; for example, Saudi private vs. public views on how the United States should handle Iran's nuclear efforts.

The specificity of some leaks will serve as a striking indictment of the failure of some governments to respond to U.S. entreaties, and may be used as impetus for new policy judgments. For instance, U.S. intelligence information to China regarding transfers of sensitive technologies between Iran and North Korea banned under UN Security Council resolutions--and China's failure to interdict the shipments--provides damning evidence of China's failure to implement UN resolutions it helped craft. Such revelations underscore the seriousness of the proliferation threat, the limits of cooperation with China, and the need for a rethink about how to stop it.

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